Gordon Buchanan: Animals, cameras and family values

The groundbreaking new series Animals With Cameras is back on our screens for its second instalment, and as I read through social media reactions to this innovative style of natural history filmmaking (for those who have yet to watch, species of animals — including chimps, penguins, meerkats and cheetahs — are fitted with cameras to record unique footage of their hidden lives); it seems a good time to share some of series host Gordon Buchanan‘s thoughts on his 25 years of filming wildlife.

“I’m going to end up losing my job to these guys,” Gordon joked as he showed an early preview clip of the series to the audience of his Animal Families and Me tour on its final night.

Concluding the 19-date tour in London, the audience at the Royal Geographical Society were treated to a whistle-stop tour of Gordon’s filmmaking career and the amazing animals he’s shared it with.

Lily the black bear from 2011’s series Bear Family and Me was the first of these animals that audiences were reacquainted with. As an inexperienced mother, Lily abandoned her daughter Hope, but touchingly the pair reunited later in the year.

Of course the Animal Family and Me series are well-known for exploring the sociology and complex relationships of animals, but it certainly added flavour to hear of Gordon’s own relationship (and misconceptions) of the black bears.

“When I first saw the bears — these big animals coming towards you in the forest — I was terrified.” He spoke of arriving in Minnesota to film the series and joining biologist Lynn Rogers, who is known for his habituated relationships with wild black bears.

Gordon Buchanan with bear

Gordon Buchanan with Lily the black bear

“Lynn explained that the black bears were happy with their ‘partnership’ with humans, but that doesn’t really help when one of these animals first comes up and rests its huge paws and head on your shoulders for the first time.”

Perhaps the most astonishing story then, was how deepening his understanding of these bears lead to the utter trust that later becomes evident in his photographs and videos. So much so, that his (then) young children were able to encounter the bears themselves, under careful supervision (especially from a nervous Mrs Buchanan — as his footage showed!).

One of the recurring themes of the evening was understanding just how vulnerable wildlife is — despite the great size and power of many of the species mentioned — and how fragile their environments are.

I was impressed at the time taken to mention the fearless hard work of the rangers putting their lives on the line to protect elephants and other species from poaching (one very poignant image Gordon shared was a tribute to the most recently killed rangers) and at the way he championed the work of The David Sheldrick Trust, who rescue and raise orphaned elephants and other animals in Kenya.

Gordon shares an image of Satao 2’s super tusks.

One of the elephants that left an impression as huge as his size was Satao 2, featured in the Elephant Family and Me series. Satao 2 was killed by poachers in March 2017, just a few months after the series first aired, due to his prized super tusks (shown above).

“Satao should have had no worries [in the wild], he was a ‘supertusker’. But because of his teeth, his ivory, he was more vulnerable than much smaller elephants.”

As with the new series, Animals with Cameras, much of the footage attained during Gordon Buchanan’s impressive career as a wildlife cameraman was the first of its kind.

“We were dropped off on the tundra to study Artic wolves, and just sort of left there on this vast, isolated landscape,” he reminisced of the series Snow Wolf Family and Me. “No one’s ever studied wolves in the Artic that late in the year, other than us, because of the weather,” Gordon explained.

“Even our back-up plans had risks. But we were able to do it because the weather in the Artic is changing.”

gordon buchanan talks about arctic wolves

Artic wolf Scruffy becomes acquainted with the BBC team

As we move towards understanding these animals better, I’m interested to hear the way we speak about them evolve. So I was fascinated that Gordon deliberately chose to speak about the wolf ‘family‘ and not ‘pack‘; something which he purposefully acknowledged.

“It’s not a pack, it’s a family; the responsibility of each member to the pups is clear. Every member of the family would bring food to the pups — even if they were hungry themselves.”

Seeing the wolves in this way certainly challenges their long established image of folklore villains. I get the impression that dispelling this misconception was one of Gordon’s aims.

He explained to the Royal Geographical Society audience that in observing artic wolves he learned that there was something ‘incredibly wolf-like about us‘. Discovering these such parallels between animals and humans was touched upon again when he spoke of the Grauer’s gorillas he encountered in Gorilla Family and Me.

Gordon and team filming silverback Mugaruka for Gorilla Family and Me.

“You couldn’t help but look at them and see something of ourselves in them,” he explained. “Mugaruka and Chimanuka [the silverback stars of the series] are like the Gallagher brothers of the gorilla world,” he joked. “Although they grew up together, they grew apart”.

It was great to hear Gordon Buchanan cite the late filmmaker Alan Root as one of his biggest influencers and inspirations (first proclaiming that he is deliberately not going to say Sir David Attenborough, as his merits are unquestionable and there’s a value in recognising some of the other amazing wildlife filmmakers out there).

As well as learning a little bit more about each of these endearing animal characters, the sense of needing to protect and conserve them was strong. If there’s one thing that natural history filmmaking is teaching us today, it’s that it’s not enough to simply fall in love with our planet’s amazing animals, we must also find ways of fighting for them.

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ConSewvation: Sewing for a cause

I have a confession to make. I’ve unashamedly become an Instagram addict lately. My new favourite social media platform, it’s perfect for sharing wildlife photography, animal art and my favourite natural history book purchases! And, as I’ve recently discovered; shopping!

