Own photo projects and assignments for conservation organizations to help build or renew image banks for social media, printed materials, websites, campaigns to create awareness and fundraising.
ZIMBABWE - THE AKASHINGA RANGERS
Wildhood Foundation (www.wildhood.org) asked me to help document the ongoing success story of the all-female ranger team Akashinga ('The Brave Ones' in Shona), and I spent two weeks in northern Zimbabwe together with Wildhood founder Filippa Tarras-Wahlberg to cover the story.
Wildhood Foundation is the main funding partner of the Akashinga program, which was launched in 2017 by International Anti-Poaching Foundation. IAPF provides the rigorous selection and training of new recruits, and runs the extremely professional ranger operations that protect vitally important ecosystems in southern Africa.
The Akashinga program recruits women from local rural communities to be trained as anti-poaching rangers and protectors of the environment. It was a radical idea to employ women to do a job traditionally done only by men. The recruits were survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, single mothers, abandoned wives and AIDS orphans. By giving these women professional training and employment, the Akashinga program also wanted to empower the most disadvantaged.
The trial program with 16 women was an overwhelming success, and National Geographic produced a film on the initial phase. Exceeding all expectations, the women of Akashinga made dozens of arrests, while also inspiring young girls and women throughout their communities. Today the unit employs 175 female rangers, and they continue shifting perceptions of what is possible as a woman in rural Africa, turning their own lives and futures around while providing a safe haven for wildlife. Since the start of the Akashinga program, wildlife populations in the area have increased by 400% and poaching has been reduced by 80%. Due to its success, the program is now expanding into Botswana and Mozambique. The goal is to have 1,000 women deployed to protect 6 million hectares of land by 2026.
Odzala-Kokoua is a remote, beautiful national park in northwestern Republic of Congo. A tropical rainforest in a thousand shades of green, with drifting mists on the rivers and a loud soundscape broken by sudden silences, as if the forest is holding its breath.
A single muddy vehicle track goes barely a quarter of the way through the park. The rest is a roadless wilderness with western lowland gorillas, various species of rare antelopes and birds, forest buffalos, crocodiles, hippos and a large number of forest elephants. The animals are hard to spot, but that just makes every sighting more valuable, each one a special gift from the deep dark forest.
I spent several weeks there, shooting photos for Elephant Crisis Fund and African Parks. I went on foot and river patrols with the anti-poaching rangers in the jungle and on the myriad streams and rivers that drain the Congo basin.
Poaching, both for elephant ivory and ’bush meat’, essentially anything that can be eaten, is a serious problem, and the rangers have a tough job. We hacked through the jungle, balanced on slippery logs in endless swamps and slept in the forest surrounded by a nighttime chorus of insects, frogs, birds and monkeys, plus the occasional elephant crashing through the trees. The heat and humidity take their toll, and my cameras needed intensive care after this trip. My shirt simply fell apart after being constantly drenched, and the sole of one boot came loose in a deep mudhole.
African Parks manages Odzala-Kokoua in cooperation with the Congolese government, and the park director Patrick Darcis and his partner Rebecca Attwood did a fantastic job in a highly complex situation. The logistics of patrolling and safeguarding this vast area are a nightmare, and the local communities still feel they have the right to hunt and use the forest as they always have. It’s a delicate balancing act between the desirable and the possible.
Niassa National Reserve (NNR) is one of the largest wilderness areas in Africa, with a truly spectacular landscape of granite inselbergs jutting up from a seemingly endless expanse of miombo woodland. Larger than the Netherlands, NNR is located in the far north of Mozambique, and is connected to the Selous Game Reserve in southern Tanzania.
The combined Selous-Niassa elephant population used to be the world's second largest, with more than 70,000 animals in the early 2000s. Due to intense ivory poaching, the population dropped to an estimated 20,000 elephants in 2016. This is the frontline of Africa's elephant poaching crisis.
Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) cooperates with the government of Mozambique to protect and manage the reserve, a highly complex task in a vast area with few roads and 40,000 - 50,000 people living inside the reserve, engaged in farming, logging, gold mining, fishing and hunting.
