The most precious asset for a wildlife photographer is not its cameras and gear, it’s the wildlife itself. And in many parts of the world, it’s disappearing fast.
Whereas Europe has done a good job over the last decades to to safeguard its most charismatic species, Africa and Asia, under the pressure of demographic and economic growth, see a rapid depletion of its natural resources. Deforestation, conversion of natural habitats for agricultural usage, poaching for valuable wild animal parts or bush meat, bird trapping for the pet trade, many factors combine to create a bleak prospect for an increasing number of animal species. Outside of the most famous national parks, many protected areas in developing Asia and Africa are poorly managed and monitored, due to lack of funding, barely slowing down the pace of decline.
To be sure, i am certainly not denying the right for developing countries to achieve economic growth and reduce the gap with the industrial world, which for its own development has followed a similar path only a few centuries ago, clearing land and exterminating competing wildlife in the process. But today we do certainly understand better the importance of maintaining healthy ecosystems, and getting the benefits of environmental services they provide, primarily water and trapping greenhouse gas. And we also know the risks of ignoring the laws of nature : accelerated soil degradation, erosion, depletion of water tables, pollution, etc…
The Kyoto protocol and all the following efforts at tackling the climate change causes have resulted in more inter-government cooperation, and seemingly capable NGOs have been involved in assisting developing countries to devise a more “environment friendly” approach to their economic growth. But there is so much a top-down method can achieve , and grand plans are liable to fail when ignoring the local reality. To take a recent example, i travelled in may 2011 to the Kerinci Seblat national park in Sumatra, Indonesia, a UNESCO world heritage site, probably one of the top 5 natural wonders in Asia on the account of wildlife and biodiversity : Tigers, clouded leopards, elephants, rhinoceros, tapirs, sun bears, 370 bird species, some unique to the area, the world biggest flower, etc… Well you only know you’re in a national park from the fact that you are charged an entrance fee. For the rest, the few park buildings at the entrance are derelict, no staff to be seen, and when asking my local guide Pak Subandi if he often met rangers when trekking in the park, he just burst in a laughter. Evidence of illegal clearing and wood cutting inside the park are everywhere, and the well maintained condition of many jungle trails is not a sign of a booming ecotourism, but of rampant poaching and bird trapping.
So what can we do ? First i believe that simply by visiting natural heritage areas, and more so in countries that struggle to preserve their natural resources, we, photographers, birdwatchers, ecotourists and all sorts of nature lovers, have a positive impact on local conservation efforts, sending the message around that a preserved natural asset has an economic value to the local economy. It is striking to see for example the huge impact of the Bandhavgarh Tiger reserve in central India to the economy of the surrounding villages, bringing hundreds of jobs and various direct or indirect economic benefits. This is certainly a strong deterrent for the local people to participate in any way in Tiger poaching activities, as a reduction in tiger numbers would negatively impact the tourism revenues and negate the benefits of selling the tiger parts.
We can also support organizations and charities that have fully integrated the local community factor in their action. There are certainly plenty of them, i’ll just mention 2 of them that i do know, support and endorse :
Oriental Bird Club (OBC) : http://www.orientalbirdclub.org/
A well-established UK based charity working for the conservation of wild birds in the Oriental region, and the collation and publication of information about them.
In addition to funding a number of grass-root conservation projects they also publish the top quality BirdingASIA and Forktail magazines, and run a very extensive Database of oriental birds photographs (http://orientalbirdimages.org) which is a reference for all birdwatchers and researchers on birds of the region.
Snow Leopard Conservancy : http://www.snowleopardconservancy.org/
A US based conservancy that focuses on the charismatic feline, with a local, community-based approach to conservation that yields excellent results notably in India and Nepal.