From the gorgeous canvas print that now resides over my bed to the beautiful hand-drawn Lion King fan art I’ve placed in my daughter‘s Disney-themed nursery, I’ve discovered a fantastic marketplace of individuals and Etsy shops offering unique gifts and animal-themed goodies that I just can’t get enough of. Enter; ConSewvation.


After discovering these beautiful one-of-a-kind crocheted elephants on Instagram, I fell in love with both the products and the purpose of ConSewvation.

Motivated by a mission to make these cute cuddly elephants — sold for use as ornaments or children’s toys — to raise funds for her dream of working in the field of conservation; creator Sasha Cole has not only got some serious sewing talents, but an undeniable passion for wildlife that shines through in her craft.


“I want to go back to Cambodia and work in Phnom Tamao Wildlife Centre,” Sasha tells me. “I did a behind the scenes tour there last year and fell in love with the place. It takes care of animals rescued from cruel captive situations and rescues those that have had attempts on them to be smuggled out of the country. Any animals that can be released back into the wild, they do.”

“I fed lucky the elephant when I was there, so she is my idea behind the elephants.”


Each elephant is unique (Sasha says she never makes the same thing twice!) and I adore the attention to detail. With bespoke characteristics (such as the passport stamp material in the ears of her latest creation, seen below), they really do make for a perfect gift with a personal touch.

consewvation elephant pale yellow design with passport stamps in ears

A self-declared one-woman handicraft shop, Sasha’s recent trip to Cambodia has also ignited her desire to study Zoology as part of an online course by United for Wildlife.

“I have put all of my efforts into sewing to raise funds for my re-training in Zoology and Conservation. Every penny you spend goes back into ConSewvation and helping me to pursue my dream of saving those who can’t speak for themselves,” she says.

Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center houses the wildlife conservation efforts of Wildlife Alliance; a leading organisation in the direct protection of forests and wildlife in tropical Asia.

As well as caring for and rehabilitating animals rescued from the illegal wildlife trade, Wildlife Alliance delivers a comprehensive approach for tropical rainforest protection through direct on-the-ground interventions with government rangers and local communities — directly addressing the causes of deforestation and the illegal wildlife trade.

“We build rangers’ professional capacity and provide full support for their livelihoods. This enables them to focus completely on their duties to take strong action and creates a culture of Zero Tolerance for Corruption,” they state.


A quick read of Consewvation’s blog, and it’s entirely evident why Lucky the elephant was the inspiration behind this lovely Etsy shop: “On the car journey to the centre we were handed a book full of heart-wrenching stories of the animals we were to meet later in the day. First up we had Lucky, one of the world’s most charming and trusting elephants,” she recounts of her time Phnom Tamao. “Being able to get up close with her in person, even feeding her directly into her mouth, made me wonder why anyone would want to hurt such gentle giants.”

With such a compassionate creator and such care in their creation, I chose the little yellow elephant with cute elephant and rainbow details in its ears as the ele that would mark my first Etsy purchase. Luckily, my daughter loves it as much as I do.Baby-Ada-And-consewvation-elephant-design-yellowWe named the little guy ‘Sunshine‘ (as this little bright yellow elephant will bring rainbows to the nursery on rainy days), and to be safe around its small parts (ConSewvation recommends designs are best for ages 3 and up), he’ll be waiting on the shelf for when my little girl is old enough to hear about where this little elephant came from and how he’s helped!

Sasha Cole ConSewvation with elephantFollow ConSewvation’s makes here:
Instagram: @consewvation
Facebook: /ConSewvation
Twitter: @consewvation

Or follow her blog for updates on her studies, creations and fundraising!

Blog: https://consewvation.wixsite.com

I’m sure that Lucky will bring you luck with your fundraising, Sasha!


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Tania Esteban chats about her role as a Digital Researcher for BBC’s Big Cats, Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II

Tania Esteban behind the camera

I’m sure that, like me, Thursdays for many of my blog readers have meant one thing this January — Big Cats!

The BBC’s natural history programming has started 2018 on a high, with this exciting new series exploring the secret lives of wild cats. This past Tuesday viewers were treated to a rare insight into an international project that’s battling to bring the Iberian lynx back from the brink of extinction through captive breeding and improving wild habitats.

I was fortunate enough to chat to Tania Esteban (whose work can be discovered at TRE Productions) about her work behind the scenes on the series, which involved researching, setting up shoots, storyboarding, and translating for the crew (Tania credits being bilingual as major advantage in securing her role on the project).

Listen to the full interview on the SoundCloud link below.

After discovering her film A Lion’s Tale through Twitter back in 2016 (it featured on my Top 5 ways to beat Blue Monday post in January 2017), I was incredibly excited to chat to Tania about the film; her first big steps into her career in documentary-making; and the amazing work she’s done with the BBC since completing her Masters in Wildlife Filmmaking…

Kate: ‘Big Cats’ was your first project for the BBC, what did you do for the series?

