Photographer Fights African Poaching With Grisly Pictures

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Some development agencies have gone as far as financing timber inventories on behalf of logging companies, so that maybe someday these companies will be able to achieve some kind of sustainable-logging certification.

There has been no really independent auditing of the effectiveness or progress. There is no longer a legislative, executive, and judicial component to the certifying process. The conservationists have essentially taken on the role of all three, creating serious conflicts of interest.

Other loggers have now caught on and have asked for the same deal, knowing that it is a win-win situation for them. They get rid of a tricky issue, getting a green mantle on top of it—and all at no, or very little, cost.

The latest twist seems to be for conservationists to ask the World Bank to lean on the government of Gabon to reduce logging taxes.

Presumably the idea is that if loggers pay fewer taxes, they will invest more in conservation. That is pretty naive in the context of the business climate these companies operate in.

I believe in negotiating from a position of strength—the notion of advocating consumer boycotts of tropical timber seems to have gone out the window about a decade ago—rather then arriving at the negotiating table as pragmatic beggars, willing to lower the bar pretty much to the ground.

I can understand if the European Union, the World Bank, or the UN Food and Agriculture Organization try to find a way to justify the logging of the remaining primary rain forests.

But when mainstream conservation organizations are in the front line of endorsing the cutting down of the Earth's richest and most productive ecosystems, the word "absurd" comes to mind.

What do you say to allegations that your images may be causing people to kill wild animals, because people know you will pay to be taken to places where hunting is going on and bush meat is sold?

I never had any illusions about winning a popularity contest by questioning some of the conservation NGOs and the egos of people running them. A few years ago a WWF [World Wildlife Fund] bigwig more or less accused me of setting up the bush-meat crisis so I had something to photograph.

This was at the time my images of five dead gorillas came out. I suggested to him and WWF International in Switzerland that we hold a special meeting.

I would fly in the hunter in question at my own cost, so he could tell his tale and tell them just how ineffective they were in dealing with the bush-meat issue. I could never get them to take me up on it.

I also have correspondence where film crews asked me to accompany them doing documentary films on bush meat. After an experience with a pushy producer, I always insisted that there be no active hunting of any kind while I was with a team.

Some such arrangements fell apart once the producers informed me that their policy was to film whatever was happening naturally. It was not good enough for me. I do not go on any expedition if they are going to film hunting.

To me the stated position of discouraging media interest in the bush-meat issue because it might encourage hunting is mostly a red herring. The allegation is made by those who do not want to deal with questions about their ineffectiveness on the back of negative media stories.

You have pet chimpanzees and other wild animals that live with you. How did that come about? Is it inconsistent that you, a conservation activist, should domesticate wild animals?

We have two chimps and a bunch of dogs. Our 18-year-old chimp we brought home from a Congo River trip about 16 years ago before I got into this conservation business. However, he was a main motivator for me to get into it and to stay with it.

The more he became part of the family, the harder it became to accept that in most parts of Africa these creatures are just another piece of protein.

We were fortunate to own several hectares of forest and fenced in several to create as natural a setting as possible. However, I then initiated a proper chimp sanctuary not far from where we live. It is now well established and home to some 30 orphaned chimps.

While it was being built we accepted several more orphans the authorities did not want to deal with. When [the sanctuary] opened we [put the orphans in it] but held on to the chimp we had brought back from the DRC.

When one of the orphaned chimps we sent to the sanctuary died under very questionable circumstances, we decided that we could do better ourselves [in our home]. A few years ago I brought back another bush-meat orphan, a female already some five years old, again from a rebel-held area in the Congo.

The two are now good friends, and we have two large electrified enclosures with two specially built night-housing facilities, although the big male sleeps in our bed when we are at home—call us fruitcakes if you must.

We have set up a trust that will guarantee that [our domestic chimps] will never have to worry about having to leave their present home, their food, or general care. They will be taken care of for however long they or their offspring might live.

I have very, very little doubt that if they could speak and be given a choice, they would prefer their new life to trying to survive in the forests of the Congo, with poacher bullets flying in every direction.

It is extremely difficult and very costly to rehabilitate formerly captive chimps that have lost the fear of humans. In most of central Africa there is no point in trying, because the problems that created these orphans in the first place have not been eliminated.

So we did not domesticate these chimps. That was done by the hunters who killed their mothers and the traders who took over from there. These chimps cannot be released into the wild.

They have a home that replicates their habitat as closely as possible. Except, after nightfall, they have the choice to sleep in the rain, in a tree nest, or in a warm room with a mattress and blankets.

What's the next thing you will do to drive awareness of the bush-meat issue?

We recently had a very interesting response from [President of France] Jacques Chirac to the book, Consuming Nature. Like the World Bank President, on an earlier occasion, he professed to be shocked by the story it tells. He promised to raise the issue directly with the African heads of state.

I believe that is really where the political will would need to come from—and that there is the potential to create it at that level, if it is combined with the right carrots and sticks.

In this context I feel I have achieved what one can achieve as an "extremist" determined to rock the boat.

My next project is a book about elephants, a book that will allow me to travel to all the places where one can pretend the world is still in order. I felt I needed some uplifting experiences—enough dead elephants for me.

However, I just read a review of a recently published coffee-table book on elephants. The review highlights the book's absence of dealing with issues affecting the conservation status of Africa's elephants—the ongoing destruction of habitat and the continued slaughter for ivory and meat.

The review concluded that [publishing the book] could be compared to publishing a title on the wildflowers of Auschwitz while the Holocaust is going on.

So maybe I can use this review to convince my publisher to allow me to add a "Holocaust" chapter to the elephant book. That way I will live up to my image as a radical extremist.

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