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‘This is our world’ – last chance to walk among nature’s giants!

An elephant towers above my head; just a few footsteps away a mother giraffe stands protectively over her young calf. From this vantage point I can see a closely camouflaged lioness stalking a skittish zebra. I’m not on safari in Africa though; I’m standing in the Royal Horticultural Halls in central London, surrounded by lifesized acrylic paintings of animals in their natural habitats.

The astonishing ‘This is Our World’ exhibition was comprised of a collection of work by acclaimed British-born artist Omra Sian.

Incredibly, some pieces spanned more than six metres in height and seven metres wide!

The exhibition focused on educating, informing and inspiring visitors from all walks of life about wildlife, conservation and climate change, and was curated by not for profit organisation Art World Conservation.

Each artwork was accompanied by a poignant description of the endangered species depicted and the reason they are threatened – so it was no surprise that the exhibition was hosted in partnership with the Born Free foundation and the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

It’s honestly hard to not feel overwhelmed standing among such detailed and textured scenes showcasing the heart of the African Savannah, the icy Arctic Circle, the lush Amazon Rainforest and the dramatic scenes found deep in the ocean.

Apparently this is the first time the acrylic-on-canvas paintings have been displayed collectively — due to public demand!

There really is a power in seeing these images of some of the planet’s most iconic wildlife species standing side-by-side, as the exhibition title suggests; it really gives a sense of one world, which belongs to us all.

High-definition paintings include the endangered black rhino, majestic lion, towering Rothschild giraffe and elusive great white shark, and information throughout the exhibition (which has also hosted talks from leading wildlife charities and conservationists) offered the chance to learn more about efforts to protect wildlife from threats including climate change and the illegal wildlife trade.

The Artist

Artist and conservationist Omra Sian has been a professional artist for over 30 years.

He spent over 10 years meticulously researching and creating this unique body of work, and travelled around the world to study his subjects in their natural habitats.

Omra hopes that the imagery will both inspire and educate visitors to learn more about conserving the planet and why it is paramount we all do so.

He says: “I once read a quote that said ‘life begins when you come out of your comfort zone’ – so I made sure I stayed out of mine to create this collection.”

“The collection makes people challenge the way they think about the natural world. It is the IMAX of wildlife art and the images painted are scientifically correct.”

“It really was a labour of love! To create canvases on this scale required me to climb up and down scaffolding up to 40 times a day, or paint whilst lying on the floor for hours at a time, so each piece really does represent a huge amount of physical and mental dedication, as well as investment of time.”

“The event will inspire, educate and inform visitors – young and old – about the world we live in; the creatures and habitats we share it with and why they are so important to conserve. Often the simplest of changes by many people can make an enormous difference and this event is about inspiring those changes. Educating children is paramount as they are the future, and I hope the painting will inspire them to learn about flora and fauna, as I did when I was a child”.

A child’s depiction of the Siberian tiger painting shown above is displayed at the end of the exhibition.

It is hoped that this collection can be taken around the globe to education and inspire everybody to conserve the planet for a sustainable future.

Good news if you aren’t able to make it to London for its final days!

Like this? Read about my own conservation art exhibition here.

See what happened when Millie Marotta held her ‘Colouring for conservation’ event

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Making Nature exhibition

Making Nature is an exhibition I recently visited at the Wellcome Galleries in Euston. It provides an intriguing look at the evolving relationship between humans and nature.

Though I can’t say that I related to every part of the exhibition, I would recommend it as a welcome introduction to considering humans and their place (or rather, perceived place) within the natural world.

Organising

Separated into four themed rooms, Making Nature attempts to guide visitors through the complex journey of the last century or two that has seen us move from studying nature to ‘creating’ it. The first signpost on that whistle-stop tour was ‘Organising’.

This room was dedicated to early studies and illustrations of nature, including botanical study. It examined where and how nature was placed within those studies, early books and art work, and how that initial work evolved into more formal study of taxonomy.

Taxonomy; the science of classification – in this case of organisms – is truly reflective of how we position ourselves within a kingdom of wildlife (usually we humans place ourselves at the top of such a structure). I think that was the point being made in a darkened alcove of the room, playing video footage and rolling subtitles about humans’ search for intelligent life in outer space, and declaring that we should look a little closer to home; in parrots.

Admittedly, this display seemed a little out of place amongst all the old sketches and classification charts, but it had a good point — that parrots are vocal communicators like humans, and capable of speech, but we’ve only just begun to consider them as a species to communicate with.

