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Gorillas in the wild; and how to help them stay that way! — Guest post by Dan Richardson

Last month saw the exciting announcement that the Remembering Wildlife book series, responsible for the highly acclaimed Remembering Elephants and Remembering Rhinos titles, will be dedicating this year’s follow up book to Great apes. To date, the Remembering Wildlife series has raised more than £275,000 for the conservation of its highlighted species. Here, Ambassador to the book series, Dan Richardson, talks about his recent trip to Africa with Remembering Wildlife Founder Margot Raggett; his thoughts on the profound experience of seeing great apes in the wild and shares some of his incredible photographs from the encounters.

Gorilla eyes, Rwanda, photo by Dan Richardson

Rwanda and her people are truly astounding. Apart from the incredible wildlife, particularly the gorillas — which were the primary reason for being there — it’s a country that’s utterly unique in Africa.

The progressiveness would be quite an achievement for any country anywhere in the world, but for one with a recent history as dark as Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, it’s absolutely remarkable.

There’s a lot I need to learn about the Rwanda and how they’ve come from such tragedy to where they are today, but it’s certainly a fascinating country, and one I’ll definitely be visiting again.

Great ape species are in terrible trouble in many places, but they aren’t perhaps as iconic or immediately obvious as the likes of elephant, rhino and lion.

I travelled to Africa with Margot Raggett, Founder of Remembering Wildlife to close the loop on some rhino conservation projects that had been funded through the Remembering Rhinos book, via the Born Free Foundation.

That was the retrospective part of the trip, and then looking ahead, we made plans to encounter some great apes, including gorillas, in the wild.

I’m an ambassador for Margot’s wonderful series of books. Great apes being the next in the series (following Remembering Rhinos and Remembering Elephants. It’s a really fantastic idea and it emphasises Margot’s determination to put attention where it’s needed, where it might not automatically go.

What Margot achieves with her books, in terms of raising both funds and awareness, is exemplary and invaluable. The prestigiousness of the campaign and the traction it has already gained in the conservation world is indicative of that.

My role is basically to use whatever platform I have to shine a little more light on Margot’s extraordinary work and it is such a great honour to do that and to be involved with the Remembering Wildlife series in any way.

Remembering Great Apes - cover photo by Nelis Wolmarans

Remembering Great Apes – Cover photo by Nelis Wolmarans

The first time I saw great apes in the wild was in Tanzania, just a few days before going to Rwanda. Specifically, I was at an unimaginably beautiful lodge called Greystoke Mahale in the Mahale Mountains National Park to see chimpanzees. This is a genuinely wild and completely isolated place on the edge of Lake Tanganyika. It’s like going back in time. No roads, no people, nothing but pure, unadulterated nature.

The trek to get to see chimps was a fairly arduous one — apparently about two hours or so of steep incline — but I was so gripped by the surroundings that it went pretty quickly. There’s no guarantee of actually reaching or seeing them, and that’s exactly as it should be. But the feeling upon first setting sight, and as it turned out, hearing, them was sheer elation.

There’s something surreally beautiful about being so far out there in totally unspoiled nature and coming across a family of these incredible, sentient creatures living wild and free. It’s all added to massively by the fact that they look right back, I mean really look at you. It’s quite extraordinary.

With the chimpanzees all visitors are required to wear a surgical mask, to protect the chimps from our illnesses as opposed to the other way around.

There are also rules relating to the distance that must be maintained. This varies from place to place and species to species but whatever it is, the guides keep a close eye on that and instruct you to move back if necessary.

Of course the apes don’t know or care about the rules so every once in a while a very close encounter can happen…as was the case with me with both chimps and gorillas.

They are free to roam far and wide, and they do. Unsurprisingly they can move significantly faster and more efficiently than we humans, so it’s good to know any encounter is always on their terms to that extent.

Observing these wonderful animals is done very respectfully by keeping groups small and limiting time with the animals to a maximum of one hour a day — that’s if you even find them in the first place.

Even at the required distance though, seeing these creatures in their natural habitat and having the privilege of spending a little time with them is absolutely unforgettable. I was moved to tears by it more than once.

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Great apes in captivity

I’m vehemently against any captivity and have been since long before seeing gorillas, or any other species, in the wild. Despite what some establishments claim about creating an environment as close to natural as possible, this is simply never achieved.

