Archive for the ‘photography’ Tag

Tracking British Columbia’s secretive sea wolf   1 comment

October 1, 2015

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Two wolves run on the beach, exploring the tidal zone for meals.

Two wolves run on the beach, exploring the tidal zone for meals. (Photo: Paul Nicklen)

When we hear the word “wolf” nearly every one of us will think of wolves in a forest. Perhaps in our mind’s eye, we see a pack of wolves chasing down an elk or bison in Yellowstone, or monitoring a herd of caribou in Alaska, looking for the weakest link. But what we likely don’t think of is a wolf standing in an estuary stream catching salmon, or strolling along a beach poking through washed-up kelp for barnacles and other morsels to eat.

Yet that is exactly what happens among a very specific population of wolves living on the coastal islands of British Columbia. These wolves don’t hunt deer, in fact many may go their whole lives without ever seeing a deer. Instead, they rely on what the tide brings in. Fish roe, crustaceans, seals and washed-up whales are common meals for these wolves, which have been named sea wolves for their reliance on the ocean for food.

They are entirely unique and with behaviors that have scientists fascinated, but they are also heavily persecuted by humans. Between this and a future threatened by climate change, the outlook for these wolves is tenuous at best.

PHOTOS TO INSPIRE: 6 animals with strong family bonds

Photographers Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier recently went on assignment for National Geographic, spending weeks in the field crouched in a blind to photograph the intimate lives of these secretive wolves. We spoke with them about their experience, as well as what the average person can do to help preserve a highly unique and little-understood population.

Coastal rain wolves live on the outer Islands of the BC coast. Wolves on these Islands live on a very diverse selection of food including deer, chitons in the intertidal zone.

Coastal rain wolves live on the outer Islands of the BC coast. Wolves on these Islands live on a very diverse selection of food including deer, chitons in the intertidal zone. (Photo: Paul Nicklen)

MNN: You spent weeks on the ground, waiting for sightings of a pack of wolves. What was it like the very first time you laid eyes on them?

CM and PN: We arrived on a remote island off the coast of British Columbia where we knew a couple of wolves had been sighted. We used our zodiac (small raft) to circumnavigate the island — a journey that took about 1.5 hours, until we sighted paw prints on the sand. The trick for us was to predict the patterns, trails and times the wolves were patrolling certain beaches, and to try to be there before them.

The first time we saw them it was a total fluke. We landed the zodiac on a beach and as Paul and Oren went up a stream to check things out, I stayed with the zodiac and was utterly surprised when one of the wolves came trotting out of the bushes. A small, slender female, she was completely calm and she just kept trotting my way until she was just 30 feet away.

At the same time, Paul and Oren rounded the corner of the stream and came into the open beach. Now the wolf was in between us. Instead of panicking, she just sat on her haunches, did a long, lazy stretch and then just went back the same way she had come from.

It was a comedy of errors, in which the wolf played its part and we, as photographers, fumbled and made mistakes and ended up with only mediocre pictures of a perfectly lovely encounter.

You had the unique opportunity to watch wild wolf pups hang out with their family. What was it like to witness the family structure of the wolves?

What we found was a pack of five pups being watched by a single adult female, presumably their mother. When pups are young, the entire pack helps take care of them. All the members bring food to the mother, who has to stay with the young pups. On this occasion, the pack must have been out hunting and when night fell and we had to leave, they still had not returned.

The next morning, when we returned to the beach, the pups were gone, so presumably the pack returned and they all moved on to another den site.

A mother and pups on the beach is a rare sight for anyone, and these photographers put in their dues to be able to witness it.

A mother and pups on the beach is a rare sight for anyone, and these photographers put in their dues to be able to witness it. (Photo: Cristina Mittermeier)

You two spent weeks in a tiny blind, waiting for opportunities to photograph the wolves. What do you do to stay, you know, sane?

Working in the blind gave me a whole new level of respect and admiration for photographers who specialize in wildlife. We spent a total of 28 days working from this blind, and it was hard.

The first few days were fun and busy as we selected the site and slowly and carefully set out to build the blind. One has to work slowly and early in the morning as not to disturb things. We laid a tarp on the ground to keep ourselves dry.

Unfortunately, the material crinkled and made noise every time we moved, so we had to remain really still. This meant stiff muscles and boredom. To pass the time we rnd a lot of time together. It teaches you a lot about a partner, when you have to be jammed in a small space and unable to move or talk for long periods of time. I have to say I enjoy Paul’s company very much.

Three wolf pups play with a piece of kelp.

Three wolf pups play with a piece of kelp. (Photo: Cristina Mittermeier)

Why these wolves? What sets them apart so much from other wolves as an extra concern for conservation?

The wolves of British Columbia are very different from any other wolves we have ever encountered. Unlike the gray wolves of the BC interior or the much larger timber wolves, rain wolves or sea wolves as they are known are small and dainty.

Unlike any other wolves, these ones don’t mind swimming between islands, sometimes for long distances but what truly sets them apart is the fact that over 70 percent of their diet is marine. They patrol the beach during low tide and eat mussels, clams and other marine life.