This was highlighted by the story of Alex the Grey Parrot and Dr. Irene Pepperberg, who conducted research into the cognitive abilities of parrots. Find out more about them here: http://alexfoundation.org

Displaying

The next room looked at our need to ‘progress’ from illustrations to true-to-life displays of animals. Not far from the early ideals of man being at the top of the pyramid of life, the ‘displaying’ room examined various curiosities in man’s attempt to hold, house and recreate nature for our viewing pleasure.

Beginning with Crystal Palace’s famous Victorian dinosaur park — home to stone recreations of the imaginings of what real life dinosaurs would have looked like (created using fossil finds of the time; though not always accurate) — leading on to the more common displays of the day; the diorama display.

The pain-staking details of many diorama displays try to capture the colours, atmosphere and scale of the natural world and have provoked a progression in taxidermy; to aim for ‘action poses’ attempting to recreate natural behaviour. Quite unlike the portrait-style emotionless taxidermy you largely find in the infamous Hall of Mammals at London’s Natural History Museum.
London’s Natural History Museum’s significant architecture was also examined in this room. Originally built as a ‘cathedral to nature‘, the outside of the building was once adjourned with a figure of Adam at the top of its arches, to signify man’s place at the top of the kingdom’. The biblical figure of Adam no longer remains

Observing

The purpose of displaying is to, of course, allow for observation. As humans we moved from an interest in static displays and illustrations to the desire to observe real life animal behaviour for ourselves. And so comes an examination of the era of the zoological gardens and eventually ‘the zoo‘.

This area of the exhibit examines the early popular attractions of London Zoo, including a once much-admired performing elephant and London’s ‘infamous polar bears’ — immortalised in zoo merchandise such as postcards and plushie toys.

One of the evolutions in the history of zoo that I can never quite get my head around was the conscious movement to irradicate a sense of natural environment from the zoo enclosure. Described in this exhibition as London Zoo‘s movement to champion architecture that ‘contrasted the animals and made them stand out’, this seems like such a dark and misguided interpretation of animal observation to me.

Famous architects were employed to remove nature from the surrounds, which ultimately removes the chance to see animals’ naturalistic behaviour. The very thing the zoo was supposed to provide.

This room made me think about an episode of popular US podcast Radiolab, which examines a period in the late 1970s where zoo architect David Hancocks re-examines a gorilla enclosure after a discussion with renowned gorilla expert Dian Fossey about what the animals’ natural environment would look like. His experiment to bring a naturalistic environment into the gorilla enclosure is considered the first link between zoo enclosure and the mental health of the animal’s inside them (listen to the full episode here).

I was somewhat disappointed that this room didn’t contain any mention of opposition to zoos, or the concrete architectural designs of enclosures like the one shown in the photograph above. This snapshot of a concrete prison, devoid of enrichment and anything that even slightly resembles life in the wild was even available to buy as a postcard in the gift shop. It made me think of Born Free Foundation‘s report on elephant captivity; Innocent Prisoner.

Making Nature‘s insight into ‘observation’ also included a modern-day video about the process of landscaping a zoo enclosure to fulfil the need for animal enrichment, but also for spectators to feel ‘involved’ — as the interviewee put it, “so they can get up close enough to the animals to feel scared”.

Again, I was disappointed that there was no mention of opposition to zoos, as if the exhibition worked on the assumption that we all feel the desire to observe animals in the same way. There was even a video of a sorry-looking tiger kept in house; wandering between bedroom and bathroom, looking in the mirror and yowling. The idea was to try and decide whether the tiger recognised itself in the mirror. I couldn’t bring myself to sit down and watch.

I was also surprised to see that — although there was mention of London Zoo once having a famous performing elephant — there was nothing on circus’ and the history of observing animals in this kind of environment (and once again, a lack of seizing the opportunity to look at both sides of the argument here). It would have been good to examine some of the complexities and mistakes we have made over our history of observing wildlife, as well as simply noting our penchant for seeing animals up close. I added this feedback to the feedback wall at the end of the exhibition.

Making

The final room in the exhibition was probably the most fascinating to me; examining human impact and influence on wildlife; specifically genetic engineering, using animals in laboratories for scientific experiments and testing, and domestication.

Compared to the former examples of ‘making nature’, domestication is one that we have grown so accustomed to that it seems less ‘dark’ and extreme — that is, until I saw it laid out in such a clear and confronting manner. From rows of horses teeth, to colour coded budgies to an examination of the ‘perfect’ white rat, regarded as the desired pet of high society Victorian women; it’s weird to think how much we’ve interfered with nature.