Elephant Crisis Fund provided funding for radio communications and expanded anti-poaching patrols, and asked me to document anti-poaching operations and shoot photos of Niassa. It was a truly fantastic two weeks in a stunning landscape that more people should visit. Tourism is still minimal, but this ruggedly beautiful place is well worth the effort to get there.
The Elephant Crisis Fund supports several anti-poaching projects in Malawi. I volunteered to document two of them, in Liwonde National Park and in Thuma & Dedza-Salima Forest Reserves.
Liwonde National Park is managed by African Parks, a non-profit conservation organisation based in Johannesburg. AP takes on long-term management of national parks and reserves in partnership with governments to save wildlife, restore landscapes and ensure sustainable livelihoods for local communities. AP manages 22 parks and reserves throughout Africa, often in remote areas and under difficult conditions. Elephant Crisis Fund provided funding for a helicopter team temporarily deployed in Liwonde, which was vital support against poachers and in stopping elephants breaking through newly-built fencelines around the park.
In Thuma & Dedza-Salima Forest Reserves, an ECF grant provided funding for 20 anti-poaching scouts, nearly doubling the team working to protect elephants and other wildlife. The two reserves were managed by Lynn Clifford of Wildlife Action Group, a private NGO, in partnership with the government of Malawi. Thuma & Dedza-Salima are rugged and roadless, and the anti-poaching work is done by endless foot patrols and by building an intelligence network in the local communities to get advance warning of poaching incursions.
I spent nearly three weeks in Malawi working with anti-poaching teams on foot, in 4x4 vehicles and on helicopter missions. It was a fascinating assignment in a beautiful country.
Rwanda - an iconic name, forever linked to the mass killings in 1994 when perhaps 800,000 people were systematically slaughtered by their friends, neighbours, and units of the police and army. The roots of the genocide are, at least in part, a legacy of colonial policies that selected and promoted a minority ethnic group as a ruling elite. But Rwanda is also a breathtakingly beautiful country of lush green rolling hills, and a densely packed population trying to carve out a future together with the ugly ghost of the recent past.
I rented a jeep in Kigali and drove through the country, stopping to ask for directions in the absence of road signs. I stayed at recently renovated guest houses, with optimistic entrepreneurs who sketched out plans for a bright future of high-end eco-tourism, IT-services and a regional free-trade zone. Those plans may hatch some day, but for the moment Rwanda seems to be backsliding to a repressive one-party state, with ambitions to control large parts of neighbouring Congo DRC through various militia groups.
KENYA - MAGAZINE FEATURE ON THE POACHING CRISIS
The Swedish current affairs magazine FILTER commissioned a 25-page feature on the poaching crisis, and on Kenya’s recent success in reducing the numbers of elephants and rhinos killed by poachers. Journalist Michael Tjelder and I spent two weeks in northern Kenya to get the story, meeting with a number of people engaged in the struggle against the poachers. In Nairobi we met with Dr. Richard Leakey and wildlife activist Paula Kahumbu, who both gave us valuable insights into the future of conservation. We spent time in the bush up in Samburu with Save The Elephants' founder Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton and David Daballen who knows over 400 elephants personally, and in Nasuulu with Northern Rangelands Trust, as well as in Laikipia with Ol Pejeta’s armed rangers and special dog section. Sadly, a pregnant white rhino was killed on Ol Pejeta just hours after we left, underlining the fact that, while Kenya seems to have a highly successful strategy to reduce poaching, the battle is by no means over.
Most of the time the eastern part of Congo is a no-go zone, where warlords and an alphabet soup of poorly disciplined militias rape, loot and kill at random. The UN had 6,700 troops in North Kivu province at the time, but were barely able to maintain peace in their immediate surroundings. However, as in almost all conflict zones, it isn’t bad everywhere all the time. Even in North Kivu, the epicentre of the ongoing disaster that is Congo, there are brief spells of calm, when life goes on as best it can.
The wildlife rangers struggling to protect the Virunga Park have one of Africa's most difficult conservation tasks. Over the last decade, more than 150 rangers have been killed in the Virungas. On top of this, the Virungas are a geologically unstable region. The active volcano Nyiragongo is a constant threat to the city of Goma, squeezed between the mountain and Lake Kivu. The restless volcano is one of the reasons National Geographic named Goma the most dangerous city in the world. During a recent eruption, large parts of the city were covered by a lava flow that also shortened the local airstrip.
