A short multimedia piece for The Coral Triangle about why I keep returning to the region and how the focus of my work there keeps shifting.
Last month I was in Socotra shooting a music video. Floating adrift between Yemen and Somalia, it’s not the easiest place to make a film, but if you can negotiate the various obstacles and refrain from reading the travel warnings it makes for a stunning location. We shot on a new Red Epic, I’ve included some screen grabs below. A lot of people have been writing asking if you can pull stills from the video stream now it’s in 6k. And the short answer is: it depends.
Many thanks to Adhem, Johnny and Abdul.
I recently visited my new sponsor, Cressi, at their head office in Genoa, Italy. Ice cream was eaten, freediving stories were swapped and we shot a short interview where I attempt to articulate what it is I love about the ocean and the work that I do.
Shot and Edited by Marcello Pastonesi.
Last week I finished making a music video for singer/songwriter Nick Mulvey’s new single Cucurucu. I originally shot the footage in March last year as part of another project, produced by Johnny Langenheim for Vice Magazine. For the original piece check out Blood Sacrifice in Sumba.
The music video is now online and has proved very popular. You can watch it here, via Vevo, along with some behind the scenes images.
Last night i gave a talk for Getty Images about the challenges and wonders of working in remote locations. You can see a video of the talk, which includes images and film from Asia, South Pacific, and South America, below:
Cyanide fishing is destroying both unique coral ecosystems and human lives in the Coral Triangle.
Driven largely by China’s insatiable appetite for live reef fish, children as young as ten are routinely diving to depths of 30/40 meters, breathing air that is pumped down to them through a hose, and paralyzing fish using a lethal mixture of potassium cyanide.
The use of cyanide is crippling precious coral ecosystems whilst the associated use of compressors is crippling its practitioners. Decompression sickness (the bends) and compressor-related accidents are commonly cited as being the primary cause of premature death in marine communities throughout the Coral Triangle.
Potassium cyanide is squirted directly at target fish species such as grouper or Napoleon wrasse, paralyzing them and enabling them to be collected alive. The cyanide then gets in to currents and will travel for miles along a reef wall, killing coral and wreaking havoc on marine life.
Last year I was asked by WWF to produce a series of images looking at the effects of the illegal wildlife trade. In June, I spent some time with an anti-poaching patrol in Gabon. My original aim was to photograph the lives of individuals on the frontlines of the war against wildlife crime, focusing on one of the most charismatic rangers, Soho Jocelyn. I spent time with Soho at his home in Makokou and then followed him into the forest on patrol. One night sitting around the fire we got the chilling news that two rangers had been murdered, just miles away, across the border in Congo.
The increase in clashes between rangers and poachers has left horrifying numbers dead in the past year alone. However some of the most compelling images from the trip reflect a feeling that I had whilst I was there: I don’t think there is a frontline on the war against wildlife crime. The increased frequency of ranger deaths is haunting, but its also an accessible symbol of a much deeper erosion of culture and livelihoods. As Soho Jocelyn kissed his wife and children before leaving for the jungle, I got a real sense of what was at stake. Not just in terms of his safety but the repercussions for his community and its history and shared values.
I grew up in the New Forest, a small stretch of forestland in the south of England. The New Forest is as thick with tales as it is with trees, and at the root of all these stories is the concept of forest law. Much of the old forest law, some of which still survives to this day, curtailed the ability of forest people to gather food in favour of protecting deer populations for the king’s hunting grounds. This inevitably led to an entire canon of stories painting poaching as a romantic, even noble, pursuit. I grew up with legends of the outlaw peasant taking what was rightfully his, outsmarting the crown and its feudal landowners.
But the poaching stories which emerged from Central Africa in 2012 bear no resemblance to the stories of my childhood. The romanticism and communal spirit are gone, and in their place are automatic weapons, bloodshed (both human and animal) and the irreversible damage of social and natural ecosystems. Ultimately the people who lose out aren’t wealthy landowners and caricature baddies, but communities struggling to subsist as criminal groups erode both their communities and resources.
The Baka community, who live in the forests of Gabon, Congo and Cameroon are perhaps as caught up as anyone. There was always tension when I first arrived in a Baka village. Nothing the universal language of silliness and a shared experience skinning a water cobra couldn’t swiftly dissolve, but the Baka have been vilified by environmental groups for the role they play in elephant poaching, and relationships are understandably fraught.
In many ways the short time I spent with the Baka was the most illustrative of the full effects of wildlife crime. Baka are employed and killed on both sides of the battle, a poacher one day may have no qualms about becoming a ranger the next. It all depends who’s footing the bill. But the recent escalation in commercial poaching has brought more than just the death of a few individuals, it has brought about the disintegration of an entire way of life. Or more accurately, the advent of poaching has served as a catalyst hugely enhancing the effect of other environmental pressures in breaking the bonds the Baka once held with the forest and pushing them into alcoholism, domestic violence and a whole host of associated social problems. I often find in the course of my work that the social cohesion of indigenous groups can be read as a litmus test for environmental issues.