There was also a focus on how we use animals outside of the meat, dairy and clothing industry, such as in the days of using the African Clawed Frog as pregnancy test (for 30 years the frog species was used as the most accurate and efficient pregnancy test! Eighteen of the reptiles were introduced to the US in 1937 for this purpose. If a pregnant woman urinated on a female frog, it would produce eggs within 12 hours; this provided the model for the modern day pregnancy test testing urine).

Although some of how we use animals is incredibly uncomfortable to acknowledge, there were some extremely important examples of how we’ve intervened with nature to help humans live alongside it more effectively — such as modifying mosquitos so that they no longer spread diseases like dengue fever. And then there’s the matter of de-extinction.

I’ve read some fascinating articles in both BBC Wildlife magazine and BBC Earth magazine about scientists developing the technology to harvest DNA from specimens of extinct species and using that to create an embryo to be carried by a similar, surviving species.

Woolly mammoths are always the buzzword when it comes to the topic of ‘de-extinction‘, but as yet the capabilities of growing a mammoth embryo are not sophisticated enough to not require a surrogate mother (female elephants are not large enough for the job). It seems that that may about to change before too long however, after the success of a baby lamb grown for four weeks in an artificial womb.

 In the meantime at least, Making Nature shows us the very real and current project to bring back the passenger pigeon.

Natural History Museums around the world are collecting DNA from their specimens of passenger pigeon to try and gather enough to genetically modify an existing living embryo (presumably that of another species of pigeon). Remarkably, the exhibition included a vial of some of this extracted DNA.

The plaque beside it, written by The Long Now Foundation reads:

“This tiny vial captures an extremely unusual moment in the story of the extinct passenger pigeon. DNA samples are being collected from 19th-century passenger pigeons in museum collections, in order to assemble sufficient genetic diversity to be able to ‘resurrect’ the extinct species. While this project is in its infancy with much uncertainty surrounding it, if successful, the passenger pigeon would be the first species to be recovered from DNA alone.”

Now that truly is making nature!

Like this? Read more about my support for a Natural History GCSE

Can you complete the calculating extinction challenge?

 

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Drawing class at Woodberry Wetlands’ BatFest

Last weekend I attended my second class at Woodberry Wetlands in London. After such a wonderful experience at their Wildlife Photography day course at the start of the summer, I couldn’t have signed up quicker when my inbox pinged with word of Woodberry’s BatFest 2016.

The thing that most caught my attention was a two-hour art workshop, to uncover the unique anatomy of bats through observational drawing, working from taxidermy, skeletons and reference imagery.

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Illustration by Jennie Webber, wildlifedrawing.co.uk

The class, led by visual artist Jennie Webber formed part of an entire weekend of bat-themed activities, including a photography exhibition by ‘in-house photographer’ Penny Dixie, an evening bat walk around the 17 hectare nature reserve and bat-themed cocktails!

Jennie, an illustrator who cites that she is passionate about bringing wildlife and conservation back into the lives of Londoners who may have lost touch with such things – or who may have never really encountered wildlife at all! – runs life drawing classes in the city, with a twist! Working with local rescue charities and sanctuaries, she usually conducts her classes around real-life wild ‘models’, focusing on educating her pupils about the animals they are observing.

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Although there were no live bats present during this particular class, we were treated to some videos and a presentation about bats, with the Bat Conservation Trust (the umbrella group for all local bat groups across the UK) on hand to answer any questions about the animals and the trust’s work.

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There are apparently 1,300 different bat species in the world today(!) with 18 of these residing in the UK. Woodberry Wetlands is home to six of these species, including the UK’s most common species, the common pipistrelle.

The bat species currently found in the UK are:

Alcathoe bat

barbastelle

Bechstein’s bat

Brandt’s bat

brown long-eared bat

common pipistrelle

Daubenton’s bat

greater horseshoe bat

grey long-eared bat

Leisler’s bat

lesser horseshoe bat

Nathusius’ pipistrelle

Natterer’s bat

noctule

serotine

soprano pipistrelle

whiskered bat

greater mouse-eared bat

A very poignant moment of the session was learning that some organisations say we have 17 and half bat species as – on UK shores – there is only one known greater mouse-earred bat, so this doesn’t count as a breeding species.imageAll of these species are micro bats (bats are divided into the categories ‘mega bats’ and ‘micro bats’), and their diet consists of insects – but worldwide, bats (including mega bats) eat fish, frogs, fruit, insects, livestock blood and even other bats!