Tania: It was my first foray into the BBC because it was work experience. At the time I was editing A Lion’s Tale, which was good timing, so I applied for the BBC work experience pool. I thought; “I’ll just apply and see if I get it” — it’s usually quite tricky because so many people apply and I knew I may or may not get it. I was at university when I got the call and they said: “We’d love to do a quick interview with you if you’d like to do work experience”, and of course I said; “yeah, I’d love to!”

The reason why was mainly because I could speak Spanish and they sent me to Spain to do a recce of where they were going to film the Iberian lynx for the third episode, on the conservation element of it. So I was very excited because this was my dream project — I wish I could have worked on it for longer. But I spent a month and a half working on it; doing lots of research and getting to learn the ropes of production. We’d just learnt everything on the [Masters] course, so it was fresh in our minds and a good chance to see whether I could do this in the real world of work.

What did the work experience involve?

I helped the main researcher and assistant producer — the lovely Sara [Douglas]. We went out to Spain and actually flew into my home province — which was hilarious; I told the team that I could show them all the best tapas bars. I did a little bit of filming on an Osmo [a type of handheld camera] — so that’s kind of field notes and getting a general scope of the area so that the producer can look and think ‘right, we’re going to film here and we’d like to do this…”.

I did a lot of translating; liaising with the scientist and finding out key facts that would feature heavily in the story. It was my job to work around the language barrier and make them feel comfortable with the team and ask questions about where we could place the cameras and gain their trust — which I love doing, because I love talking to people. 

BBC big cats

What did you enjoy most about working on Big Cats?

I really enjoyed finding pure science, learning how to set up shoots and the storytelling element and thinking about different camera angles and story boards to help the production.

It was very high security and we had to put protective clothes on so we didn’t spread any disease to the animals and they hosed us down, because they’re critically endangered these lynx. And they’re so beautiful; very small animals. I’d never seen them before so that was very exciting. 

It was really inspiring for me actually, because I never realised how many passionate conservationists there are in Spain. I was quite blinded to that in a way because I’d grown up there, but I’d never really had the opportunity to meet any of these people, such as Miguel who features on the programme.

The conservation work is incredible and I’m very glad that — from the perspective of a half Spanish woman — the conservation work that the team is doing is now coming out and being seen. It was brilliant to see that and to start my BBC role and my work as a researcher on a programme that features big cats — as I was obsessed with big cats at that time, after working on my film ‘A Lion’s Tale’.

What’s it like behind the scenes? Did you learn things that weren’t in the final programme? 

Yes. You see all these things behind the scenes and you’ve got your team there; so you find out all of this knowledge and information that embellishes a sequence. And even if that doesn’t make the final cut, you still have that knowledge with you and you still have that bond that you’ve made with these people. I think it’s very important to keep up those relationships where ever you travel in the world, because you never know.

Like the connections you made during the production of A Lion’s Tale; the likes of Ian Redmond, Virginia McKenna and Will Travers. How did that come about and where did you get the idea for the film?

I was studying the Wildlife Filmmaking MA course in Bristol after completing my Zoology course. I’d know for so many years that I wanted to do this particular MA course; since I was 14 and I saw it advertised. So I planned all my A Levels and GCSEs to get to Bristol and do this course. So when I got it I was ecstatic! And as part of our final year projects we had to choose a story we were passionate about; I wasn’t too sure what that would be — I knew I really liked big cats, but wasn’t sure what the story would be. Then Ian Redmond came in [to the university] and gave an inspiration talk — as always. He was talking about vEcotourism and he said this one sentence — that it was the 50th anniversary since the Born Free film was made and I went; “that’s the story!”

A Lions Tale film poster

Click the image to watch A Lion’s Tale

How did you get to work on the filmmaking side?

I’d recently read how lions had declined by nearly 70% over 20 years, and it’s just terrible when you think about how their numbers have plummeted. People always think that lions are so numerous, and they’re really not anymore — so I thought that’s the connection. So I went up to Ian [Redmond] and said “I’m a huge fan and I’ve got this idea for a film I’d like to make with Born Free; could you maybe put me in touch with Will Travers and Virginia McKenna if they’d be interested. And that really got the ball rolling and I got in touch with Will. Will was absolutely incredible — and I’m such a huge fan of his, so I was terrified of meeting him — and of course Virginia has always been such a hero of mine; as I’m sure she is of yours, and many people. She’s got this incredible presence. I even did a presentation about her when I was at school; I was 10 years old and we had to talk about our biggest heroes, and I chose her.

Everyone who I’ve spoken to who’s met Virginia McKenna has said she has such a positive air about her, and she’s so passionate and she ‘does’. She’s an activist — she acts upon her word.

virginia mckenna at home

Virginia McKenna portrait by Tania Esteban

So once the ball was rolling, I spent six months setting up the shoot and liaising with them constantly and then doing all the storyboards, doing all the research; talking to Victor — who’s one of the rangers out in the Kenyan Born Free offices — and then crowd-funded it. It was just a bizarre, really incredible year of planning this dream shoot and I thought: “right, I’ve got 10 days to actually shoot it, just a tiny percentage of a production.”

Actually getting out there was incredible because I got to fulfil a childhood dream of filming a story about one of my absolute heroes and an animal that’s very dear to my heart.