Not that it should be necessary, but when you spend a bit of time in the mountain forests and experience the vastness first-hand, seeing the ability these animals have to move freely over such huge distances, you understand in no uncertain terms just how far off the mark captivity really is, how cruel it is. It’s not comparable. Not remotely.

Gorilla mother and baby photographed in the wild in Rwanda, how it should be.

There are a very limited number of exceptions where, for example, a certain animal may be in some form of captivity for genuinely unavoidable reasons. Animals born into and rescued from a ‘life’ in the circus, for instance. An animal like that will either end up in a sanctuary or be put to sleep because release into the wild simply isn’t an option for an animal that has no idea how to be wild.

In those instances it has to be about the welfare of the animal before anything else, and it’s easy to tell the difference. A true sanctuary doesn’t involve a stream of gawping tourists with flash cameras.

In the case of gorillas, it’s glaringly obvious that zoos in cities around the world don’t hold gorillas captive in the name of sanctuary or conservation. They do so because they draw a crowd and help the zoo to turn a profit.

The outdated ‘education’ argument also falls flat.

We live in a world of high definition TV’s and award-winning, ground-breaking documentaries, any of which will teach you more about the natural behaviour of an animal than any zoo could ever do, just as you wouldn’t learn much about natural human behaviour by observing a person confined to a prison cell.

Whether it’s gorillas we’re talking about or any other species, it seems to me that at some point in history we humans got so caught up with what we could do that we stopped asking ourselves whether we should.

I just hope with all my heart, for the sake of the countless animals suffering such a miserable fate, that humans evolve beyond the unthinkable selfishness of captivity.

Similarly to the other titles in the series, the production of the Remembering Great Apes book will be funded by a Kickstarter campaign: Click here to make a pledge

 

Dan Richardson

Dan Richardson is an actor, wildlife activist and proud vegan. A Patron of Born Free Foundation and Voices For Asian Elephants Society and an Ambassador for International Aid for the Protection & Welfare of Animals (IAPWA), Angels For The Innocent and Remembering Wildlife; Dan is a prolific animal advocate and passionate fundraiser for charities supporting animals both wild and domestic. Follow his incredible work online here.

Uniting some of the world’s best wildlife photographers to raise funds for the protection of these species in the wild; this book will represent chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos and will be guest edited by great ape expert Ian Redmond OBE

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National Geographic’s next generation of photographers

It’s no secret that I love photography. I also love ‘conservation education‘, so hearing that the UK edition of National Geographic Kids magazine has announced its overall winner of the National Geographic Photography Contest for Kids 2016 — I had to find out more.

NG Kids magazine UK

I recently covered the Natural History Museum‘s Wildlife Photographer of the Year winners, and find it pretty exciting to think that, one day, one of the children entered into Nat Geo Kids’ competition might find themselves among the elite photographers whose work adorns the walls of the NHM in this prestigious competition. Especially as this year’s overall winner — chosen by judges wildlife presenter Michaela Strachan and renowned National Geographic photographer Reza — belonged to the ‘Amazing Animals‘ category of the children’s photography competition.

Overall winner

Ten-year-old Asher Flenner, from North London, scooped the prestigious award with this photograph of a brown and green anole lizard, entitled Anole on the Netting.

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He snapped the tiny brown and green anole (the size of a child’s thumb) sunbathing on the swimming pool netting while on his holidays in Florida. These little lizards have quite a temper, so Asher had to get close and zoom in without scaring him.

I agree with judge Reza, that the combination of opposing elements that make up this image make it quite fascinating.

“This, for me, is an artwork,” said Reza. “The photographer has chosen to capture these two elements — the plastic net, which is part of modern life, and this animal, which is as old as the dinosaurs. It’s just a genius work.”

“The symmetrical squares make it a very interesting picture,” added Michaela. “It’s aesthetically pleasing and I love that he’s chosen a lizard.”

Category winners

Weird but True

Another fascinating and unusual creature snapped on a manmade surface (this time a car windscreen); I love the strangeness of this snap, titled Hitchin’ a Windscreen Ride and all its minute detail.

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Taken by 12-year-old Thomas Grattoni-May from North Yorkshire, this image was announced as winner of the ‘Weird but True‘ category.