I was amazed to learn of the huge diversity among the characteristics of different bat species (ranging in body size from a pound coin, to a small dog!) and the huge number of different species there are in the world. One of the facts the Bat Conservation Trust passed on, which emphasises this, is that bats account for every 1 in 4 mammals.

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Sadly, however, over the last few years, bat numbers in the UK have been in decline, owing to humans destroying their habitats. Although the Bat Conservation Trust are working to find out exactly why / how some bat boxes work and others don’t, there is much still to learn about these fascinating nocturnal creatures.

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It was a great pleasure to learn about them and see specimens, photographs and videos to draw from during the two hour workshop. It was also great to meet the mix of people attending the class, from those interested in art, to those planning to embark on ‘bat training’ (to learn to rescue, feed and care for bats) and even a visiting bat expert, with plenty of experience raising and hand-rearing.

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At the end of the class, our final sketches were cut out, to be hung with fish wire in the exhibition room, creating a colony (or crowd) of bats flying over the heads of visitors. These were the two sketches that I completed:

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Introduction to Wildlife Photography Day Course — Woodbury Wetlands

Sometimes, to really fall in love with nature; to understand and appreciate it, we need to see it, beautifully framed and thoughtfully presented.

It’s great to read a dramatic, well-researched, personality-led article in the likes of say, National Geographic magazine, but when that article is teamed with a bird’s eyes view of arctic wolves on the hunt; red blood penetrating thick white snow, or a herd of wildebeest scrabbling up the muddy edge of a river bank, frantically seeking a sure spot for their feet to fall, to avoid the the snapping jaws of a crocodile… then the story really comes to life.

National Geographic magazine is one of my favourite sources of photojournalism. Such magnificent storytelling visuals, particularly their abundance of wildlife photography, not only connects audiences with natural history, but also serves as a last frontier for recording near-extinct, species; as proven by Joel Sartre’s Photo Ark project (featured in the Oscar-nominated Discovery documentary, Racing Extinction).

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The power of photography in these such cases cannot be contested. I love photography, and ever since visiting the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the National History Museum earlier in the year, I’ve been inspired to get back in touch with using a camera and my own desire to dabble in some amateur wildlife photography.

Shooting on a Nikon D80, and occasionally an iPhone, I have joined a social media group through my work (I work for Discovery Education by day), called Discovery Shutterbugs. It’s a fantastic place to share some of my shots with my colleagues, to receive tips and advice, as well as some much needed constructive criticism!

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I’ve managed to fit in a few ‘nature days’ since moving to London in November. Earlier in the year, around Easter time, I stayed at a beautiful cottage with my partner, in a place called Scarning, in Norfolk. Set amongst the idyllic grounds of Scarning Dale estate, we stayed in the quaint Rose Cottage, which had visits from wildlife everyday, and I took the above selection of photographs, which I have since shared on Discovery Shutterbugs, and on my Wildlife Photography page on this blog.

When I’m not able to escape to the country, I have been finding places of nature to relax in around the City, my favourites being Ravenscourt Park (which is on my doorstep), St. James’s Park and the beautiful, expansive Richmond Park.

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After spending a few months reacquainting with my camera, I enrolled on my first ever camera course: An Introduction to Wildlife Photography. Obviously the title sounded entirely my cup of tea, but also, the day’s course would take place in an area of London I’d never been before; Woodbury Wetlands, and is associated with an organisation that (for my shame) I know little about; London Wildlife Trust.

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Woodberry Wetlands is an incredible patch of land, a short walk from Manor House tube station. The reserve stretches 17 hectares and encompasses reed-fringed ponds and dykes that are abundant with wildlife, including birds and waterfowl, bats and amphibians.

According to its website, “Prior to the building of the new river and reservoirs, the Woodberry Down area was in fact not a wetland at all! On the crest of a hill, the area is rather known confusingly known as ‘down land’, hence the name Woodberry Down. 600 years ago the was rolling grass meadows, pastures for cattle and small woodlands, probably home to dear and wild boar, as well as a number of small hold peasant farmers.”

The reservoirs now on the site were constructed in 1833 to meet the growing demands for drinking water in the then suburban London ‘towns’ of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill. By the 1950s, the reservoirs and New River were being treated with chlorine and sodium phosphate gas to ‘clean’ the water, resulting in them being devoid of any wildlife. By the early 1990s, Thames Water put the Stoke Newington reservoirs up for sale, and after a long campaign by local residents to stop them from being filled in, the reservoirs were saved and wildlife began to thrive as chlorine and sodium phosphate ceased to be used to clean the water.

