The Shades of Grey in Wildlife Conservation

                        – With Aaron Gekoski, Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2019 –

by Sara Azeem, Editor-in-Chief

Pen and camera are weapons against oblivion, they can create awareness for that which may soon be lost forever.

It was towards the end of the interview that Aaron quoted these words of the legendary conservationist George Schaller, but the essence of these words had been lingering in the background throughout our conversation. As an award-winning photojournalist, Aaron Gekoski’s greatest weapons are his pen and camera, and over the course of his career, he has wielded them in truly remarkable ways. Madagascar’s ‘tortoise mafia’. West Africa’s voodoo trade. Mozambique’s shark finning crisis. Namibia’s annual seal cull. He photographs, documents, exposes, and spreads awareness. Given his background, I was very excited to have the opportunity to pick his brains on the ethical dilemmas within wildlife conversation. A difficult topic, with no black or white answers. An exploration of the shades of grey.

I started with a theoretical approach and asked him where he stood on the spectrum of approaches to wildlife management. On one end, we have wise/sustainable use, which has humankind’s best interests at the forefront by aiming to maintain nature’s yield as a valuable resource for man. On the other hand, the preservationist approach lobbies for minimal interaction between humans and wild places, except for recreation. Aaron vouched for a pragmatic approach; living on a planet with almost 8 billion people makes the purist form quite unrealistic. He emphasised the value of understanding the social context when dealing with complex issues like conservation. An example was his project in Mozambique; not only was it his first proper photographic experience, but it also brought to light the social nuances of conservation. A remote fishing community actively targeting sharks for their fins, it’s easy to point fingers and blame these fishermen for the declining shark populations. But this hides the influential Asian demand that drives these fishermen to such unsustainable levels of fishing. To the fishermen themselves, this is a means of living to sustain their families. How Aaron’s team approached the issue was not by preaching to them the morality behind endangering sharks, but to speak to them in a language they understood. They shared data on the toxicity of shark meat and how it was poisoning their wives and children, and suddenly, the fishermen did not want to fish sharks anymore. “Make it meaningful to the person you’re talking to”, Aaron said. “Or else it becomes too abstract”.

The shades of grey brought about by social context also coloured our discussion about animals in medicine. Zootherapy has deep historical origins, to untangle these cultural ties from practice is easier said than done. West Africa’s voodoo market sells an unbelievable range of animal products, ranging from the heads of dogs and baboons to reptiles and elephant skin, all believed to have their own properties, either for medicine or for healing and luck. Endangered species, substances that were cruelly extracted from animals, they were all there. But who has the authority to tell people what to believe and not believe in? Cambodia’s dog meat trade is a horror story that is enough to make anyone’s blood run cold – rounded up from the streets and sent to slaughterhouses, these dogs are killed in the most barbaric ways imaginable. But the industry exists partly because dog meat is prescribed by medical professionals to help with circulation, and because it is a cheap source of meat. Understanding these factors is imperative to allow us to identify the most impactful ways to tackle the issue. Education and awareness are popular and powerful tools. A purely moral standpoint rarely resonates, a better approach would be to educate the population about the dangers of contracting rabies. But just as we condemn these individuals for such inhumane practices, we turn a blind eye towards the animals that undergo suffering during testing in modern medical practices. When I questioned Aaron about animal testing, he dismally stated that it is a by-product of the industry, and might be necessary, but that every step needs to be taken to minimise the pain and suffering while continuously exploring better options. But animal testing in the cosmetics industry was completely unnecessary, according to him. This was an especially difficult part of the discussion for me; fundamentally, we were still viewing these living creatures in terms of their utility to us. I couldn’t imagine dealing with these conflictions every day, which Aaron has to do. He agreed with me, stating that there was rarely a good vs evil, or right vs wrong, when it came to such topics.

As we continued to explore the various shades of grey, hunting and its role in wildlife conservation came up. There are a number of approaches. One is culling, or the selective slaughter of wild animals to reduce population. Another is the auctioning of hunting permits to trophy hunters: hunters bid to buy the rights to hunt specific animals in an area. Aaron’s opinion was that hunting, if managed properly, has an important role to play in conservation. The money often goes into managing the wildlife area, such lump sums can have a significant impact in supporting conservation in that region. If the animals are selected properly, such as old aggressive males, it can be beneficial for the animal population as well. Once again, he reiterated the importance of proper management, which is where the real problems lie. Aaron confided that personally, he fails to comprehend why people couldn’t just contribute without having to kill for it? But this is an example of a method that makes the cause relevant to the individual (the hunter in this case), despite the challenges that come alongside it. However, he was vehemently against canned hunting, a concept that was new to me. This is where animals are bred in enclosures purely for the purpose of hunting, and people pay to “hunt” these animals in a duel that the animals are never going to win. Here is where things became a little more black-and-white.

It became easy to see why his latest project, which investigated the wildlife tourism industry, appealed to him so much. It freed him from the nuances that came with most other industries. A much-needed break from the grey. Cruel practices in the wildlife tourism industry are enacted purely for our greed and entertainment, and do not have any other benefits. Orangutans, shy and arboreal creatures, forced to do boxing matches in front of large crowds. Young elephants having their spirits broken (see: the crush) to make them more submissive towards their handlers. Zoos that claim to be “hubs for education” and contribute to research and conservation (most don’t). With the increase in social media, these attractions are only becoming more popular. And for the average person who just wants to experience wildlife, it is extremely difficult to know where to put their money, especially since most often, the brutality is behind the scenes. To solve this, Aaron launched Raise the Red Flag, with Born Free Foundation. Basically, a TripAdvisor for wildlife tourism attractions, it is a platform that allows users to report instances of animal cruelty and thereby choose attractions that prioritise the welfare of their animals. Aaron advocates that the most rewarding way to encounter wildlife is on their own terms and advises people to be more mindful. Stay away from attractions that allow close interactions with animals and have unsuitable enclosures. Some might claim that certain animals live longer in captivity, but we need to consider whether longevity is all that makes life worth living.

Aaron’s aim with his work is to ask people questions that plant a seed of doubt in their minds. To simply show images that make the public reconsider their choices on their own volition. He finds it better than “ramming it down people’s throats”. Throughout our conversation, he mentioned that there were different approaches to activism, from writing and amending policies, to being on the frontline, to documenting with a camera. With an issue as big and complex as wildlife conservation, it is easy to feel helpless. Aaron’s advice was to strive to be more mindful and make the biggest possible change you can, no matter how small that may be. As photographers, as activists, as teachers, as chefs, as consumers – conservation is a field in which we all have the ability to do our own part. He went into greater depth about why he thinks photography is an important medium; we live in a visual society, increasingly so because of social media, and the right shot can be viewed by millions of people. It has the potential to plant that seed of doubt. To Aaron, the “photograph is the modern-day fossil”, the last records of animals that are going to be lost forever if we don’t act now.

All photography credits to Aaron Gekoski

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