On a family holiday to Alberta, Canada, Thomas noticed this ‘alien-like’ bug on the windscreen of their car, and grabbed his mum’s camera to take a shot. Even after they started to drive away, it clung on, its long antennae blowing in the wind.

Dare to Explore

I absolutely adore this photo by 10-year-old Megan Davies. Called ‘Living on the Edge‘, for me, the picture shows that great wildlife photography doesn’t have to be snapped in exotic foreign locations; as Megan too this shot at the bottom of her garden, in Trefonen.

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Living on the Edge won the Dare to Explore category. Megan thought this little snail looked like it was exploring when she photographed it on a dewy Autumn morning.

Wild Vacation

Eleven-year-old Joshua Ritchie from Dublin won the ‘Wild Vacation‘ category of the competition with this snap, which wouldn’t look out of place in National Geographic Traveller Magazine.

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Titled Walk On, the image shows neat rows of sandals belonging to Buddhist nuns. The nuns had removed them before going inside to eat their dinner. Joshua snapped the intriguing picture while on an exciting holiday in Myanmar, South East Asia.

Tim Herbert, Editor of National Geographic Kids, revealed: “We had nearly 2,000 entries this year and, once again, I’ve been astounded by the quality of submissions. There are so manytalented young photographers out there!Asher’sphoto of thattiny lizard isan extraordinary shot and a worthy winner, but our judges had a tough task going through all the other wonderful images. Well done to everyone who entered this year’s competition!”

The photos taken by Asher, Thomas, Megan and Joshua will all be entered into the National Geographic International Photography Contest for Kids. Their pictures will be representing the UK and Ireland as they compete against other readers from other editions of National Geographic Kids from around the world.

Best of luck to these talented shutterbugs!

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2016 — My top 10 picks

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London is one of my new favourite ways to escape city life and immerse myself in the splendour of the natural world.

In March this year I had my first opportunity to visit the annual exhibition (then displaying the finalists of the 2015 competition), and was blown away by, not only seeing the incredible images up close and displayed together so thoughtfully, but by the wealth of wildlife-related issues, crimes and political traditions that they explored. Returning again for the 2016 display, I wasn’t disappointed!img_4804

Upon entering the gallery (situated in a different part of the museum building this year), visitors are greeted with the sentiment that it is the Natural History Museum’s mission ‘to challenge the way that people think about the natural world—by exploring the origins of life on Earth, showcasing our planet’s biodiversity and questioning our impact on the environment to build a sustainable future.’

The entry board so accurately describes the exhibition as a powerful visual reflection of a shared ambition to inspire change. I must admit that it certainly gave me plenty of food for thought as every caption provided an important opportunity for mapping out the relevance of each image to the overall goal of the Natural History Museum, which states that proceeds from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year ticket sales will go towards supporting the work of their 300 research scientists and the care of their 80 million specimen-strong collection.

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My top 10 standout images from this year; the ones that really captured my heart and imagination (though ALL are worth seeing and appreciating for their craft!) are as follows:

10. The pangolin pit by Paul Hilton

wildlife-photographer-of-the-year-2016-9Winner of the single image photojournalist award this year, Hilton’s photograph tells a shocking story of the world’s most trafficked animal; the pangolin. Given Appendix 1 protection at CITES this year, the pangolin is killed for its meat (a symbol of status) and for its scales, which are used in traditional Asian medicine. These 4,000 dead pangolins were photographed in shipping container probably destined for China or Vietnam.

9. Requiem for an owl by Mats Andersson

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This sombre snap captures a pygmy owl known to the photographer, alone against the moonlight having recently lost its mate. The photographer describes observing the pair and felt the photograph reflected his own sadness at the loss. Thought to have been targeted by a larger owl defending its territory, this owl was later also found dead.

8. Giant-killer by Ralph Pacewildlife-photographer-of-the-year-2016-1

I love the bizarre look of the battle between this California sea lion and ocean sunfish; the world’s heaviest bony fish. Though this is only a youngster, the sunfish still looks pretty huge! I hadn’t realised that sea lions tackle such large prey until seeing this photo.

7. Hanger-trap by Bence Mátéwildlife-photographer-of-the-year-2016-8

A poignant reminder of the impact that plastic pollution can have on local wildlife. Photographer Bence Máté described seeing this black-headed gull for two more days after this photo was taken, with the plastic hanger still attached to its foot. After that, it seemed to have disappeared.