Woodberry Wetlands was constructed this year and the Stoke Newington East Reservoir was opened to the public for the first time, by Sir David Attenborough, on the 30th April.

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Upon finally discovering and taking my first look around this beautiful setting, it was time to begin the course, run by Royal Photographic Society associate Penny Dixie. An incredible photographer, Penny used examples of her own fantastic work (well worth a look!) to explain camera basics; such as shutter speeds, aperture, white balance and controlling your exposure using histograms.

puffin

Naturally, being a day course, it was a bit of a whistle stop tour of the basics, but few of us in the room were competent enough to need or desire any more than that; most had either heard of some of these controls, experimented with them occasionally, or were so out of practice that a good refresher was needed. I fell into the latter category.

But after a good morning of classroom-based theory, we were ready to try out some depth of field work, and sent out into the reserve to complete the following tasks:

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The results of my day’s work (all very proudly shot with my camera set to manual!) are shown below, please click on any of the images to enlarge. I’d love to know what you think, or any tips or hints you’d give me for improvement. I’m really hoping this is the start of a very rewarding learning curve for me!

The Introduction to Wildlife Photography Day Course will be running again in August I am told, so keep an eye out for information here.

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015 — My top picks

I’ve never visited the Natural History Museum‘s Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition before, despite a lifelong love of animals and a long term interest in photography.

Growing up in Norfolk, exhibitions like that seemed few and far between. But even without the obvious inspirations, I remember spending summers sneaking round the edges of my parents’ garden taking snaps of the visiting bird life on a disposable pink plastic camera with zebra stripes all over it. The kind with no zoom and a risk of double exposure if you forgot to wind the film on.

imageNothing like the kinds of amazing prints I discovered in the Under 10’s category of this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year gallery, when I finally found myself visiting. What a blessing it is to now live in London!

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Breathtaking. Breathtaking is the word for each of the hundred or so images on display in the darkened room at the back of the museum. Illuminated on screens in several different sections (an unusual way to experience a gallery!). The photographs showcased everything from climate change to urbanisation of species, to aerial landscapes and macro shots of mud in ice.

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I was overwhelmed at the quality of work; particularly from the young finalists. Long gone are the days of disposable children’s cameras with not so much as a ‘zoom-in’ setting, it would seem.

But the overall winner; A Tale of Two Foxes by Canadian doctor Don Gutoski managed to combine technical skills, an important message and ‘the perfect moment’; capturing a powerful, foreboding image of deathly mirroring.

A bleak comment, perceived by the competition judges to the show the greater impact of climate change on native species.

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“This scene is full of symbolic force: the red fox preys increasingly on the Arctic fox as a result of global warming. It is nature, brutal and yet eerily beautiful. Great wildlife photography combines learning with exploration and opportunism and this demonstrates that so well.” Chair of the Jury, Lewis Blackwell.

The scene depicts a scenerio where global warming is altering the placement of the red foxes’ territory; pushing them further northwards into the range of the smaller Artic fox. The result on the food web is that the Artic foxes’ main food source becomes prey to the red fox, making the red fox the biggest competitor, but also the biggest predator – as increasingly, the red fox hunts its smaller cousin.

imageAnother image that evoked a strong sense of the result of rising temperatures and human impact on the environment was Just Jellyfish, a finalist in the Under Water category.

Photographer Thomas P Peschak aligned the shot perfectly to demonstrate an underwater world with an absence of fish foreshadowing what the future may hold if the effects of overfishing and climate change are not kept within grasp. Warmer waters will increase the numbers of Cape box jellyfish, which then feed upon the eggs and larvae of the fish; fish numbers dwindle, which in turn has serious consequences on the fishes’ natural predator: the Cape fur seals.

imageBeing a journalist, the photojournalism category of the competition held several gems for me. Having recently read National Geographic magazine’s exposé on the political dark side of the ivory trade, it was a profound discovery to see the winning story was one by photographer Brent Stirton depicting the story of poaching from the Spoils of War (showing seized tusks), to The Survivor; an aerial shot of the remaining 450 elephants in Chad’s Zakouma National Park.

What interested me about this photo series was the humans at the centre of it. Rather than just depicting the plight of the animals and their surroundings, Stirton told the story of the people whose lives are most affected including those on the frontline of defence and those widowed by rangers who have fallen victim to the ivory trade.

imageThe photojournalism category of the exhibition highlighted another tragic human interference that these gentle giants face; being captured from the wild for use in circuses and ceremonies, as depicted in Emily Garthwaite‘s Chained to Tradition.

imageThe Asian elephant photographed is in ceremonial dress following a six hour procession, parading through bustling streets of large crowds and fireworks during Diwali. A far cry from the lifestyle of their endangered wild counterparts.