A Lion's Tale film poster

When I started editing it, I want the piece to be very much a memoir of Born Free and of Virginia McKenna as well, because she has dedicated her whole life to conserving wildlife. And her son [Will] is one of the most hard-working people I’ve ever met. He never stops. He’s seriously incredible.

What was it like going to the 2016 ivory burn in Kenya for the film — to witness the biggest ever stockpile of ivory to be destroyed?

That was something that I was unsure as to whether it would come off. A lot of people asked “what’s the connection?” and I said “well, there is a connection”, at the very end — there was a different ending that I didn’t use, it’s a personal copy that I keep — it’s Virginia McKenna saying: “it’s not just about elephants and lions; it’s about the whole eco-system; it’s about the whole of nature — protecting it. It got me really emotional actually.

Being at the ivory burn was one of the most overwhelming, powerful things I’ve ever filmed. You’re so focussed as a camerawoman, thinking: “I’ve got to get this shot, and I’ve got to get that shot — I’ve got to get the president as he comes out to light the ivory, and I’ve got to roam around with my gimbal to try and get some of the shots of the rangers and the burning flames…” and then you look up and see this 50-tonne pile of ivory going up in flames. It was the smell actually, more than anything and you could hear the ivory crackling because bits of it were hollow — it was so powerful.

Tania Esteban film the 2016 Kenyan ivory burn

That’s why in the film I used Virginia’s voice, Will’s voice and Victor’s in the film, to narrate it. I wanted them to give a voice to all those people who had been working together to reach this moment. It’s all about emotion in the storytelling. That’s what I tell a lot of people — especially in conservation — because nobody wants to be lectured anymore. You’ve got to get them emotionally or visually arresting images to try and do these amazing people justice.

Just being there was amazing and I’m so grateful to Ian and Will and Virginia for giving me that opportunity to make a dream film.

Amazing! I know you’ve become a bit of a drone specialist; how has that come about?

Drones are amazing! I got started with them about 2 years ago when I saw a video on Vimeo that someone shot in Scotland on a Phantom 2 — a very old type of drone — and I just thought “god, it really does open up a whole new world!”. It was only then that it was beginning to get more commercial and anyone from the general public could start to buy consumer drones and give it a go. So I bought a secondhand one to see if I could actually fly it before I start taking it seriously — and it was terrible, the drone was quite terrible, but if you can fly a bad drone and a smaller one, then you don’t have to worry about the bigger ones.

I remember flying a drone over my house in Spain, and the mountains there have always inspired me, so just to see it from above and being able to take pictures was incredible — a whole new perspective. And that’s where it all started really. I realised it could add a whole new perspective to my storytelling. 

Tania Esteban holds a drone camera

I was at the BBC at the time and I thought: yes, I’m going to do this. It’s quite a lot of money, it costs quite a few thousand pounds to train yourself to get the license and get qualified, but I knew that it would perhaps open up more opportunities for me to go out on location and also to enhance my own videography and film work.

The conservation element of it is quite interesting, because you can use drones for aerial surveying — such as for monitoring orang-utan nests and tree distribution and species. In the forest it was incredible to pan up the trees that just go on and on, and it gives a good indication of the health of the forest when you see ferns on the trees, etc. And I’m always concerned about the welfare of the animals I’m filming — when I filmed elephants in the forest I didn’t get anywhere near them. So it’s exciting; you’ve got small drones like the Spark, which you can fit in your hand, and because of the size of it, the motors don’t make as much noise. That’s very exciting for wildlife filmmakers.

I recently went to Iceland, which is the most drone-able country — the way the landscape changes is like turning the pages of a children’s story book — and the new series I’m working on now heavily features a lot of drone work, so I’m going off to Canada very soon to go fly my drone. My first paid internal gig with my drone.

Exciting! And it’s always important to think about the welfare of the animals. So, tell me about your work on Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II. What did you do for them?

That came about two months after I finished work experience on Big Cats and I’d finished editing A Lion’s Tale. The film came out at the start of November and at the end of November the BBC got in touch and said “would you like to do digital research for Planet Earth II?” Umm, yeah!

Digital research encompasses all the online aspects: all the video clips, all the behind the scenes pictures and all the social media clips and exclusives that people see online. And I was a part of the team that did all the different additional bits to support the Blue Planet II team. Which is probably why I was very active on social media about it, saying “check this out!” and all the random .gifs you probably saw about it.

Tania tweets about Blue Planet 2

We did some digital exclusives for Snapchat for America, which was interesting. My job was to look into all the archive which wasn’t used for Planet Earth, so I got to see all this amazing footage which wasn’t used on the main episodes and edit up clips for the digital platform.

We crafted these different stories with this incredible footage that wasn’t used on the series. Some of it was breath-taking, I hope its used for something in the future. 

For Blue Planet II I did the equivalent, but also got to do some additional interviews with some of the filmmakers involved and the conservationists — so that was good, as it meant I got to do some more camerawork.