6. Wild West stand-off by Charlie Hamilton James.

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When viewing this epic photograph my first thought was that it wouldn’t look out of place in a giant ornate frame on the wall of a stately home somewhere. I initially wondered whether it was comprised of many different frames, pieced together in a technique I’ve seen used on the cover of National Geographic Magazine before, but it turns out that it was captured by a camera trap left in location at Yellowstone National Park for six months. This perfect shot was found in amongst the 200,000 images that the camera had captured.

5. Rig diver by Alex Mustard

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I love this picture for the dramatic scale and colours. The sheer number of fish and the imposing, shadowy figure of the cormorant convey a sense of foreboding. It also challenged me to think about an environment in a new light, which is the sure sign of an impressive piece of photojournalism; the oil rig is providing a unique opportunity for shelter and food for sea birds. I’d previously only ever thought of oil rigs as negatively affecting the wildlife around it.

4. The alley cat by Nayan Khanolkar

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Winner of the ‘Urban’ category of the awards, this stunning photo by Nayan Khanolkar, captured using a camera trap, shows a leopard stalking through the shadowy streets of Mumbai. To me, this was a particularly important addition to the exhibition, as it really highlighted human-leopard co-existence. Wildlife being forced to co-exist alongside humans in manmade environments is something that we will continue to see more of thanks to continued urban sprawl. Though the often elusive leopard is one of most persecuted big cats in the world, the city in which it has been photographed here, regards their secretive neighbour with high respect; accepting its place in their lives and culture.

3. The disappearing fish by Iago Leonardo

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This photograph looks so perfect that it almost seems unreal, like a manmade collage. But in fact, the image was captured using natural lighting by Leonardo, who was free-diving around Contoy Island; a protected area that requires special permission to dive. The ghostly, glass-like fish at the top of the frame are called lookdowns, and their impressive silvery scales make them appear almost invisible. I love this image for its composition and the incredible juxtaposition of colours and textures of the two types of fish.

2. Night blow by Audun Rikardsen

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A stunning photograph that captures such a wonderful sense of mood and atmosphere; viewing this dramatic image up on the screen in the dark the exhibition room really made me feel chilly. One can imagine the ferociously icy conditions that photographer Audun Rikardsen must have endured in the six hours he spent in a boat on the nighttime polar water, waiting to snap this perfect shot. His undeterred patience certainly paid off.

1. The aftermath by Simon Stafford

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I’ve chosen Simon Stafford’s image as my favourite of this year’s finalists, as the dramatic shot reveals a rarely-seen side to a story we all know so well. Lots of natural history documentaries make the annual wildebeest migration across the Mara River the subject of their stories, but very few tell the tale of ‘the aftermath’, following a stampede. Here, spotted hyena make the most of the gully full of dead wildebeest, trampled in the stampede: scavenging every morsel of meat, and even bone, leaving just the horns of the deceased wildebeest in their wake. This photography was a worthy winner of the ‘Mammals’ category.

Photo journalism category: Winning photo stories

As well as selecting a single photograph as the overall winner of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, the panel of the judges, lead by author and creative director Lewis Blackwell (Chair of the jury), also select a winning photo essay from the ‘Story’ category of the competition.

This year, there were two joint ‘Story’ winners; Vultures: circling calamity and While the forest still stands.

Vultures: circling calamity by Charlie Hamilton James

wildlife-photographer-of-the-year-vulture-photo-essayThis photo essay examines the wide-ranging threats to Africa’s vulture population; one of the fastest declining groups of animal in the world. Half of all species of vulture in Africa are now endangered, with numbers predicted to fall by another 70 to 97% over the next 50 years. This photo essay tells the story of the vultures, their importance to the ecosystem, the effect of poisoning, poaching and human conflict (such as traffic) and what’s being done to help the species. An important addition to the exhibition.

While the forest still stands by Tim Laman

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Tim Laman has used his photo story as an opportunity to showcase the lives and cultures of Borneo’s orang-utans and their fight for survival against human conflict, such as deforestation to make way for palm oil plantations. He studies their engagement with their habitat, the way that mothers bond with and teach their young, and their desperate plight to flee the forest fires, which are a common method used to clear the forests to make way for the production of palm oil crops.