Sticking with the photojournalism side of things, I’ve been interested in learning about gorillas and other great apes recently, having watched the BBC series Gorilla Family & Me (featuring Born Free Foundation‘s mountain gorillas) and having researched the work of Ian Redmond and The Trimates for an earlier blog post. So I was intrigued to understand exactly what was going on in Marcus Westberg‘s shot, Gorilla Care.

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My initial thought was that the health check was taking place at a zoo, but on reading the caption, the mountain gorilla in the centre of the room, and her anxious companion (who worriedly watches over the proceedings) are two of four mountain gorillas at the Senkewekwe Centre that have been rescued from poachers and traffickers.

The Centre is now named after a gorilla who fathered the nine-year-old female at the window, watching her companion in the centre of the room have her annual check up.

The four gorillas that reside there have all had traumatic experiences, and for me, the most story-telling element of the picture is the deep felt attachment from nine-year-old Ndeze as she watches helplessly from between the bars of the window. According to the picture’s caption, photographer Marcus Westberg said:

“The deep bonds that exist between these orphans, their carers and [gorilla doctor Eddie Kambale – pictured] is one of the most touching things I have ever had the privilege of witnessing.”

imageThe last photograph of the exhibition that I’d like to highlight is one that brings me full circle to my recent move to the City Neil Aldridge‘s Little Fox in the Big City.

My first night of living in Hammersmith, I woke up in the middle of the night, unsettled in a new environment, and walked into the kitchen to spot a beautiful fox hopping and dancing its way through the car park in the centre of the square court of flats I now live in.

I must have spent about 10 minutes just watching the creature’s manic movements and comical chattering, and felt truly blessed to be watching over at this ungodly hour: probably the only person to witness this fascinating and private ritual.

Having spent my whole life growing up in Norfolk; on the edge of Thetford Forest, I’d never once seen a live wild fox (though roadside casualties aplenty)!), but moving to London I saw a fox the very first night.

The urban fox is a well-established resident, and Aldridge’s striking image captures that entirely.image

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition is on at the Natural History Museum until the 2nd May, and includes many, many more striking and impressive pictures than the handful I have picked out here.

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Diving the Great Barrier Reef… at the Natural History Museum

I began this blog in 2011, when I was living, working and studying in Australia. I spent 14 months on the other side of the world, working towards my degree at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia.Great Barrier Reef 1

No trip across Australia would have been complete without visiting the incredibly beautiful Great Barrier Reef, and this was one of the absolute highlights for me (see picture left!).

Incredibly delicate and evidently damaged by climate change and pollution, I chose to snorkel around the reef rather than scuba dive, as this would have been my first time using scuba diving equipment and as an inexperienced diver, I didn’t trust myself to know enough to avoid further damaging the reef.

Nonetheless, the experience was unforgettable. Vivid in colour and full of life, the reef really is quite a spectacle.

This weekend, I visited London’s Natural History Museum to recapture the experience.

Sounds a little odd, doesn’t it? But the Attenborough Studio is offering the chance to take a virtual reality tour of the Great Barrier Reef, with Sir David Attenborough himself.

I’ve never worn a virtual reality headset before and didn’t really know what to expect, but putting on the Samsung VR Gear was the perfect way to brighten a Sunday afternoon with a bit of fun and a bit of wonder!

Admittedly, the visuals in the headset didn’t feel quite ‘real’ but it was a fantastic way to combine technology, education, and immersive documentary film making and to go deep under the water with David Attenborough just over your right shoulder, becoming your tour guide for the journey!

At the end of the 20 minute ‘show’, I was ready to take the gear off and give my neck a bit of a rest – but the feeling of possibility and connection to the location definitely stayed with me for much longer!

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Join me for a unique World Wildlife Day adventure!

This World Wildlife Day (TODAY!), I’m taking a special trip to Kenya… Do you want to come too?

I’m going to visit the world’s only salt-mining elephants. If I’m completely honest – I didn’t know until yesterday that there was even such a thing as a salt-mining elephant; so to have the chance to discover more about these animals and their behaviour in their natural environment is pretty extraordinary. And I get to do it without leaving my chair!

I’m having a live, 360-degree immersive tour of the dark caves of Mount Elgon in Kenya, guided by wildlife expert and conservationist Ian Redmond OBE. And you can come too!

vEcotourism elephants

Apparently the tour will be taking guests deep underground, to see the world’s only underground elephants (known as troglodyte tuskers), as they feel their way through the pitch-black caves using their trunks.

