elephant poaching

A passion for nature: The brave new world of conservation photography.

“Can a photograph change the world?” has become, “Can a photograph save the planet?”

More and more, nature and wildlife photographers prefer to label themselves as conservation photographers, in part to reflect the perilous state of the environment today, and in part because the word “conservation” suggests a bigger scale and broader reach.

“Conservation” sounds more important, somehow, though old-school nature photographers will argue that nature itself is the reason conservation matters. Nature, after all, provides the foundation on which conservation is built.

Voting has now closed for the People’s Choice Award in the 54th Annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards, or WPOTY 54 in the photography community argot. Last year’s winners in all categories are on display at the Natural History Museum in London until May 28th; if past history holds, this year’s winners will be announced in October.

In a somewhat controversial decision — controversial to the outside world, that is, as the jury vote was unanimous, a first in the 50-year history of the WPOTY awards — the grand prize went to Getty Images photojournalist Brent Stirton for his gripping, tragic image of a slaughtered rhino. 

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Stirton’s background is hard news, not wildlife per se. After decades of covering conflict zones throughout his home continent of Africa — he cut his teeth photographing the anti-apartheid struggle in his native South Africa, before moving on to cover that country’s devastating HIV/AIDS crisis —  he says he had an epiphany 10 years ago, in 2017, after photographing DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) park rangers dragging a dead mountain gorilla out of the Virunga National Park rainforest, using makeshift ropes and heavy wooden beams. 

Stirton had just enough time to take three frames before he had to leave, because, as he told The Guardian in Oct., 2015, “The army were looking for me.”

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Stirton vowed then and there to become a lifelong crusader for the environment, using what he knows best to document the plight of endangered species, ecosystems and vanishing cultures throughout the developing world.

The People’s Choice award, by definition, is a vote by the people, and all that that implies.

It’s unlikely a picture of a dead rhino with its horn unceremoniously sawed off with a chainsaw would make the final cut for the People’s Choice Award, even if the finalists were chosen by a judging panel first and then submitted to the general public for a vote.

Even so, it’s hard not to look at the finalists’ images — a handful of which appear below — and not view them through the prism of what’s happening right now in the world’s few remaining wild places. It’s tough to see an image of a mother polar bear huddling over her newborn cubs and not realize that, within 20 years, polar bears may vanish entirely, owing to the catastrophic — and accelerating — ice melt in the northern polar regions.

Big cats often make for dramatic photographs, but again it’s hard to see a picture of a tiger today and not be reminded  that it was the apex predators — the sabre-toothed cat, a remnant of the Pleistocene epoch for some 42 million years before dying out just 11,000 years ago, or the “super croc,” Sarcosuchus, an early ancestor of the crocodile, some 12 metres (39 feet) in length — that perished in the end, leaving their legacy to their smaller, more adaptable successors.

The difference now, of course, is that much of what’s happening is caused by human hands, and humans alone have the power to make a difference. Conservation photography is part of that.

This is not new. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln was famously so moved by Carleton Watkins’ stereographic illuminations of Yosemite, on the other side of the American continent, that he signed into law a bill declaring Yosemite Valley to be inviolable. Theodore Roosevelt enacted further protections in 1908, at the urging of his naturalist friend John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club. Yosemite played a key role in Woodrow Wilson establishing the U.S. National Park Service in 1916.

Carleton Watkins, "View from Inspiration Point," 1879, ©Princeton University Art Museum

Carleton Watkins, "View from Inspiration Point," 1879, ©Princeton University Art Museum

Today, photographers who document the beauty and wonder of the natural world have an added responsibility — wanted or not — to shine a new, white-hot light on the crisis facing the planet today, whether it’s something as simple and life-affirming as a sloth hanging out in the rainforests of Brazil, or as complex and hard-to-take as the bloodied hand of a poacher handling an elephant tusk in Central Africa.

Both have a story to tell. They are different, and yet tragically connected. It’s good that people know that.

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THIS JUST IN — Jo-Anne McArthur's "Pikin and Appolinaire" has been declared the People's Choice. Word broke late last night from the UK.

A strong image from a strong field, and well-deserving of the recognition. The conservation message is profound, no?

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Ivory ban: World’s largest exporter of legal ivory is shutting down the trade.