Overall competition winner

This year’s overall Wildlife Photographer of the Year winner is Entwined lives by Tim Laman. It features in the above mentioned While the forest still stands photo story and shows an impressive view of a young male climbing high above the canopy top to feast upon figs. It was shot using a GoPro camera positioned in the treetops and triggered from the ground.

wildlife-photographer-of-the-year-orangutan-winnerLewis Blackwell, Chair of the jury’s comment: “A vital story is captured in one remarkable frame as this orang-utan climbs an emergent tree in its ever-dwindling habitat. The story is well-known, but we need outstanding photography like this to bring it across to us afresh. It touches our hearts and our minds – and just might help support actions to stop the destruction.”

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The Wildlife Photographer of the Year’s 52nd exhibition is on at the Natural History Museum now and includes many, many more striking and impressive pictures than the handful I have picked out here.

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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.

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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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UK Blog Awards 2016 — Kate on Conservation, Highly Commended!

Energy. Energy was flowing (even more so than the free Prosecco) as some of the best storytellers, communicators and leaders of trends gathered together in Westminster for the UK Blog Awards 2016 on Friday.

The UK Blog Awards provide a unique opportunity for individuals to be recognised for their social media achievements through blogging; they provide recognition with a chance to network and be inspired by other industry bloggers, as well as connect with new audiences.

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What a surreal honour it was to find myself among such a high calibre of writers — not to attend lecture or panel talk, as I often do, to hear the words of those more wise and worldly thank myself — but as an equal; myself a Finalist in this prestigious competition.

This year’s Finals were particularly special, as the UK Blog Awards introduced a new section, expanding beyond its fashion, beauty, lifestyle, marketing and PR norms to include Green & Eco (under which conservation falls), so even this in itself feels like positive progression in my eyes.

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For me, this was the most important part of the evening — that so many important issues had the opportunity to be showcased. There were so many fantastic and meaningful blogs to discover!

I’m an avid follower of blogger Wildlife Kate, who blogs about her Staffordshire garden and the wildlife that visits there, so I was honoured to find myself in the Finalist list alongside her. Kate also keeps a blog for Michael Drayton Junior School about using wildlife to learn, which was Highly Commended in the Education Category! Well done Kate!

Meeting fellow blogger Wildlife Kate

Meeting fellow blogger Wildlife Kate

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My aim has never been to be a ‘blogger’, the goal when I started this was to be a campaigner and educator, spreading the word on things I felt weren’t receiving the coverage they should have been, and to inspire younger people to take an interest in the need for conservation.

By admitting my own misconceptions and ignorance at times (I’ve visited SeaWorld, petted a lion, seen elephants perform in Indonesia…), I have hopefully struck a different note, a passive voice who speaks from experience, but has now become knowledgeable enough to trust: and my blog follows that journey into knowledge and education.

I began my blogging as part of a university course, which required that I create four different types of post during the semester. I was asked, when I pitched my idea to the class, whether there would be enough to write about on the topic of conservation to fill the semester. Five years later, I continue to write regular updates on the site, have met some of my biggest idols and inspirations to discuss world-changing issues, and have done my best to spread the word on compassionate conservation; that is, to use cases and examples of individuals to promote a bigger conservation message.

Even so, the surprise that this one-time reluctant blogger felt when UK Blog Awards’ host for the evening, Kate Russell, announced I’d been Highly Commended by judges Miranda Johnson (Environmental Correspondent for The Economist) and Iain Patton (Founder and Director of Ethical Team) was tremendous! Especially to be recognised alongside the incredible work of Wildlife Gadget Man Jason Alexander, and category Winner: Make Wealth History!

Highly commended

What an honour! This truly is a one-woman site, with posts being constructed in my spare time around busy working hours. It’s entirely not for profit, no sponsors or advertising revenue, so to go so far in this competition sincerely means a lot to me, and gives a further purpose to all those hours dedicated to bringing important conservation and wildlife issues to light.

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Thank you so much to all those who voted for me in the earlier stages of this competition, and to all those who’ve enjoyed being on this journey with me —who’ve found information, comfort, or even challenge in some of the posts I’ve written (I try to blog from the heart, with honesty and integrity — I understand that people may not always agree with my views, and as with many issues and solutions, there are various schools of thought as to ‘best practice’ when it comes to conservation).