The Baka were originally semi-nomadic subsistence hunters. The majority have now settled in villages as pressure from logging and infrastructure projects has impacted wildlife populations throughout the Congo basin. It’s economics that have pushed the Baka to hunt elephants. Elephants alive steal food and trample crops, whilst dead their tusks are almost worth their weight in gold. It’s ironic in a sense, and also understandably frustrating for the Baka, that they used to revere the elephant and only started ‘poaching’ under pressure from French and German colonial rulers who had an insatiable thirst for ivory. Now their orders are coming from criminal syndicates and terrorist groups. It’s probably hard to tell the difference.
Having spent time with rangers and affected communities in Gabon, my next trip was to Thailand to try and understand the mechanics and motivation behind the surge in demand for animal products. The first thing that hit me was the amount of wildlife smuggling going on in Thailand. I saw a lot of ivory in Africa but somehow, in the neon glow of Bangkok, piles of African elephant tusks looked more alien, more menacing.
I started off photographing underneath Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi international airport. Suvarnabhumi is a hub for the Asian smuggling network, contraband in all guises – wildlife, narcotic and human – pass through daily in quantities and numbers that can’t even be guessed at. The Thai police weren’t able to show me the country’s stockpile (I wonder how much of it is still there) but the amount of ivory I saw just from the last few weeks of confiscations was staggering.
A few days later we got word that the Thai authorities had stopped a truck trying to cross the border from Thailand into Laos. In the back of the truck were 16 tiger cubs packed into crates. We were later able to photograph them being DNA tested as part of the government’s efforts to track wildlife contraband to its source. In the same week there was also a record haul of ivory in Hong Kong.
So why are animal parts so sought after in Asia? There are plenty of socio-historic explanations that have been put forward. Ivory, for example, has been traded as an aspirational commodity in China since the Ming dynasty. Now, of course, there are far more Chinese people with aspirations and a modern, capitalist market ready to cater to them. In more recent history, an unnamed politician in Vietnam (believed to be the major end destination for South African rhino) is said to have had his cancer cured by imbibing ground rhino horn, in turn kicking off the widespread belief that rhino horn may be a miracle cure for cancers and other serious illnesses.
The semi-mystical projection of human desires and needs onto the natural world is by no means exclusive to Asia. Throughout the world there are plenty of examples of natural ‘commodities’ being used as health boosters with no scientific backing, as well as pelts and furs being used as a means to attain status. However, these explanations go some way to explain why the demand for endangered animal parts is particularly prevalent in specfic Asian countries.
As I understand it, the environmental movement is currently working on two ways of addressing the problem. Firstly, using force and legislation to reduce supply. This involves bringing tougher penalties for smugglers and ensuring that convictions aren’t overturned or thrown out of court without a full trial. Secondly, using a rational argument to reduce demand. This involves debunking the myth of rhino horn (and other animal parts’) medicinal properties and raising awareness of the catastrophic environmental impact of the trade.
Both approaches are important, but they’re also both problematic. Laws around wildlife crime should, without a doubt, be equal to laws around drug smuggling and other serious offenses. The knock on effects of wildlife crime, as I discovered in Gabon, are complex and highly destructive, both socially and environmentally. But would tighter laws on wildlife crime make a difference? Thailand has the death penalty for drug smuggling but it remains the narcotics capital of Asia.
The medical myth is the most quoted cause of wildlife crime. The fact that we’re on the verge of losing an entire species to an insatiable demand for its horn (which is composed mostly of keratin, the same as human hair and fingernails) has all the irony and narrative hooks of a good tabloid story. And, in many ways, although I feel the truth of the situation has been slightly misrepresented, this story in its various forms has been instrumental in raising awareness around the issue in Europe and America. However, I don’t think it’s a story that will work in Vietnam or Thailand.
The majority of people I met whilst working on this issue had stories of vague acquaintances narrowly escaping fatal illnesses by resort to rare animal parts. Individuals who have been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness will never believe in science as much as they believe in hope. Humans just aren’t wired that way and such stories will invariably beat science in capturing people’s imaginations.
As I see it, the battle to reduce consumption of animal parts must combine increased legal pressure with a change in perception through a line of reasoning that is emotional and tailored to the world of the consumer. Essentially, it will come down to who tells the best story. The animal kingdom, particularly the target species- elephants, rhinos and tigers, are incredibly beautiful. Complex, majestic, enigmatic. They speak to us of a natural ease and grace that we have lost, they represent an exaggeration of desirable human characteristics: speed, strength, courage and wisdom. The idea that I could ingest a part of them, absorb some of their power and reverse the hand fate has dealt me is an undeniably powerful story and I’m not surprised it has gained traction. Just like the western myth that rhino horn is used as an aphrodisiac in Traditional Chinese Medicine (it’s not). If stories are good enough they’ll tell themselves.
There’s no question that the role played by WWF, and other pressure groups, will be instrumental in any solution to end wildlife crime, but I think it’s equally important that journalists and campaigners don’t simply regurgitate press releases. Statistics and CITES appendices are not the right message for the consumers that I’ve met. What we need instead is a story as powerful as the story being told by those who have a vested interest in continuing the trade. Until we have that story, and really learn how to tell it, dead elephants will continue to bestow prestige in Thailand and dead rhinos will continue to cure cancer on the anonymous outer ring of Vietnam’s social circles.