I was so desperate then to move on to production — and I saw that Wild Metropolis was commissioned and so I came up with loads of story ideas and pitched it to the series producer and he said “ok, you can be one of our researchers” — which was great, as I could move on to production which was what I wanted, as it’s pure research. It’s been my favourite project to date. A lot of people don’t see these ‘mega cities’ from around the world as wildlife hotspots, but some of the stories we’ve found: wow! It’s coming out in October time, so keep an eye out for that!

What advice would you give to people who want to go into filmmaking and start a career like yours?

You have to be really passionate — and slightly crazy — about wildlife and natural history. I did the science route, zoology and I studied urban bat ecology for a year and did my dissertation on it and then I specialised in filmmaking, because that’s what I wanted to do. You don’t have to do that, I know plenty of people who didn’t, but I think it just gives you this filmic grammar if you specialise in filmmaking.

So yeah, just get out there, find your own stories — the world has opened up now, anyone can own a camera that shoots 4K now. Talk to people about their experiences, travel — it opens up a whole new perspective of your own life, as well as your career. Keep filming and get on social media. .

Tania with Victor and Born Free team after filming A Lion's Tale

Networking is about 60% of everything that we do. I also believe that if you can specialise in a certain area of wildlife filmmaking: gimbal work, long lens work, drone work, time-lapse, thermal — like you saw in Big Cats, the thermal imagery — there’s so many different niches that you can specialise in, I think you should go for it and pick one that you enjoy. I also believe in developing your own style; don’t just copy.

And always remember your roots; the reason you’re doing why your doing your filmmaking work — to make a difference, to inspire people, which is especially true of wildlife work


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Finding my story: gentle nature

We all have stories that shape us. Tales of triumph, or tragedy — or both — which serve to remind us why we do what we do, or why we’ve chosen to walk down the paths that we find ourselves on.

I have been influenced and my decisions inspired by gentle nature. More than once on this blog I’ve listed the story of Suffolk photographer Julie Ward as the inspiring figure behind my decision to volunteer at Shamwari Game Reserve in 2008.

Exactly a decade on from my gap year trip, and two decades since Julie was murdered in the Maasai Mara in 1988, I find myself in the most unexpected situation. I always believe in ‘reading the signs’ and serendipity seems to follow me. But this feels like a perfect nod of encouragement at a time when such things are needed.

This week started with ‘Blue Monday‘, the so-called most depressing day of the year. I must admit, every year it does indeed creep up on me. Last year I took the bull by the horns and wrote a blog post; “Top 5 Ways To Beat Blue Monday” and felt suitably inspired. This year, my partner and I booked an impromptu hotel stay in Canterbury — one of my favourite cities — and packed up the car, bundled up the baby and took ourselves off.

Kate in Canterbury

No blog post was written, but some well earned family time was underway after a busy start to January spent planning a major event for our little London business.

Now, most people know I’m a massive book nerd. I read, admire and pore over as many wildlife and conservation books as possible (I’ve even started a hashtag of my recommended reads on Instagram; check out #kateonconservationreads). So it was only natural that I would go book hunting in the charity shops and secondhand bookshops of Canterbury.

Audubon's elephant book

My first purchase of the day was Audubon’s Elephant, a book that explores John James Audubon’s struggle to publish The Birds of America. This felt particularly exciting, given that I’d just written a blog post about the Audubon Society and my time with Audubon Sarasota for National Bird Day and my latest guest post came from a brilliant and enthusiastic birder.

Zafara book

The next book to catch my eye was Zarafa, the tale of the first giraffe to arrive in France. Much like the wonderful book; Jumbo by W.P. Jolly, this book promises an in-depth study of captivity management and animal transportation in the 1800s through the real life story of a much-loved, significant ‘celebrity’ animal.

Having written about Jumbo the London Zoo elephant and his shipment to America just recently, the promise of an equivalent tale of a giraffe being transported from Africa to Europe — and the trials and public reactions en route — was too good to leave sitting on the shelf.

gentle nature book 1998

The most incredible find of the trip however, and what feels like the crown jewel in my visit was walking into one of the most incredible Oxfam bookshops and casting my eyes through the ‘collectibles’ section, only to see sitting on the shelf, a hardback copy of gentle nature!

I treasure my paperback re-print from the year 2000, complete with an additional preface written by Born Free star and Co-Founder of the Born Free Foundation, Virginia McKenna. It was, after all, this copy that I won in raffle by the charity, and here that I first read about Shamwari Game Reserve‘s big cat rescue centre (including the Julie Ward Education Centre), which I would go on to volunteer at 8 years later.

But sitting on the shelf in front of me was an entirely different cover design that I was sure must be from the original 1998 print run.

“This has got to be a 1st edition” I told my partner, excitement dancing inside.

“It’s not that it’s particularly old, it’s just that you never see this kind of thing in secondhand shops. People buy these books because they care.”

I leafed through the front pages to see whether it was an original 1998 print, knowing that regardless, it would have a story attached.

It would have belonged to someone who cared about wildlife, about conservation; someone wanted to see wildlife free and not behind bars.

Someone who wanted to support the family of a young female photographer who grew up in the county next to me, and whose unsolved murder in the Masaai Mara must have touched them.

“No way!” my heart raced faster. This book has been signed!

Sitting there on the page in front of my was an message from Virginia, signed off with ‘Every good wish, Virginia McKenna‘.