As humans though, it is our responsibility and indeed duty to maintain and protect our planet’s wildlife and its environment. It is our duty to sustain the areas of nature that we, as a species, have largely caused the decline and endangerment of. Although putting our efforts into conservation sadly cannot reverse the destruction that our planet has already undergone, we can however, preserve and repair that which we are left with.

Imagine a world where a lion’s roar can never be heard rumbling across the plains of Africa.

Imagine that those plains once filled with colourful birds, galloping antelope and chattering monkeys will one day lie quiet and desolate.

Imagine that the only way our children or grandchildren may see those animals is from pictures in a book. Only we can make the choice of whether we continue to have these beautiful animals in our world, or whether we will stand back and watch them disappear. I want my blog to become a source material for documenting all the positive ways we are making change, and to become a diary of the turning points in conservation during my lifetime.

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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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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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The Elephant in the Room

To me, the best kind of an education comes from something that moves you. Something that stays with you long after you first discover or encounter it, and leaves you wanting to take action. Sometimes that action may simply be learning more, delving into this newfound knowledge further, to see what other unknowns may be uncovered. And other times, it leaves you wanting to change the world.

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#Elefilm

That’s exactly how I felt when I finished watching student-produced documentary The Elephant in the Room.

Providing a deeply moving look at the plight of elephants kept in solitary zoo conditions (an issue I already have an opinion on), the confronting images of The Elephant in the Room, made in association with Born Free Films, echo the critically acclaimed scenes of Blackfish – and are certainly as harrowing.

Gaining internet popularity under the hash tag: #Elefilm, the 13 and a half min long documentary, narrated by Born Free Founder Virginia McKenna OBE, explores the damaging industry of zoos in the context of what we now know about elephant psychology and behaviour – and the findings highlighted are heart-breakingly deserving of the 13 minutes it takes to watch the film, and the challenging questions that the 20,000 people who have already viewed the short documentary must have been left asking themselves, about what we are doing in the name of tourism and misinterpreted ‘education’.

If education is about truth, as I believe it to be, then The Elephant in the Room is far more of an education than looking through the cold metal bars of a concrete-floored pen, at an animal that displays none of its natural behaviours and instincts. If #Elefilm has left me with anything, it’s the realisation that these kinds of environments will never truly teach us anything about what wildlife is really like.

Belonging to the same herd

Inspired by a Born Free Foundation report entitled, ‘Innocent Prisoner’, the group of nature-loving film makers behind the documentary, traveled from the UK to California in the USA, Romania and Norway to complete filming, drawing upon the knowledge and experiences of experts working within several world-altering charities – albeit if these organisations are altering the world just one animal, and one changed opinion, at a time. Whilst these locations and sources of education are ones I hugely respect, one of the most exciting discoveries about this film, on a personal level, was that it was created as a University of Hertfordshire Film – meaning the team behind it were students of the very university I graduated from last year! How exciting to learn that this highly impassioned and powerful project could come from such close proximity! I caught up with the documentary’s Producer & Assistant Editor Amanda Gardner and Director & Editor Tariq Chow to find out more about the motivation behind the film …

What was your inspiration behind making the film?

Every member of our team has a strong passion for animals – together we had already completed another film called ‘Catastrophe’ which discussed the problems cat shelters are currently facing in the UK. At the start of the pre-production process, we came across an article ‘Innocent Prisoner’ on the Born Free website, which talked about there being over 40 elephants living on their own in captivity across Europe. We decided that we would make this the main topic of our film, as we felt that it was an issue that not many people were currently aware of.

What kinds of processes were involved? Were there any particular highlights for you?  

The main processes involved in making The Elephant in the Room were locating and interviewing specialists and experts in the animal welfare field and travelling abroad to four different locations to capture footage – UK, Romania, Norway and California USA. We also spent a lot of time and detail on writing the narration, editing the clips together and creating the soundtrack and animation. One of the main aims of the film was trying to convey the correct message to the audience in regards to how we can help these elephants living in solitary confinement. One of the main highlights of filming The Elephant in the Room was travelling to America to visit the ARK 2000 Sanctuary, where elephants have been re-homed from zoos and circuses to live out the rest of their lives in peace.

