Each year around 30,000 African elephants are killed by poachers to feed the illegal ivory trade. I spoke to award-winning photojournalist Brent Stirton about his work to focus international attention on the people who are profiting most from the ivory war, and the rangers who risk their lives to stop the killing.
Congratulations on winning the Wildlife Photojournalist Award at the Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year. What motivated you to focus on the illegal ivory trade?
The fact that we’re losing elephants so quickly. I fear that extinction is inevitable unless dramatic action is taken. I chose to illustrate the connection between ivory and terror organisations because I want people to feel reinvigorated about the seriousness of this situation. I also wanted to pay tribute to the people on the frontline of conservation. It’s important to keep thinking about new ways to talk about the issues affecting the natural world. You have to look deeper or people will get tired of listening.
Many of your photos focus on the people affected by elephant poaching and ivory trafficking, as well as the animals. What made you want to tell their stories too?
These are incredible people who risk their lives in difficult jobs with very little reward. Most of them feel strongly about wildlife and those of us living lives of privilege in the developed world should show a greater appreciation for these brave men and women. We entrust world wildlife heritage to them, but often don’t demonstrate any support towards their efforts. That’s just not an acceptable situation.
Your images illustrate strong and emotional stories. During this project, what gave you hope that the illegal ivory trade could be stopped?
Seeing the success they’ve had in Zakouma national park in halting elephant poaching. It demonstrates what is possible when you look after your men and successfully enlist local communities for intelligence gathering. My inspiration in general comes from the people on the ground whose mission it is to protect wildlife. I’ve met so many remarkable people that I can’t help but support them with my work.
You’ve been working alongside WWF for 10 years, helping to highlight some of our most important campaigns. Do any of your upcoming projects focus on the illegal wildlife trade or other conservation issues?
At least half of my year is always about conservation issues. I’d like it to be the whole year, but I also need to pay some bills and that means doing some commercial work too.
How did you get into photography?
I started in South Africa in 1993 as a journalist. I was writing about a lot of factional violence at that time and I was asked if I could find a photographer to work with. I couldn’t, so I bought a used camera and taught myself how to take pictures. So far it’s worked out for me. I have been very fortunate in my career on many levels.
Find out more about the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition which has returned to the Natural History Museum with images of the most extraordinary species on the planet, captured by professional and amateur photographers.
Find out how we’re tackling the illegal wildlife trade
Follow our chief species adviser Heather Sohl’s blogs for the latest news