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

Photojournalist Kate Brooks talks with Salon about the threat to Africa's wildlife

Topics: Poaching, Photography, elephants, wildlife, endangered species, Africa, war photography, trafficking, Editor's Picks,

Kate Brooks has long fixed her camera lens on violence.

In her 16 years as a photojournalist, she’s documented conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and Libya. But for the past year, her attention’s been turned to Africa, where a human-versus-animal war is at its breaking point. Organized, aggressive and hugely profitable poaching operations are on the rise, and elephants and rhinos are on the fast track to extinction.

It’s a crisis of international proportions, and the tragedy of the potential loss of entire species is only the beginning. As Hillary Clinton put it last fall when she introduced an $80 million anti-trafficking program: “This is not just about elephants. It is about human beings, governments, trying to control their own territory, trying to keep their people safe, as well as protect their cultural and environmental heritage.” The spoils from the global poaching trade, valued as high as $10 billion a year, moreover, are funding terrorist organizations and criminal syndicates, making it an issue of international security as well.

Brooks is in the middle of filming “The Last Animals,” a documentary about the complexities of the poaching epidemic, and hopes to complete it next year. We spoke about the project and about the insights she’s gained about efforts, both locally and around the world, to put an end to poaching before it puts an end to Africa’s wildlife. A selection of her photographs follow the interview, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What does the filming entail? Where have you been traveling?

I’ve been filming in Kenya and Chad so far. Though there are other places where I intend to film. The project is really sort of intended to just capture the poaching epidemic and how endemic the poaching crisis is across the continent.

Has it been easy enough to just go there and find where this is happening? Or is it something you’ve had to seek out?



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

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

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