They are also very adept at hunting for salmon as the fish make their way up forest streams. Most impressively, they are able to hunt seals and sea lions.

These wolves are specialists in the meals that are available along a coastline.

These wolves are specialists in the meals that are available along a coastline. (Photo: Paul Nicklen)

Which is the most pressing concern to the future of these coastal island wolves?

Very little is known about them and preliminary DNA studies by scientist Chris Darimont from the University of Victoria indicate they might be a distinct race or even a subspecies.

For us, the real driver, however, is the fact that these fascinating animals are not protected by provincial or federal laws and people are not only allowed, but encouraged to kill them.

They are so curious and their habit of patrolling the beach exposes them to the danger of shooters who can spot them from boats.

The coastal island wolves are used to getting their feet wet for a meal.

The coastal island wolves are used to getting their feet wet for a meal. (Photo: Paul Nicklen)

What can the average reader do right this minute to help protect coastal wolves?

One of our partner organizations, Pacific Wild, a small NGO based in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, is doing a lot of work to make authorities more aware of the ecological and indeed, the cultural importance of these animals.

The recent approval of a plan to slaughter 400 wolves in central BC makes it even more imperative to encourage the drafting of some laws that offer some protection.

Pacific Wild has gathered almost 200,000 signatures in a petition to the Premier of BC, Christy Clark to protect rain wolves. Supporting such a petition, opposing the wanton slaughter of wildlife, and educating themselves about the impacts of recreational hunting of apex predators is the best things people can do.

***

Find out more about Nicklen and Mittermeier’s conservation work at SeaLegacy, a nonprofit working to document the planet’s fragile marine ecosystems and inspire advocacy for their protection.

By: Jaymi Heimbuch

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“This is a war”: A conflict photographer takes on the rapidly escalating poaching crisis – Salon.com   1 comment

“This is a war”: A conflict photographer takes on the rapidly escalating poaching crisis – Salon.com.

"This is a war": A conflict photographer takes on the rapidly escalating poaching crisis

(Credit: Screenshot, Kate Brooks/Kickstarter)

Poaching is really happening all over the continent, so one doesn’t really have to go very far, unfortunately, to find it. And I don’t know if you saw any of the reports that have come out in the last couple of days…

About the elephants? I wanted to ask you about that.

Yeah, the National Academy of Sciences just published a substantiated report stating that 100,000 elephants have been killed over the past three years. While many people believed those were roughly the numbers, they weren’t substantiated until this report came out. So the situation is dire for wildlife across Africa.

A lot of the coverage of poaching, and the effort to stop it, refers to it as a war. Based on what you’ve seen and your past experience, is that be an apt description?

What you’re seeing, I think, are landscapes that are increasingly militarized in an effort to deter poachers. I think it is generally fair to say this is a war and there are people being killed in the process, whether those are rangers or poachers. And even if they’re poachers, it has pretty significant effects on the social fabric of society. Because very often the people carrying out the actual poaching are people from impoverished communities and basically the product is being sort of passed on to criminal syndicates.

So you have rangers being killed in the process of protecting wildlife. You have the ways in which local communities are being affected by the demand for ivory. And then you have 100,000 elephants being killed in the last three years or over a thousand rhinos being killed per year. So with these numbers, we are really at an incredibly critical phase in human-animal relationships.

I think those numbers are really going to drive home for a lot of people that this is a tipping point, and just how extreme the problem is. Was there a moment like that for you, when you decided to start covering this topic? What made you realize how big of an issue it was?

Two years ago I was a Knight Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan. You had to summarize your study proposal in 15 words or fewer, and mine was, “Can there be ecological preservation in an overpopulated world with diminishing resources?” As a fellow there, having an advisor who’s an environmental anthropologist, I sort of began looking at the poaching crisis,  and I was seeing an uptick in poaching and in articles. I also started paying attention to the information that was being put out by various NGOs and I just thought that the problem was incredibly underreported in mainstream media. And that was really what compelled me to begin this project. I’m a photographer by profession; I’ve worked on documentaries before, but I’ve also been doing editorial assignments related to poaching and conservation. But I really felt that this project was necessary to address the complexities of poaching in a multimedia dimension.

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about some of those complexities. I know when you do see poaching covered in the media it’s usually a very simple narrative: “Poaching is bad. We need to try to stop it.” What did you witness that complicates that story?

Well, you have impoverished communities. Unfortunately, there has typically been a great deal of corruption in a number of African countries helping to facilitate the trafficking of ivory and rhino horn. You’ve had very lax penalties for poachers and people who are in possession of ivory and rhino horn. And then you’ve also had the issue of supply and demand. All of those things combined. Also, a few years ago, China surpassed having a million millionaires. Typically, China is identified as the largest market and consumer of ivory. And obviously, with those kinds of numbers, if you’re looking at a million millionaires in China wanting a piece of ivory, then that means there aren’t going to be any elephants left.

I’m curious about your perspective as a photographer. Do you have a code of ethics for how much you’re willing to show when it comes to graphic or disturbing images? Are you looking for the shock-value pictures of animals? What’s your approach to that?