Finally. The UK government has bowed to pressure from wildlife campaigners and will ban the sale of ivory, regardless of its age.

At least, that was the word this past Friday, after acting UK environment secretary Michael Gove — of all people — put forward a ban on the sales of all items carved from ivory, including those carved before 1947.

That’s key because, while the international trade in ivory had been illegal since 1990, a loophole in UK law permitted trade in ivory “antiques,” loosely defined as an ivory item carved before 1947. A further loophole — a loophole inside the loophole, if you will — permitted ivory “worked before 1990,” provided those items were accompanied by government certificates.

©Jim Panou/Panimages

©Jim Panou/Panimages

Given that government corruption is a driving force behind the illegal wildlife trade in many of the developing countries where elephants are trafficked for their tusks by international crime syndicates, the UK loophole was the very definition of hypocrisy. Why should UK government officials be allowed to sign off on supposedly “antique” ivory, but not government officials in, say, Tanzania or Namibia?

The UK is, or rather was, the world’s largest exporter of legal ivory —  I did not know that until this past week — and cutting off the trade will in theory help slow down the illegal trade in ivory by international crime syndicates.

©NBC News

©NBC News

Despite recent wins by wildlife campaigners — China and the U.S. have both resolved to scale back trade in ivory, if not eliminate it entirely — poaching continues to be a serious problem. More than 50 elephants are killed by poachers every day. A 2016 elephant census across Africa, funded in part by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, showed that the continent lost a third of its remaining wild elephant in just the 10 years prior to 2016.

If anything, poaching has only increased over the past year, exacerbated by a sudden, unwelcome surge in the poaching of rhinos for their horns. Considering the gestation period for an elephant is two years, and elephants only give birth to one baby at a time, it doesn’t take an advanced degree in mathematics to see how see where an already dwindling population of wild elephants could be heading.

The ruling Conservative government was believed to be disinterested in widening the UK ban; the Tories removed a pledge on ivory from their 2017 election manifesto in June, even though it had been included in the party’s 2015 election manifesto.

©BBC News

©BBC News

Celebrity campaigners from Prince William to Jane Goodall, Stephen Hawking and Ricky Gervais mounted a vocal protest that found favour with ordinary, everyday voters fed up with what they perceive to be wanton greed — the rich getting richer — with utter disregard for the wellbeing of the planet.

Of course, bans are one thing; discouraging demand and eliminating the market entirely is another.

“The unprecedented crisis we face – with Africa’s natural heritage being destroyed and communities put at risk due to poaching by illegal armed gangs – will only stop when people stop buying ivory,” Stop Ivory’s John Stephenson told the media Friday.

Even so, Stephenson said he was gratified by the government’s “important step,” and looks forward to seeing the ban implemented and enforced “without delay.”

©Jakarta Post

©Jakarta Post

Other NGOs caution that the road ahead is not entirely clear, either for elephants or any other endangered animals trafficked for profit.

World Wildlife Fund CEO Tanya Steele warned that the scale of the problem is vast, and promises need to be back up with action.

“The illegal trade involving organized criminals is a global problem requiring global solutions,” Steele told reporters. “To end it anywhere means ending it everywhere. This is about more than banning ivory sales in one country. It means working with leaders and communities around the world, particularly in China and Southeast Asia.”

While China has appeared to have turned a corner, for example, and to a lesser extent Vietnam, Laos has suddenly become the new frontier in the wild west of illegal wildlife trafficking.

©Reuters/Al Jazeera

©Reuters/Al Jazeera

In the meantime, carefully staged photo ops in developing countries like Kenya — twice in four years, now — have seen governments burn stockpiles of elephant tusks, to show the world that they value their remaining living elephants, and the tourist revenue they bring, over selling ivory on the black market and getting rich at the expense of future generations.

The ivory burns, dismissed by some as a cheap publicity gimmick — even though, given the value of the ivory involved, they can hardly be said to have been inexpensive — clearly had an effect on public opinion in the media-savvy West. 

©Africa Geographic

©Africa Geographic

The UK Tory government didn’t widen the ivory ban because they wanted to, but because ordinary, everyday people shamed them into doing it, and not just because of the Duke of Cambridge and Stephen Hawking.

Yes, the UK is just one country, but wins in wildlife conservation have to be taken as they come, day by day, and at a time.

©African Parks/AFP

©African Parks/AFP