Photographer Fights African Poaching With Grisly Pictures

David Braun
National Geographic News

September 30, 2004
Africa's last wild great apes are vanishing. Studies suggest that unless
their situation can be stabilized, they may become extinct in the wild
within 20 years. The problem has been exacerbated by logging of their
habitat—and a huge increase in poaching as hunters gain access to
forests along logging roads.

Karl Ammann is a Swiss-born veteran wildlife photographer, author, and conservation activist. He has become increasingly outspoken about the "bush-meat crisis"—bush meat being the meat of wild animals, including apes. The latest book to feature his images, Consuming Nature, draws attention to the slaughter in Africa's remaining forests.

Ammann's sometimes brutally explicit photographs are meant to expose the harshness of the fate of the great apes and other forest animals—in the hope that people everywhere will be shocked into learning more and doing something to help. (See Photo Gallery 1 and Photo Gallery 2. Warning: Photos include depictions of butchered animals.)

National Geographic News interviewed Ammann about his controversial activism. The interview took place by e-mail, with Ammann often responding to questions late at night from his home near Nanyuki in Kenya, or from Thailand, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he was traveling mostly to document conservation issues.

Ammann has lived in Africa for 25 years, half of that time in his current home on Mount Kenya, which he shares with his wife Katherine, two domesticated chimpanzees, and numerous dogs.

You criticize National Geographic and others for promoting "feel-good conservation." What do you mean by that, and what is your concern?

Anybody who travels this planet and decides to keep an eye on the state of the natural world—as I do regularly—and then combines this anecdotal firsthand data with the flood of scientific information coming over the Internet will come to the conclusion that our natural world is in a hell of a mess.

Anybody sitting at home reading National Geographic, watching [the Discovery TV channel] Animal Planet, and sending an annual check to a major conservation organization will not get that impression. He or she will be confronted with a wide range of "world-in-order tales," with the problem issues tacked on at the end of the story, perhaps with one little paragraph or picture.

Most producers and editors have decided that the public does not want to be confronted with the harsher realities and that their main mission in life is to entertain—and not to lose viewers turning to other entertainment.

Conservation organizations go a step further. They combine the tale of success stories with highlighting some "new problem issues" and the message: If you write us a check we will take care of it. That is what I call feel-good conservation.

Do you feel that horrifying the public is more effective in raising awareness and promoting action? Do you have any evidence it's worked?

[The Abu Ghraib prison-abuse scandal in Iraq] was a nonissue as long as it was words only. Then things changed drastically once CBS ran images. Views of the Vietnam war changed drastically with the image of the naked girl with the napalm burns running down the street.

I guess I had hoped hard-hitting bush-meat images—the killing of charismatic mega fauna [gorillas, elephants, and so on]—might have a similar impact and affect the course of the war on wildlife. Clearly that has not happened.

In my opinion, [it has not happened] mostly because editors and producers of documentaries have decided they know what the public is ready for.

What do you say to the argument that bush-meat hunters naturally place their own survival above that of animals?

The bush-meat crisis is not the result of a farmer having a few snares in his fields or the forests behind his fields. The bush-meat crisis is one of lawlessness, one of poor governance, and one of short-term greed. It is about a commercial trade run by outlaws. It is about logging companies opening up previously inaccessible forests.

By the time a gorilla or elephant steak ends up on the plate of a middle- or upper-class urban dweller—who might have paid two to three times what he or she would have paid for the same amount of beef or pork—most likely some six national laws have been broken. And the consumer as well as the producer know it.

The bush-meat crisis is just one aspect of the much wider problem of having largely dysfunctional governments in central Africa. It is not about starving people.

None of the commercial hunters I have met would have starved if he had refrained from hunting totally protected species.

Putting the commercial aspect of bush-meat hunting in the context of poverty alleviation and food security is just one more convenient way for policymakers to not have to deal with the realities on the ground: that of dysfunctional, lawless government structures.

You also blame the developed world for the bush-meat crisis. What's your argument?

Our politicians might not order a gorilla carcass for Christmas or employ a personal hunter as they might a gardener—something we have documented with high government officials in Cameroon. However, we have a U.S. President going on record with statements to the effect that high energy consumption is an American way of life and that it should be the goal of the policymakers to protect the American way of life.

[Former] presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said the U.S. should address the energy crisis through supply and not demand.

Knowing what we do about the pressure on the remaining hydrocarbon resources and global warming, [this policy], to me, amounts to having elephant steaks for Thanksgiving at the White House. If our leaders are not able or willing to confront voters and taxpayers with some of these realities—and "sell" some real sacrifices—how can we possibly preach to developing nations' leaders about sustainable use of their wildlife?

Do you think there is any hope of turning things around? What's the solution?

As I state in my chapter in [my earlier book] Eating Apes, deception and self-deception seem to be part of our hard wiring, a part of human nature.

Generally we will not, as individuals, deal with the harsh realties of global warming, the unsustainable use of a wide range of resources, and so on, until our leadership takes the lead and forces us to do so with new legislation. And that is not happening.

[Perhaps] the heads of the big conservation NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] should take the first step.

For example, [NGOs could convene] a joint press conference at the U.N., telling the world, We have tried for 30 years and we are not winning. It is all straight downhill. The "quiet diplomatic approach" has failed. We will try a new one.

The NGOs could say they are no longer willing to do the window dressing for the big players—the UN, the World Bank, the European Union, the G8.

They could say they will no longer pretend we can turn things around on a few million dollars from the [international institutions], offered for a project here and there.

We will stop celebrating when Colin Powell addresses the World Summit on Sustainable Development and, as the only [concession], offers a U.S. 54-million-dollar package to finance a Congo Basis Initiative—with one of the objectives being the [covering up of environmental degradation by] the extractive industries [such as mining and logging].

They could point out that with a fraction of the money the U.S. spends on its military, we might be able to make a difference, that spending big bucks on the environment and reversing the unsustainable resource extraction will do more for world security than another new range of missiles.

Let's add an example here: The Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC] is about the only nation in central Africa where most of the productive remaining primary rain forest has not been allocated to industrial logging. A one-billion-U.S.-dollar trust fund might be a politically sellable package to get the Congo government to reconsider its position in turning its forests into quick cash.

However, what is happening? The World Bank recommends that Congo become the biggest producer of timber in Africa and 60 million hectares [230,000 square miles] of forest be opened up. [Read what the World Bank says about this.]

You criticize people who write checks to "buy" themselves a green conscience. What do you suggest people do to make a difference?

My answer is, stop writing checks to any organization that does not have independent auditing of its projects—and I am not talking about the financial aspect but the effectiveness of what is being achieved—and that does not make this information public.

One of the greatest problems in conservation is that these organizations feel the only way to raise money is by selling success stories and hiding failure. The result is that we do not know what works and what does not work, and we have not learned any real lessons from all the failures.

This should apply to institutional donors as well.

Do not spend less, spend more—but spend it on audited success stories not on fairy tales.

See another photo gallery and continue reading.

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