To think that back in 1998, when I was eight years old, one of my biggest role models was holding this very book, sharing a special moment with its former owner. I suddenly felt a part of something.

“This is incredible.”

There were more messages and signatures inside the book, most poignantly from Julie Ward’s parents. As a new mum myself, I ran my fingers over the words penned by Julie’s mother, Jan. For Julie.

Needless to say, I purchased the book and it is instantly one of my most treasured possessions.

I have never met Julie’s parents, I wrote a letter to them once as a child; after following Julie’s story in the news. It was a letter writing task at school, and I chose to write to them, to tell them I wanted to go to Africa when I was older and take pictures, because I loved the wildlife photography I’d seen of Julie’s and because she was the only woman I’d heard of at the time who was from the part of England I was, and who had been brave enough to go on an adventure to Africa alone.

Despite her tragic story, she had shown me that young women could be brave and go on adventures, even if they’re from a rural county, rather than a big exciting city.

It was a piece of school work, so the letter was submitted to my teacher and never sent.

But to know that there’s a little bit of the spirit of Jan, and her love for Julie in this wonderful book — it feels like the message has been transferred the other way. From her pen to my eyes.

canterbury street

I said that my goal this year was to reacquaint with my passion for photography as a way to tell the stories of wildlife, to highlight the difference between freedom and captivity, and to share the tales of conservation efforts — and I feel like my spontaneous decision to get in the car and do something different this week was a well-timed reminder that I’m walking the right path.

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Learn more about Julie Ward

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Travel, adventure, parties and… natural history! – Guest post by Adventure Ed

Starting the year with a focus on achieving success in 2018, young adventurer and bird specialist Eddie Williams, aka Adventure Ed, from California offers his perspective on making conservation cool and reaching new audiences with his one of a kind YouTube channel.       

adventure ed title card I have started a Youtube Channel that combines travel with environmental education in a way you may have never seen before.

Before I explain the details, I want you to ask yourself this question: How are you unique? I believe this is a question everybody should ask themselves. Though it is extremely cliche, everyone is unique in his or her own way, and if you realize your uniqueness, not only will the world be more colourful, but you will remember your purpose in life.

I am unique, like everyone else. I am a 27-year old guy who likes doing the things that most guys my age like doing. I like working out, watching football, going to the beach, and going to parties with my friends. Like many others, I enjoy the outdoors, but my fondness for nature is not average. Nature has dictated the course of my life so much that I now work as a wildlife biologist with a focus on birds. Not only do I study birds but I am also a keen recreational birder (birdwatcher). In case you do not know about the hobby of birding, it is when people actively observe birds in their habitats.

2018 year of the bird adventure Ed

Birding, as you might imagine, has some solid stereotypes. People think it’s “too simple” or “boring” or “awkward”. People joke that birding is for a dork still living in his or her parents’ basement or for a strange hippy lost in his or her own world. These stereotypes are not only often given to birders but also to people who actively observe and appreciate nature in general.

Back to the original question: how am I unique?  Well, I am a 27-year-old birder. The vast majority of birders are much older and many are senior citizens.  But I like to think that is not the only way I am unique because I believe that I defy the stereotypes of birders. I may enjoy a bit of weirdness and awkward humour, but like I said earlier I am just like everyone else at the end of day. I am no nature nerd, but a nature stud… Okay, that was a joke, as I don’t want to brag too much about my beautiful plumage! (Another bird joke). Throughout my entire life I have wanted to share my passion of nature and birds with other people and show that it is not for dorks or hippies but is really cool and interesting. My love of nature has become contagious and I have found that people can appreciate anything as long as you make it cool.

For example, in my early twenties I spent two and a half years traveling, studying, teaching, and doing ecological fieldwork in Australia and Central America. I met thousands of younger travelers who had never heard of birding or had assumed the usual stereotypes. But after an introductory bird walk and hitting up a beach party with me, pretty much every person I met learned to appreciate birding. My personal belief is that there would be more young birders in the world if they were properly exposed to birding.

adventure ed twitter bird pic

Just like anyone who travels I fell in love with the vagabond life. I visited many tourist destinations throughout the tropics that were developing rapidly and thought about the environmental impacts of the tourism industry in these places. I wondered how many of the other young travelers attending the beach parties actually thought about their environmental impacts.

I never really watched Youtube until a while after I came back to the USA and I discovered an entire community of travel vloggers sharing the world with each other. I realized that Youtube was a way to reach out and spread a message to people all over the world no matter what the size of the audience. It’s a potential way to make a difference in the world and a creative outlet to embrace one’s uniqueness. So I decided to start my vlog channel that combines travel with environmental education. It is called Adventure Ed.

Adventure Ed will show you my adventures around the world where I go birding, do other outdoor activities, and explore the young traveler party life. I will give budget travel tips, educate about birds and natural history, and give a perspective on environmental issues surrounding the places I visit by interviewing locals.

My ultimate goals are two-fold. The first is to get millennials more in touch with nature and expose the hobby of birding to people who have never been exposed to it before.