Another threat is Lake Kivu itself. Full of methane and carbon dioxide from volcanic activity, the lake is a catastrophe waiting to happen. If the gases trapped in dense layers on the bottom should explode as a result of a volcanic fissure under the lake, roughly a million people living on the shores around it could die instantly.
At the Bikini Tam-Tam bar - a dimly lit affair full of thumping loud soukos music and massive congolese men with heavy gold wristwatches - I enlisted the services of two armed guards, Emmanual and Janvier, reasoning that at least one of them might have a weapon that actually worked, and arranged to meet them early next morning on a street corner in Goma. For some reason they were delayed, and I spent a few hours talking to various people who stopped and asked what an obviously out-of-place ‘blanc’ was doing there. I met a man who claimed to be Dieudonné the Bandit. In excellent French he told me it was good that we met in daylight, when we could talk as civilised men. At night it would have been a different matter, since “his profession necessitated some unpleasant things”.
Eventually our little armed expedition climbed Nyiragongo, narrowly missing a fire-fight when a militia group ambushed travellers on the road from Goma. We heard the shooting start and moved quickly up the mountain to spend the night at the crater rim in bitter cold, rain and a brief hail storm. We warmed ourselves at the gates of Hell, while the volcano rumbled and hissed.
Karamoja, in northern Uganda, is a beautiful but tragic landscape where low-level warfare and deadly cattle raids are part of daily life. Many of the ethnic groups who live in the region, e.g. the Gie, Karimojong and Dodoth, are semi-nomadic pastoralists, which is at odds with the Ugandan government’s desire to settle and control the area. The UN runs an on-again, off-again programme of disarmament in the region, hampered by accusations of atrocities, torture and extra-judicial killings by the army.
I travelled through the region from Kidepo on the South Sudan border and south through Nakapiripit. It’s a tough, unforgiving land of dry scrub and rocky hills, inhabited by people who have adapted perfectly to their environment. We found some areas with abundant wildlife, but also several carcasses of elephants killed for their ivory, and a buffalo probably killed by a poisoned arrow. We saw a mountain range we want to explore more thoroughly after hearing tales of isolated elephant herds, massive buffalos and black leopards. There may also be surviving pockets of the Ik people, a farming culture pushed back to a stone-age existence up in the high mountains by the marauding cattle raiders on the plains.
ZIMBABWE - INTERNATIONAL ANTI POACHING FOUNDATION
I volunteered to help International Anti-Poaching Foundation (www.iapf.org) in Zimbabwe with photos for their fundraising efforts. Founded by Damien Mander, IAPF provided professional anti-poaching training for game scouts and rangers from many different countries, and offered co-management services to protect national parks and game reserves in difficult areas. When I was there IAPF managed a team of rangers in a private game reserve in the middle of a poaching ’hot-zone’ in Zimbabwe.
I joined IAPF’s ranger team on day and night patrols in the bush. They were a highly dedicated and wholly professional group of individuals who risked their lives to protect a small number of rhinos that would otherwise undoubtedly have been killed by poachers. Their efforts had been successful, with no rhinos lost and two calves born during IAPF's time there.
On one dawn patrol, I spotted a black rhino slowly approaching through some trees. I sat down and started taking photos, waiting for the sun to break through. With the camera glued to my face, I didn't realize the rhino was finally only about 10-15 meters away. Luckily, the wind was blowing from the rhino towards me, and I'm not sure it knew I was there. Eventually the rangers saw the problem from some distance away and yelled to distract the rhino, which gave me the chance to climb a nearby tree.
KENYA - THE BIG TUSKER PROJECT, TSAVO
Tsavo Trust (tsavotrust.org) is a Kenyan non-profit organisation that works closely with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), as well as research and conservation partners such as Save The Elephants, in support of wildlife, habitat and communities in southern Kenya's Greater Tsavo Ecosystem.
‘The Big Tusker Project’ focuses on protecting Tsavo’s small number of very large elephants, some with tusks that reach the ground, from ivory poachers. In January 2013, 12 of these giants were shot near Tsavo’s Tiva River, and in May 2014, the well-known old bull Satao was killed. If this continues, Tsavo’s giant tuskers and the unique gene pool they represent will soon be gone forever.