Ducking under the bats roosting overhead to explore the mysterious crevices and discover the rarely seen behaviours of these incredibly rare creatures; I think it’s going to be a rather unique experience.

vEcotourism elephant caves

The tour is taking place at 3pm (GMT), at live.vecotourism.org. If you can’t make that one, there’s second chance to take the #WorldWildlifeDay tour at 8pm (GMT) – but as they are both LIVE, it’s important to arrive on time and climb aboard with your headphones turned up: there won’t be another chance if you miss it!

I’ve always wanted to visit Kenya and I love elephants. Last year I held a fundraising event to raise money for the Born Free Foundation’s Europe elephant sanctuary for rescued captive and circus elephants, and I’ve previously interviewed the makers of the moving documentary Elephant in the Room about the impact on elephants of living in zoos; but to actually celebrate these animals living naturally in the wild is a positive rarity for me – and seems like the most fitting way to celebrate World Wildlife Day!

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World of Wildlife Art Exhibition: In support of elephants

Shifting its weight from one foot to another, the beautiful, gentle giant is like the bulkiest, heaviest dancer you’ve ever seen. But it’s not dancing.

“That’s how it takes some of the weight off of its feet”
“That’s how it cools down in the summer”
“That’s what they do when they’re waiting to be fed”
keepers chorus. They’re all lying.

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Her eyes tell the truth. Her name is Mali and she’s rocked and swayed alone in her cell for almost 40 years.

Maternal creatures, social creatures, beings that love and grieve and not only remember their dead existed, but also when they died; where they died.

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When the Nazis used solitary confinement to send their prisoners slowly mad is was called barbaric. When it happens in zoos we call it entertainment, amusement, an attraction…

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When Born Free Foundation announced their ambitious plans to build an elephant sanctuary in Europe, I cheered a little inside!

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My response on the outside?

On 3rd July I held my first ever independently planned, organised and executed art exhibition – to raise funds for the cause – hosted at the Charles Burrell Centre in Thetford, which was formerly my high school building.

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It took six weeks for the entire thing to materialise from start to finish, and in the end included a launch event with live music from Nick Stephenson, a charity raffle, a tombola stand, a cake stall and a children’s art competition with two categories (under 10s and 10-16 years old) and prizes provided by local organisation ZEBRA TM, who work closely with a number of charities. They also provided refreshments on the launch night, with their Managing Director Warren Short delivering a speech, and their ZEBRA mascot handing out the prizes to the lucky winners.

Although it was brilliant to sell art work, exhibit works by Thetford Sketch Club’s Kevin Moore and Thetford Cartoon Club’s Danielle Adams, and hand out great raffle prizes (provided by: Charles Burrell Centre, Centre Stage Dance School, Zak’s diner, Chilterns, Pruce Newman Pipework, Discovery Education, Nick Stephenson Music, Carol Petch, Mary Matthews, Rosemary and Christopher Snowdon and myself); the most fulfilling part of the exhibition, for me, was collecting and displaying the young people’s art work.

There were 18 entries to the upper age group category, many from Thetford Grammar School and the Thetford Sketch Club, and seven entries to the younger ones’ competition, so hopefully there are now 25 children that are now aware of the Born Free Foundation and thinking about animals!

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Will Travers and Cher Chevalier of Animals Actually ltd., were on hand to judge the competition, with Cher even sending over special treats for each of the younger category entrants!

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I’ve included their judges’ comments below:

Will Travers, Born Free Foundation President and 10-16s art competition judge:

I have gone for Charlotte Ogilvie as the winner. “There is something other-worldly about Charlotte’s artistic vision. It captures the fragile nature of the Arctic and the sense that its Polar bears may not survive for much longer unless we reverse global warming. Thought-provoking. Congratulations Charlotte.”

The runner up is Charlie Trowel. “This is a sophisticated work of art with a ghostly feel. Charlie uses colour in a different and original way with great attention to texture that delivers a real sense of wild nature. Well done Charlie.”

Katie Parfett was chosen as 2nd runner for the style and detail of her drawing of a lion.

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Cher Chevalier, Animals Actually Founder and Under 10s art competition judge:

Well done to all of you who entered the Under 10s Art Competition!! We love all of your pictures, and we had a tough job selecting our favourite! But here goes ….. drum roll …. the Winner of the Under 10s Competition is: Maisy aged 3. CONGRATULATIONS MAISY!! Your picture of a Pig is fabulous!!” HOORAY

With the competition winners announced, live music complete and raffle prizes drawn, I finished the evening off with a screening of the incredible short documentary; The Elephant in the room, with the permission of Producer Amanda Gardner.