I think what I have been incorporating in my coverage — whether it’s my film or also in the capacity of a photographer — I had a cover story in Smithsonian last month on the race to stop Africa’s elephant poachers — and for me it’s really, I think, very much about capturing the contrast. There’s the horror of poaching. And of course, capturing the beauty that still exists in recognition that some of these elephant populations that I photograph are likely not to exist 10 years from now.

I’m trying to contextualize it. I think that for people far away from these ecosystems it’s really hard to fathom that 100,000 elephants have been killed in the last few years. And I’m trying to also conceptualize how this is impacting ecosystems and how this is affecting the way elephant herds and families are behaving and the stress they’re having to endure. I was on the border of Chad and the Central African Republic in March recording the tracking of an elephant herd, and there were 12 elephants in this herd and you had these bulls — male elephants — with very young elephants, which typically you would never see. It looked like the elephants that were being collared had been previously shot. On top of the fact that this small pocket and population seemed to be something I’d describe as a refugee population: they’re becoming sort of genetically isolated and there’s really not much hope for a herd like that to survive in the long term. So I think particularly in Central Africa, that’s a pattern that’s emerging.

What’s your take on the effort to protect the elephants and to stop the poachers? Does there seem to be any hope? What else is needed to make a difference and tip the point back in favor of the elephants?

It’s such a multi-pronged approach. It really requires governments across the world examining their policies on the ivory trade and having stiffer penalties. The U.S. has really been leading that in the last few months. There used to be an illegal trade and a legal trade in ivory, and now it’s just illegal. The import of tusks from trophy hunting in Zimbabwe and Tanzania has been banned. And I think governments across Europe and, of course, China, need to really assess what their stance is and to what extent they’re going to enforce a ban on the trade of ivory. So that’s one thing. Simultaneously you have anti-poaching efforts and then also drones are being introduced as a deterrent, and also in order to better track and keep track of wildlife populations. And then stiffer penalties in Africa and stronger law enforcement, along with people’s awareness being raised about the issue. There isn’t a lot of hope unless all these things are happening simultaneously.

Would you say raising awareness is your main goal for the documentary?

Yeah, absolutely. That’s why I began working on this project. So at different times throughout my career I’ve worked on documentary projects on issues that I feel very strongly about. The first one was relating to Russian orphan children with special needs back in 1998, and I spent most of the last 10-plus years covering conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan and across the Middle East. Generally my motivation for that work was documenting history, and I’ve always been compelled by issues of human rights. With the poaching crisis, my feeling about it is that, you know, I’m not worried about human extinction. I am, however, very concerned about the extinction of elephants and rhinos in my lifetime.

Maybe extinction is a really strong word, but I think wildlife certainly isn’t going to exist in the way that we typically conceptualize it. And these populations we’re talking about will end up being very diminished populations.

What has the response been like so far to the reporting you’ve been doing?

The article I did in Smithsonian got a huge response. Chelsea Clinton tweeted about it. Lots and lots of readers wrote in wanting to know what they could do to help and thanking the magazine for having commissioned the reporting. So I think it’s an issue people really care about. They’re just not that aware of it and I see it all the time. I just come across random people and they say “I had no idea” or children who become aware of it and are completely alarmed.

What do you tell people who want to know what they can do to help?

I suggest different organizations that I think are working hard to conserve wildlife in Africa. I frequently on my own Twitter and Facebook recommend petitions. There was a petition last year that went out related to a show on NBC — “Under Wild Skies” — in which a hunter shot an elephant. It asked NBC to take this program off the air because it glorifies the killing of an animal that’s endangered, it got 50,000 signatures and NBC took the show off the air. Something similar happened with “Antiques Road Show” in which there was a petition for them to stop doing value assessments of ivory on air. That was also effective. So I frequently put out petitions to people that I think are worthy, and I think it’s important to keep these issues in the forefront of policy makers.

It’s nice to know that petitions and signatures do work. I think there are lots of ways in which people can be proactive. It’s not necessarily an issue of money. It’s about expressing a voice.

Africa's Poaching Epedmic.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare published a study into the illegal wildlife trade in June 2013 that calculated that an elephant dies to poaching every 15 minutes. Some elephants are shot, while others are poisoned with arrows or pieces of metal. This one was poisoned in the Masai Mara. (Kate Brooks/The Last Animals/Redux Pictures)

Africa's Poaching Epedmic.

Kenya Wildlife Service rangers patrol through Ramuruti forest in Laikipia, Kenya, a corridor for elephants. In April 2013 a number of elephants were killed there, including this one, now a skeleton. (Kate Brooks/The Last Animals/Redux Pictures)

Africa's Poaching Epedmic.

The carcass of an elephant named Bonsai who was shot several times in June 2013, lies in the park with two rangers in the background. Bonsai’s mother was also killed by poachers. (Kate Brooks/The Last Animals/Redux Pictures)

Lindsay Abrams is a staff writer at Salon, reporting on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email labrams@salon.com.

Lindsay Abrams

 

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