The goal is not to convert everyone into a birder but rather to make them appreciate the hobby and the general observation of nature. By using myself as an example and defying the stereotypes I hope that younger people see that nature is cool. Most young people think that partying is cool, so it is one way I will relate to my target audience. I encourage everyone to go out and have fun like the cool kids (in a legal and controlled manner) as long as they take time to appreciate the natural world around them.

The second goal is to educate about environmental issues surrounding tourism. I want tourists who are going to beautiful destinations to party to realize their potential environmental impact. Instead of ridiculing young party-goers, I join them, and advise that they consider their impacts.

Yes, this is a radical way to do environmental education, and that is my full intent. My main target audience is millennials, but there are aspects of this channel that will interest everyone.  If you do not like watching the beach parties, then maybe you will love the footage of exotic wild animals and learning fun scientific facts.

I started my channel a few months ago and my following is currently very small. I am brand new to videography and my videos are rough around the edges, but I am working hard to improve my skills. Fortunately I have a job schedule in which I work long stretches overtime and receive long breaks, which allows me to travel frequently and film content. This winter I am visiting Thailand, Panama, and Vietnam, where I hope to have a lot of fun and see a lot of cool wildlife.

If you are interested in learning about budget travel, nature, and environmental issues, I suggest you take a look at the channel. If you like the content, all I ask is that you click the subscribe button.  My goal for the end of 2018 is to get to 1,000 subscribers.


Subscribe to Eddie’s YouTube Channel and help him reach 1,000 subscribers by the end of the year by clicking here.

Adventure EdEddie is a 27-year-old wildlife biologist from California who specializes in birds. His YouTube channel combines travel, environmental education, and pure fun. He provides budget travel advice and shares his passion and knowledge of science and nature. He explores both the natural world and party life, two activities not usually associated with each other. He says his ultimate goal is to get more millennials in touch with nature.



National Bird Day: How can we teach children to love birds?

Today is National Bird Day, which has naturally started me thinking about the way we live alongside this diverse and beautiful classification of animal. We are so used to seeing garden birds hoping around the bird table and perching on fences — and this is especially true of my childhood, spent growing up in beautiful Norfolk — that it can be easy to become so accustomed to these fascinating creatures that we barely notice them going about their daily lives. Even the so-called alien species that Sir David Attenborough spoke of in his Wild Neighbours lecture are a commonplace sight across London‘s parks.

Ring-necked parakeet in Richmond Park

Ring-necked parakeet in Richmond Park, photo by Kate on Conservation

But last year I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to reflect upon the beauty of birds, when I joined Around the Bend Nature Tours at Sarasota’s Audubon Center in Florida, during my press trip on behalf of National Geographic Kids magazine. Around the Bend Nature Tours provides nature experiences for schoolchildren and families at parks and preserves across the county, and the aim of my day with them was to join a group of children in at the Celery Fields to spot and identify various species of local birds.

Looking at feathers, bird skulls and egg shells in the curiosity box, to help with identifying bird species.

The Celery Fields are 300 acres of county-owned flood mitigation area, and have proven to be one of the premier birding hotspots on the southwest coast of Florida. They boast 220 species of bird throughout the year, across flooded fields, freshwater marsh and open water.

Sarasota Audubon launched a special initiative for schoolchildren — the Celery Fields Explorers Program — five years ago, and since then, more than 4,000 schoolchildren have joined their program of environmental education.

It was one of these such field trips that I had the privilege of joining.

We took our binoculars and bird identification charts out onto the deck and enjoyed the long-range vistas on offer. Important factors to consider were the birds’ size, colour, shape and habitat. Together we spotted the eye-catching white outline of a Great Egret, searching for snails in the marshy mud.

Great Egret

A flash of bright colour revealed itself to be the purple and blue hues of a Purple Gallinule darting across the reeds. Its yellow legs and red and yellow beak make it a fascinating and distinctive bird to watch. It proved a favourite amongst the children.

Purple Gallinule

Purple Gallinule

Training to become young ornithologists does not stop with learning basic bird spotting skills, however. One of the most memorable parts of my day was seeing the children investigate specific bird characteristics by looking through the box of feathers, beaks and skulls, and using their ID charts to help identify which bird species they may belong to.

Ann Cruikshank led the students in touching and feeling the items, which were passed around the circle. The physical aspect of holding these curiosities had a real impact on the children’s learning. Most of the items came from birds who had deceased naturally in the environment and been collected by staff, or they had been donated by the local wildlife hospital after an injured bird passes away; facts which were quickly pointed out to the children.

Studying the shape of the skull up against illustrations of different species of local bird

Through examining beaks and feathers, we were able to discuss what the birds may eat by considering the shapes of their bills and how noisy their feathers are (i.e. would they able to hunt effectively?). The bones and skulls also helped to determine the features that help a bird to fly: light, hollow bones; wing span; wing shape, etc.

A Limpkin, with its distinctive long bill

Catching sight of a Limpkin at the end of the activity gave us a perfect opportunity to take part in the ‘What does it mean to be a bird?‘ exercise. For this game, children become Limpkins and are challenged to discover all the difficulties that Limpkins and other birds face for their survival.

