Walking through the forest, I realised I wasn’t alone. Up ahead, a black bear was rustling through the greenery. It stood tall on its hind legs, oblivious to my presence, and used the trunk of a tree to get rid of an itch on his back, allowing me to watch silently for a while before hiking deeper into the wilderness of Yellowstone National Park.
Wild encounters like this stand out as some of my favourite memories from the last 15 years of travelling the world as a photographer and journalist. I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with many of the incredible, diverse species we share the planet with, from Tanzania’s lions and Uganda’s gorillas to the penguins of Antarctica and rare lizards in Mexico’s deserts. Along the way, I’ve also seen many of the severe threats facing the world’s wildlife, from habitat loss to poaching. Despite warnings about bears on hiking trails, or lions, sharks and crocodiles elsewhere, humans are a much greater to threat to animals than the other way around.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported last year that around one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, from iconic species, like cheetahs and rhinos, to equally important but little-known frogs, fish, lizards and insects. The crisis facing the world’s wildlife, along with my love of photography, inspired the creation of the New Big 5 project, an international conservation initiative supported by more than 100 photographers and conservationists, including Dr. Jane Goodall, Thomas D. Mangelsen, Ami Vitale, and Steve Winter, as well as wildlife charities such as Save The Elephants, Conservation International, WildAid, and Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.
The project is asking people around the world to vote for five animals they want to be included in a New Big 5 of wildlife photography, rather than hunting. Shooting with a camera, not a gun.
The original big 5 refers to the most challenging animals for colonial hunters in Africa to shoot and kill (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo). Over the years, I kept thinking about how outdated and irrelevant a big 5 of trophy hunting is to most people, the idea of killing animals for fun is offensive to many others.
The New Big 5 we’re creating is based on people’s favourite animals to photograph and see in photographs. Unlike trophy hunting, wildlife photography is more popular and relevant than ever. It’s both a creative way to celebrate wildlife and a powerful tool to help protect the natural world.
The project’s taken nine months of work so far. I spent time bringing photographers, conservationists and charities onboard, building a website, recording a series of podcasts, and working on articles and interviews looking at wildlife problems and solutions, as well as a free educational Fun Pack for young people that can be downloaded from the website. It’s all been done without any funding, which has been tough-going.
We’ve opened the vote to animals from around the world, so the final five could include polar bears, wolves, orangutans, or tigers, as well as lions, elephants, gorillas, and other African species. Animal lovers, like Moby and Djimon Hounsou, have already got involved and given their selections. “I wonder what the final choices will be,” says Dr. Jane Goodall. “There are so many incredible animals in our world, all fascinating in different ways. Any project which brings attention to animals, so many of whom are threatened or endangered, is truly important.”
As Dr. Goodall suggests, there’s a serious aim behind the project: to use the idea of a New Big 5 to get people talking and thinking about wildlife, to highlight the many threats facing wildlife around the world (habitat loss, the illegal wildlife trade, climate change…).
The situation’s critical. Numbers of African lions, a personal favourite of mine as a photographer, have declined by half over the last 25 years, according to the Lion Recovery Fund. Cheetahs are down to just 7,100. Ethiopian wolves are down to less than 500. Elephants are still being poached for their tusks at a worrying rate. Orangutans and giraffes are being wiped out through habitat loss, while polar bears are suffering the impacts of climate change. 200,000 pangolins are being trafficked and killed each year. Sumatran orangutans, Amur leopards, Cross River gorillas, Javan rhinos, and Hawksbill turtles are all currently listed as ‘critically endangered.’
It’s likely every animal the public chooses for the New Big 5 will be one that’s classified as ‘endangered’ or ‘critically endangered’. My hope is to raise awareness and encourage people to get involved: donating to wildlife causes, campaigning, pressuring leaders, changing consumer behavior, or starting their own projects.
People are thinking a lot about wildlife and nature during this COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus is thought to have originated from bats or pangolins at a wildlife market in Wuhan, China, with scientists warning humanity could face another even worse pandemic if we don’t change our behaviour, not just wild animals for sale in markets but habitat destruction, which brings people and wild animals into closer proximity. COVID-19’s also closed down national parks across Africa, Asia, and worldwide, meaning poverty and poaching are on the rise.
Every country has its own wildlife issues. Right now, a campaign’s underway to protect Bristol Bay in Alaska from the controversial Pebble Mine, an open-pit gold and copper mine, which will negatively impact the local salmon industry and harm local brown bear populations through pollution and breaking up their wild habitat. Alaska’s beluga whales are also at risk.
As the millions of people worldwide who recently watched Netflix’s Tiger King documentary saw, there’s also a real problem in the US with the trade in exotic pets. There are more tigers living in captivity in the United States than there are in the wild. The series showed the tip of the iceberg of a $30-42 billion global exotic pets trade, which causes suffering and death not only to big cats but also snakes, parrots, iguanas, fish, primates, and otters.
Human-wildlife conflict is another global challenge. In Africa, people (especially farmers) contend with the presence of animals, such as elephants and lions, the sharing of space often leading to the death of the wildlife. Likewise, in the US, only with bears and wolves.
Many people around the world want to see changes in the relationship between people and nature, so animals and the environment are protected. Since launching, the New Big 5 project’s had a massive response, with people around the world voting and sending messages of support. Many people are finding out about wildlife issues and getting involved in causes.
Despite how much people care about animals, scientists recently warned the pace of extinction is accelerating. At least 500 species of land animals are on the brink of extinction, from Sumatran rhinos to harlequin frogs, some likely to disappear in the next two decades. It’s not easy to be hopeful for the future, when the news contains stories every day about the damage humans are causing to the world, from the killing of pangolins for their scales for traditional ‘medicine’ in Asia to industrial projects causing natural disasters. Many world leaders are failing to reflect the values of the people they serve and provide protection for wildlife and ecosystems.
But working on this project and talking to people fighting on the frontline to protect wildlife has reminded me we’re capable of turning things around. Numbers of mountain gorillas, black rhinos and West African giraffes, all feared to be on track for extinction, are rising, thanks to conservation efforts. Ivory bans have reduced the number of elephants being killed. In the US, largely due to the Endangered Species Act, conservation work is helping species like grey wolves and grizzly bears increase in numbers and expand their range.
Change is possible. “Mass wildlife extinction, whether due to habitat loss or poaching or climate change, has become a ticking time bomb that can no longer be ignored,” says Jamie Joseph, founder of Saving The Wild, who work to shut down rhino poaching syndicates. “Fortunately, it’s not too late. There is a groundswell of humanity, especially the youth, who value conservation over consumerism. There is hope in the hands of every person who is willing to stand up for what is right. If enough people are determined to fix a problem, anything is possible.”
To vote, listen to podcasts, or download New Big 5’s educational Fun Pack for young people, visit: newbig5.com. Results from the vote will be announced in November of 2020.
Graeme Green is a wildlife photographer and founder of the New Big 5 project.