I offered to support The Big Tusker Project with photos for websites and fundraising, and worked with a team from Tsavo Trust to find and get close to the big tuskers. They are wise and extremely wary of people, which is understandable, and the assignment was a real challenge.
TANZANIA - MAGAZINE FEATURE
Felix Oppenheim is an immensely talented photographer, who also happens to be a really fun person to spend time with. We worked together on a magazine feature in northern Tanzania, visiting Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Tarangire and the Arusha park. I very nearly had to leave Felix in a Maasai village where he seemed to be a big hit.
ZIMBABWE - HWANGE NATIONAL PARK
Hwange National Park is the largest game reserve in Zimbabwe, but it is relatively unknown and has few visitors. Hwange is huge, with a total area of roughly 14,600 km2, compared to Kenya’s more well-known and relatively crowded Masai Mara with 1,500 km2. Located in south-western Zimbabwe, the park borders the dry Kalahari ecosystem, but Hwange is mostly mopane woodland. The area has several water systems that provide favourable conditions for large herds of plains game, elephants, and different species of carnivores.
I wandered through northern Hwange on foot with Eleckson Ndlovu, a former game ranger and an expert guide, doing research for my ongoing photo project on Africa's poaching crisis and taking photos for future exhibitions.
KENYA - OL PEJETA & LEWA CONSERVANCIES
Ol Pejeta and Lewa are two non-profit private wildlife conservancies in Laikipia in northern Kenya. Both support endangered species such as white and black rhinos, and provide safe havens for herds of elephants under pressure. Ol Pejeta and Lewa also work closely with the surrounding communities and help to provide health care and education.
Ol Pejeta and Lewa are separate entities, but they cooperate on conservation issues and marketing. On several assignments I have helped renew their image banks for media contacts, fund-raising and educational campaigns.
KENYA - SAVE THE ELEPHANTS, SAMBURU
Save The Elephants (www.savetheelephants.org), led by renowned elephant expert Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, serves as a protector and advocate for elephants globally. In Africa, STE does groundbreaking research using sophisticated GPS-tracking technology to provide crucial details on what land and resources elephants need, and how to reduce conflicts between humans and elephants.
I worked with STE’s research team in Samburu in northern Kenya to build a new image bank for their websites, printed materials and presentations. It was a few weeks of fascinating close work with both elephants and people, including difficult situations with cattle herders grazing on land set aside as a nature reserve, and violent conflicts between different ethnic groups in Kenya’s arid north. One night there was a raid by cattle thieves just across the Ewaso Nyiro river. We heard the AK-47s going off, and sat down on the ground behind a stone wall in case of stray bullets. During the night a large number of women and children crossed the river to seek shelter in our camp. After a few days they drifted back to pick up their lives again, while the men planned a raid to get their cattle back. An endless cycle of fear and violence repeated since ancient times, but made more deadly by modern guns.
I rented a 4x4 in Windhoek, bought some basic supplies and lots of water, and drove through Namibia to see the ancient rock carvings and the beautiful, stark landscape. In the north, I came across the tracks of a lone bull elephant who seemed to be taking the same gravel roads I used. I never caught up with him, but was told he was a scout for a large herd that stayed far away during the dry season. Every year this lone bull walked thorugh the region to check if there was good water to be found, and if everything was fine, he would bring the rest of the herd.
Namibia has several sites with wonderful rock art, both carvings and paintings of humans and animals. There are various theories about the meaning of this art, and some experts link them to shamanistic rituals in which people were transformed into spirit animals. Sitting at dawn on a high rock and looking out over the place where people had gathered many thousands of years ago to worship wild animals and nature was a strange and moving experience.
There were stories about a farmer who used to kill cheetahs to protect his cattle, but who had a sudden change of heart and started taking care of injured or orphaned cheetahs. I located his farm and drove there, hoping for a chance to get close to one of these graceful predators. Warned that they were not tame, I followed the farmer into a giant enclosure. As he walked off to try to find them, I sat down in the shade of a tree. Suddenly, three grown cheetahs crept out of the bushes and approached me very slowly. I held out a hand to be sniffed, and very carefully scratched one of them behind the ears. A few minutes later I had cheetahs all over me, wanting to be scratched. I had to push one of them gently away with my foot to get a few photos.
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