WWF commissioned the award-winning photojournalist and filmmaker James Morgan to travel to Africa and Asia to document the grisly realities behind both the supply and demand sides of the illegal wildlife trade. Here, James tells us the story behind some of his images. And he explains why we need to find new ways to tackle demand for this devastating trade.
Photojournalism is embedded in facts but it’s also uniquely positioned to transcend them – that’s its power as a medium and it’s what makes it such a valuable tool for campaigning organisations.
I’m more concerned with eliciting the truth of a situation than I am with feverishly documenting the facts. It’s the internal lives of the people I meet that fascinate me. My role is to talk to people and help them tell their stories in a way that they’re unable to themselves.
Creating a scene
All my images are collaborations, most obviously with the people who appear in them. The image of confiscated ivory and weapons, in a small town called Oyem in the north-east of Gabon, is a scene I created. The confiscated items had been piled up outside a drab looking building. So we moved everything across the street to a building with a bit more texture and colour. Then we brought in eco-ranger Mba Ndong Marius to hold the elephant tusks and add some perspective and another focal point. And, by chance, we came across two ladies wearing clothes that echoed the colour palette of the scene who kindly stood in the window finishing off the image.
So why not just take the photograph of the ivory sitting outside the police station where it was when I arrived? Well, in recent years news-gathering has changed enormously, millions of images are uploaded every day, often only seconds after they’re taken. But does this proliferation of images bring us any closer to understanding the world? Or inspire us to action?
Shortly after I took the photograph, the seized ivory was piled on a truck to be transported to the capital Libreville. I perched on top of the ivory and we drove through the night, arriving in Libreville just before dawn. All night, trucks had been arriving from all over the country bringing huge quantities of contraband elephant tusks and weapons. When we arrived, WWF and other organisations were busy counting it all by torchlight.
Later that morning, I took a photo of burning ivory – after Gabon’s president Ali Bongo Ondimba had set the entire stockpile alight at a ceremony. It serves as a strong end point to the series of images. But the notion of an end point to wildlife crime is misleading. The battle is far from over. Gabon has taken a strong stance and hopefully other African nations will follow suit. But without real pressure on the demand countries, this will not be resolved.
Having spent time with rangers and affected communities in Gabon, the next stage of my commission was to visit Thailand to try and understand the mechanics and motivation behind the surge in demand for animal products. The first thing that hit me was the amount of wildlife smuggling going on in Thailand.
I started off photographing underneath Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi international airport. The airport is a hub for the Asian smuggling network. Contraband in all guises – wildlife, narcotic and human – pass through daily in quantities and numbers that can’t even be guessed at. The amount of ivory I saw just from the last few weeks of confiscations was staggering.
If I had to choose a favourite image from the commission, it would probably be the one I took of a veterinary team taking a blood sample from a tiger cub. But it’s hard to know whether you’re being objective about a photograph’s merit. It’s so easy for the experience surrounding the image to sway your judgment.
We’d got word that the Thai authorities had stopped a truck carrying 16 tiger cubs packed into crates. The truck driver was trying to smuggle them across the border from Thailand into Laos. We decided to drive nine hours to the place they were being held to see if we could capture a photograph.
The blood sample enables the authorities to trace the tiger’s DNA. It’s part of the government’s efforts to track wildlife contraband to its source.
Why are animal parts so sought after in Asia? Plenty of socio-historical explanations have been put forward. Ivory, for example, has been traded since the Ming dynasty. Now of course there are far more Chinese people with aspirations and a modern, capitalist market ready to cater to them.
In more recent history, an unnamed politician in Vietnam – the country that’s believed to be the main destination for South African rhino horn – is said to have claimed his cancer was cured by imbibing ground rhino horn. This kicked off the widespread – but unfounded – belief that rhino horn may be a miracle cure. It is also taken to show high status and wealth.
Addressing the problem
As I understand it, the environmental movement is currently working on two ways of addressing the problem of illegal wildlife trade. First, using force and legislation to reduce supply. Second, using a rational argument to reduce demand. This involves debunking myths of the medicinal properties of animal parts, and raising awareness of the catastrophic environmental impact of the trade.
The power of the story
The fact that we could lose an entire species to an insatiable demand for its horn (which is composed mostly of keratin, the same as human hair and fingernails) has all the irony and narrative hooks of a good tabloid story. The myth of rhino horn’s medical properties is the most quoted cause of the escalation in wildlife crime. As such, it’s a story that’s been instrumental in raising awareness around the issue in Europe and America. But I don’t think it’s a story that will work in Vietnam or Thailand.
The majority of people I met while working on this issue had stories of vague acquaintances narrowly escaping fatal illnesses by resorting to rare animal parts. Individuals who have been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness will never believe in science as much as they believe in hope. Humans just aren’t wired that way. And such stories will invariably beat science in capturing people’s imaginations.
There’s no question that the role played by WWF, and other pressure groups, will be instrumental in any solution to end wildlife crime. But we also need a story as powerful as the story being told by those who have a vested interest in continuing the trade. Until then, ivory from dead elephants will continue to bestow prestige in Thailand and the horns of dead rhinos will continue to give hope of curing cancer among the anonymous outer ring of Vietnam’s social circles.
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