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Watching the powerful film projected up onto the wall amongst the artworks really brought home the motivation for holding the exhibition.

With that message in mind, the works remained in place for a further week, until the 10th July.

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Over £250 was raised, but perhaps more importantly, the work of Born Free was highlighted and the plight of the beautiful Mali, and other elephants like her, has touched a few more hearts.

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A wonderful success all round!

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More than a dot-to-dot painting…

imageAs someone who looks to many places for ideas and inspiration, there’s a video I return to time and time again. The words of the late Steve Jobs, Co-Founder of Apple and Creator of Pixar animations, have always rung true to me:

“It’s impossible to connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking back” – SJ.

I’ve been connecting the dots a lot lately.

Somewhere in 2009, a few months after returning from my Born Free Shamwari adventure, I found my mind and heart brimming with inspiration and motivation – creativity that I struggled to find a use for.

I booked an exhibition slot at my local art gallery, to sell artwork to raise money for the Born Free Foundation. In the midst of creating a ‘Natural World’ portfolio of work, I discovered a wildlife art magazine called Wildscape. I wrote to the editor, asking how I could get hold of a copy, and soon held a yearly subscription.

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It was among the beautiful glossy pages of Wildscape that I first registered the work of Pollyanna Pickering: stunning images of tigers, a case study on jaguars and a ’25 years of Born Free Foundation’ double page spread that connected the first of the dots.

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Later that year, I noticed in my annual Born Free members catalogue a range of Christmas Cards with Pollyanna Pickering’s art work printed on them. I’ve since learned that the Pollyanna Pickering Foundation donated £8,000 towards building the Shamwari-based Julie Ward education centre that played a poignant part in my visit.

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“You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” – SJ

This month I found myself strolling through the enchanting gardens of Pollyanna’s Derbyshire home. An on-foot safari of wildlife sculptures and beautiful landscaping that left me feeling like a character from Alice Through the Looking Glass.

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I was there for the Born Free Foundation Celebration Day and the opportunity to view her ‘Way of the Wolf’ exhibition held within her gallery home. Pollyanna and her daughter Anna Louise were warm and welcoming, and whilst I don’t wish to give too much away, the exhibition rooms were a treasure trove of talent.

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As her pen danced over my 30th anniversary Calendar, I had to catch myself from a nostalgic day dream of tearing open the brown envelopes that Wildscape arrived in – envelops that promised page after page of breath taking artwork in a magazine I used to long to write for.

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“You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever – because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off of the well-worth path, as that will make all the difference.” – SJ

I assume intentionally, Mr Jobs’ speech encompassed the words of my favourite poem and life mantra: Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken reads:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth; 

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same, 

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back. 

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 

I know that I have opted for the road less travelled many times in my life and as way leads on to way, I find myself somehow staying on the path that I’ve always wanted to take. Never more so than sitting outside the Way of the Wolf exhibition hall, on a low garden wall, next to Born Free CEO and Co-Founder Will Travers, and quizzing him on the changes he’s witnessed over Born Free Foundation’s 30 years.

“When we started, I wouldn’t have believed it if you’d told me at this point now there would be no more elephants at London Zoo, no more elephants used in UK circuses, no more live animals used at Disneyland – I just wouldn’t have believed it,” he tells me.

As we chewed over everything from the Irwin legacy to Sea World (- look out for a blog post on this soon), I listened as Mr Travers told me that so-called ‘Millennials’ (those, like me, that reached young adulthood around the turn of the millennium) were the driving force behind protests against water circuses, such as Sea World. Ten per cent more 18-25 year olds have petitioned against Sea World’s practices than their ‘baby-boomer’ counterparts, I’m informed.

“The trouble is always that we have to work and plan to time frames – and those aren’t necessarily short term,” Will tells me.

“We have to think in 4 year strategies, as that’s how often the government changes. We have to think of young audiences in terms of the years that they’re at university – or school years. In reality it takes 30 years to really start to make a difference.”

viewing Pollyanna Pickering's exhibition

Before we’re interrupted and Will gets whisked away – as his mother Virginia McKenna has sold and signed all the gallery’s copies of her autobiography already and the orders are still rolling in – he leaves me with the thought that the next 30 years of Born Free will be filled with hard work, strategy but ultimately triumph if, the two former are gotten right.

“Yes, we have to make the dots connect, but first we have to be able to look ahead and locate where those dots are before we can even start to join them together.”