Were there any particular challenges in creating the documentary?

One of the main challenges in making the film was trying to choose the most poignant footage to use in order to convey the correct message to the audience.

How did you manage to get Born Free Foundation on board?

We managed to get the Born Free Foundation on board through a series of processes, including sending over a proposal which discussed the main outline of the film and also talking through our ideas and reasons for creating the documentary. We were extremely fortunate to get the Born Free Foundation on board – we could not have made The Elephant in the Room without their advice and support.

What kind of successes has the film had since completion?

Since its completion, The Elephant in the Room has won the ITV award at the University of Hertfordshire’s Vision’s Festival. It has also received over 12,000 views on Youtube and 5,000 views on Vimeo. We have also held a private screening of our film at the Warner Bros. De Lane Lea sound studios, attended by representatives from the film industry, the national press and the animal welfare industry. Virginia McKenna OBE was also in attendance, alongside her son and President of the Born Free Foundation, Will Travers.

What are your hopes and aims for it here on in?

We hope the message will spread further in regards to the problems of elephants living in solitary confinement. In would be fantastic for my team and I to develop the film into a feature length documentary.

Image courtesy https://www.facebook.com/elefilm

Screening of The Elephant in the Room. Image courtesy:
https://www.facebook.com/elefilm

Marching towards a common goal

I couldn’t finish our chat without asking perhaps the most important question of all, that surely brings together the whole purpose of making the film, the charity work it is highlighting and of course the reason for the existence of this blog itself. What do you hope is the future for elephants? Amanda tells me the hope is that all elephants living in zoos, particularly those living in solitary confinement, can move to a sanctuary where they can live out the rest of their lives in peace, and that no more elephants are taken from the wild in order to live in a zoo or circus.

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Still from the documentary. Image courtesy elefilm.eu

Important info:

The Elephant in the Room is in association with Born Free Films and is narrated by Virginia McKenna OBE. Crew – Amanda Gardner (Producer & Assistant Editor), Tariq Chow (Writer, Director & Editor), Matthew Buckner (Sound, Music & Animation) and Emma Peirson-Hagger (Camera & Lighting). To watch the film and for more information, please visit; www.elefilm.eu

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A lifelong love of animals

After a busy few weeks in the grips of Summer holidays and mid summer magazine deadlines, I’ve accidentally found myself re-visiting where my passions and influences stemmed from.

I’ve been looking over old work and ways in which I’ve incorporated my passion for conservation into my passion for media communication, which I’ve found myself doing for the purpose of organising a series of photos that I hope depict the nature of zoos. It’s been a fascinating experience of reflecting, and I’ve come to the conclusion that when you’re an ambitious person, you can become so focused on making steps forward that you can forget to take a look back once in a while , to remember how far you’ve come and why…

Cheetah Conservation

I think the seeds of my ambition were sown when I was around the age of 14. Somehow ideas of being a journalist (or as I quite arrogantly like to position myself; an educational story teller) had entered my head at a very young age – perhaps from the days where my nan had taken me down to her local newsagent-cum-grocers just down the road from her front door, handed me a couple of coins and told me I could pick any one of the “comics” to take home.

I’d stand for ages, fussed over by the gentle old couple that ran the little independent store; just staring at all the colourful glossy pages until the two pound coins in my palm were warm by the time the decision was made and I finally handed them over. I usually opted for a Disney-owned children’s magazine called Big Time, in case you were wondering.

But it was at the age of 14 that the first of my own articles was published. I rushed into WHSmith the same morning that the magazine hit the shelves, only a humble regional magazine, but a magazine that I could open up and feel the buzz of seeing my own name, nonetheless. And the article topic? A local wildlife park.

A featured photograph of a serval critiqued in Photography Monthly magazine followed, and I was hooked.

To add to this, I’ve also recently unearthed my old A-Level photography project – based on the concept of freedom. I think exploring the thought processes of my 17 year old self, just months away from making my well-planned trip to Shamwari is teaching me that my passions, interests and ambitions have long been mixed and entwined, and – hopefully – long will they be.

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I’m sure there will be more to follow on this musing – there’s probably some great purpose for re-connecting with this thought, and may some divine intervention will come along to prove that, but in the mean time – here’s that series of photos I mentioned:

Through Captive Eyes.

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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.

Wildscape

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.”