Finally, with a refreshed and renewed interest in the lives of birds, I completed my day at the Celery Fields with a look around the education center. Notice boards of bright tapestries of birds; a children’s corner including animal track identification; recordings of bird sightings and a map of the 300-acre Celery Fields all adjourned the walls and added to the sense of endearing care for the birds in the area.

After such an heart-warming and informative day, there was no way that I could leave without pledging my support and buying an Audubon Society badge!

audubon society badge


What is the Audubon’s society?

The National Audubon Society is a nonprofit conservation organisation that protects birds and the places and habitats they live in, now and for future generations. Since 1905 they have used science, advocacy, education, and on-the-ground conservation to protect bird species throughout the Americas.

Named after natural history artist John James Audubon, the organisation looks to fulfil his vision of a world in which people and wildlife thrive. I discovered the following information in Florida’s Kennedy Space Center‘s Nature and Technology exhibit.

Audubon Society KSC

It reads: “John James Audubon is the most famous of all American natural history artists, renowned for his adventurous nature, his artistic genius and his obsessive interest in birds. In 1820, he set off on his epic quest to depict America’s wildlife, floating down the Mississippi River with nothing but his gun, artistic materials and a young assistant.

Unable to find secure financial backing in the United States, Audubon went to Europe in 1826. There he found both subscribers and engravers for the project. Over the next twelve years, Audubon divided his time between London and America. When abroad, he supervised the engraving and coloring of the prints. In America he traveled in search of birds to paint, arriving at the east coast of Florida in 1831 to find water birds and tropical species.”

kate on conservation logo

Want to read more about birds?

Like this? Read more about my press trip to Florida


New Year’s resolution: Tell tales by light

One of the best things about the Christmas period is vegging out in front of the television and catching up on the programmes you’ve been saving up for when you ‘get a moment’. For me, the list was expansive — and I’ve resigned myself to the fact that some of it will probably have to wait until next Christmas (it’s been a busy year for me!).

tales by light netflix title card

My Netflix marathon included the beautiful shot and incredibly inspiring docuseries; Tales by Light. Exploring the lives and work of renowned photographers, this series was originally made in partnership with National Geographic and Canon — and to say it is inspiring is an understatement.

Most gripping for me were the first two episodes of series 2, which featured ‘The Big Cat People‘; Angela and Jonathan Scott. Titled Sacred Nature, after the beautiful coffee table photography book the couple released last year, the episodes followed them through the Masaai Mara on their mission to photograph a female cheetah chasing down a kill. The episode also sees the pair revisiting the Marsh Pride from the famous Big Cat Week to photograph a relative of the poisoned lioness, Sienna, and Bella the leopard‘s granddaughter.

tales by light sacred nature on netflix

Watching the series has inspired me to pursue my interest in wildlife photography. Last year I attended a wildlife photography course at Woodbury Wetlands in London and each year I’m inspired by the incredible work on display at the Natural History Museum‘s Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition.

So it feels like time to reignite a forgotten love and consider storytelling through photography as well as words.

I’ve always enjoyed capturing the expressions of wild animals, such as these beautiful cheetahs I photographed in South Africa, and I hope to highlight the conservation issues that animals face by better utilising photography as a medium to inspire. Sadly we end 2017 with calls for cheetahs to be listed as an endangered species, with fewer than 7,100 remaining in the wild. When I look back over these pictures, the thought of losing these beautiful creatures makes me feel genuinely heartbroken.

Photography is such a powerful tool for documenting rare and surprising animal encounters. Perhaps, unexpectedly, one of the rarest wildlife finds I’ve ever photographed is this Southern African hedgehog, pictured at Shamwari Game Reserve on the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Spotted on a night drive and lifted into the beams of the Land Rover headlights, this little hedgehog was the first of its species to be seen in the reserve in around 10 years! Very little is known about the creatures in the wild.

As Jonathan Scott acknowledges in Tales by Light; photography is about capturing the perfect moment and for him, that means knowing where to be, which can take years of getting to know the area and understanding the animals being photographed. Possibly my favourite take away point from the episode is Angela Scott‘s statement that “photography is an extraordinary art because you can see these moments that only you see and you just want to share them and say ‘look at this, isn’t it beautiful? This is the world we live in.”

Bird photography by Kate on Conservation

Photography can also be a perfect way to highlight the difference between wild and captivity. Consider the fact that both the photo above and the one below show a bird sitting on a branch; but the use of light (soft sunlit silhouette compared with harsh spotlight in a aviary) help convey a sense of vast, open freedom compared with the impression of a shallow, flatter image to convey a sense of confinement.

Perhaps my favourite sequence of photos I’ve taken so far is the tale of this lonely elephant walking alongside the watering hole. To me the images represent a terrifying future — one where, if we do not act to secure a ban on the sale of ivory in the UK, we could see the last elephant of the species walks alone into extinction.

elephant resting in the sunTo end with good news, however, as 2017 ticked away, the historic Ivory Ban in China entered into force on the 31 December. All commercial sales and processing of elephant ivory are now illegal in China.

And as if to kickstart my motivation in learning more about wildlife photography, my photograph was picked up by BBC Earth and has received over 10,000 likes!

Happy new year and best blessings for 2018!

kate on conservation logo

Learn more about photography for conservation: