Conservation Photography

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 35 No. 2, February 2015

There are probably fewer ways to draw out instant human responses than to use evocative images. Photography has consequently been used as a conservation tool, virtually from the time cameras were invented. Ansel Adams (1902-1984), was probably the world’s first and best-known conservation photographer who stunned the world with his black and white images, shot in Yosemite National Park, U.S.A. In the 1940s, Adams was asked by the US Department of the Interior to photograph the nation’s finest national parks. And all those images were therefore made available for use in the public domain. His images directly moved a nation and helped protect vast swatches of wild lands that might otherwise have been lost to the plough and axe. In his characteristic, quiet way Adams defined the way forward for us all by stating simply that: “… the approach of the artist and the approach of the environmentalist are fairly close in that both are, to a rather impressive degree, concerned with the affirmation of life.”

That ubiquitous catchphrase ‘conservation photography’, was nowhere in his lexicon. That came about in 2005, when Christina Mittermeir defined the term when she established the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP)  during the iconic World Wilderness Congress in Anchorage, Alaska. In doing so, she unleashed a new brand of wildlife conservation upon the world. In her view, photographers need to: “Work on local conservation issues and dedicate a significant body of work to these issues. Being one of the thousands of nature photographers that simply focus on going down the list of desirable images of bears, wolves, eagles and elephants, without focusing on story-telling for conservation, is not the way.”

Portrait of a Battleground
Like a hand-drawn map on ancient parchment, the cracked lines of this rhino’s face climaxes in the craggy peak of its horn. Yet, the roughness of its skin is offset so tenderly by the lashes that embellish its eye. The image also graphically portrays the threat to rhinos from terrorists and insurrectionists in league with poachers willing to kill both wildlife and wildlife protectors for the value of the rhino’s horn.

Photographer: Arpan Saha
Entry/Sanctuary Wildlife Photography Awards 2014 
Location: Kaziranga, Assam
Camera: Nikon D7000, Lens: Nikkor 300 mm. f/4
Shutter speed: 1/800 sec., Aperture: f/5.6, ISO: 400, Focal length: 420 mm.
Image taken: March 2, 2014, 2:16 p.m.

In the decade since, India has become a shutter-happy nation. New money, new technology and some of the globe’s most stunning landscapes and animals becoming more and more accessible, has bred a battalion of photographers intent on capturing the best of the Indian wilds. 

And they do. 

At Sanctuary, our limitless appetite for appealing images is relentlessly fed by a steady stream of increasingly brilliant photographers who flood us with unbelievable photographs of the natural world. Breathtaking images inevitably see us cluster around computer screens, but, as a magazine dedicated to the proposition that our natural heritage must be saved, we then intuitively begin to plot and plan on how the image sent can be used to win public opinion, influence policy makers and assist local groups to protect our vanishing wildernesses. 

All too often the line between pure wildlife and conservation photography is blurred. A fetching image of a tiger, or butterfly has the capacity to trigger positive responses from decision makers who must decide whether a forest lives or dies. Equally hard, even ugly, images of road kills, or forests scarred by mining, could well be the deciding factor when a judge must opine on whether or not to allow a project to consume what the heart says should belong to tomorrow.

“We need to tell the story of our present relationship as nine billion humans on this small planet. Take the responsibility of being a conservation photojournalist and tell the stories that will move people to save the world in which we live.” 

Steve Winter, National Geographic Photographer

A Studied Indifference
Endemic to India, the Deccan ground gecko is a striking little reptile found in the northern Western Ghats. Recording the presence of such species is vital to highlight what we stand to lose when we destroy forests in the name of developmental projects. These creatures are now also targets of the global, illegal wildlife trade.

Photographer: Paramanand Chikane
Entry/Sanctuary Wildlife Photography Awards 2014
Location: Pune, Maharashtra
Camera: Nikon D3, Lens: Nikkor 105 mm. macro, Shutter speed: 1/80 sec.,
Aperture: f/16, ISO: 200,
Focal length: 105 mm.
Image taken: July 20, 2013, 9:40 p.m. 

And then we have the issue of ethics, which dominates the purpose of conservation photography practitioners. In an age of Photoshop manipulation, for instance, honesty plays a vital role in establishing credibility. Sanctuary would never fudge an image to win telling points, nor should anyone else, irrespective of how strongly they feel about threat to either species or habitats.

The art of photography will remain one of the most powerful weapons available to those who wish to protect wildernesses, spaces and species. The fact is that a camera in the hands of a scientist or naturalist in the right place could deliver just the image that moves a nation, or a national leader to action. Just one image could, equally, help a lawyer or a citizen’s group to protect a fragile wilderness from the promoter of a mine, or dam by exposing a claim that the area being mined or submerged “has no wildlife,” or help raise a public outcry by graphically outlining the pollution, or desecration of a beautiful wilderness.

Put another way, conservation photography is not beholden to beauty. A meaningful but terrible picture – pixelated, badly framed, over exposed – is still worth far more than a beautiful one with no story to tell. That said, a perfectly framed, well-exposed, sharp and meaningful image would outweigh one that fell short in the technical department. 

 “Taking just pretty pictures is pointless. Conservation photography must seek to invoke strong emotional responses that lead to conservation action and biodiversity protection.”

Nayan Khanolkar, Naturalist, Photographer, Image Consultant, Sanctuary Asia

The Desert Sublime
In the scrub and sand landscape of the Little Rann of Kutchh, two of the desert’s most charismatic predators come eye to eye. On terra firma, the desert fox crouches low, eyes watchful, as from above a Common Kestrel swoops too close for comfort. Two enigmatic animals in a single frame, a consistent tan colour palette and the striking composition of this picture make it the perfect poster to showcase the grandeur of the Rann, and the thrill of inter-species encounters.

Photographer: A. B. Apana
Entry/ Sanctuary Wildlife Photography Awards 2014
Location: Little Rann of Kutchh, Gujarat 
Camera: Canon EOS 1D Mark IV, Lens: Canon EF 500 mm. f/4L IS II USM, Shutter speed: 1/2000 sec.,
Aperture: f/4, ISO: 400,
Focal length: 500 mm.
Image taken: December 2, 2013,7:59 a.m.

The thing to remember is that meaningful conservation photography has less to do with how a picture was taken and more with what is done with the image after it has been shot. An image left to rot on a computer, or one that is sent out to the wrong audience, with no strategic purpose, does little good. 

Sanctuary’s purpose was pretty well summed up by the well-known photographer Paul Nicklen, who wrote in the Huffington Post: “I’m trying to find that intricate balance between being a photojournalist and a conservationist. ... The planet is in a state right now where we’re out of time, where in many places we’ve passed the point of no return. It’s not a time to entertain people with pretty pictures, or entertain people with fun, unbiased stories. It’s time to get people to wake up.

“The message of conservation is difficult to convey to an audience whose patience for the written word runs thin. Powerful imagery sends a strong visual message exhorting us to save what remains.”

Sumit Sen, Founder, Kolkata Birds

“If my photographs do not contribute to protecting the subjects I shoot and the forests in which they live, then, in my opinion, the images have little meaning.” – Aditya Singh, Owner Ranthambhore Bagh Lodge and Conservation Photographer

“Conservation photography takes you beyond the pretty picture, highlighting environmental issues, conservation road blocks, or the achievements of people grappling with issues on the ground.” 
– Anuradha Marwah, Conservation Photographer



Whirlwind Romance
Yet another pair of ochre beauties from the Little Rann of Kutchh! Dust flies as a male wild ass takes off in hot pursuit of his mate. Listed as endangered, the wild ass is one of India’s fastest animals, and can clock speeds of up to 80 km. per hour. There is much to be learned still about the social structure of these equines as some studies have shown that males keep harems of females, while others suggest that a male defends a territory to attract females. This high action shot is only enhanced by the fact that the subjects are slightly blurred – indicative of the speed at which they’re racing.

Photographer: Divyarajsinh Parmar
Entry/Sanctuary Wildlife Photography Awards 2014
Location: Little Rann of Kutchh, Gujarat
Camera: Canon EOS 40D, Lens: Canon 100-400 IS, Shutter speed: 1/160 sec., Aperture: f/5.6, ISO: 400,
Focal length: 400 mm.
Image taken: December 23, 2012,5:56 p.m.

“Unfortunately, most nature photographers in India do not even consider taking “conservation photographs” such as road kills, mined slopes, deforested hillsides, ugly constructions within forests, or other manmade disasters inflicted on nature. Yet, pictures like these, with a record of the location, date and time, can help conservation immensely.”

Shekar Dattatri and Ramki Sreenivasan, Conservation India


Between a Rock and a Hard Place

What an apt metaphor for what we have done to this incomparable species! Trapped between shrinking forests and the poacher’s snare, our tigers lead a perilous existence. The massive paw and half face of this particular sub-adult was clicked in the Kanha Tiger Reserve, one of India’s best-managed parks. More than an exceptional natural history moment, the metaphorical significance of the image is indisputable.

Photographer: A.B. Apana
Entry/Sanctuary Wildlife Photography Awards 2014 
Location: Kanha, Madhya Pradesh
Camera: Canon EOS 1D Mark IV, Lens: Canon EF 500 mm. f/4L IS II USM,
Shutter speed: 1/640 sec, Aperture: f/4, ISO: 640, Focal length: 500 mm.
Image taken: April 26, 2014, 05:12 p.m.


Gawping Gluttons

At first glance it seems that these catfish are trapped in a net, gasping for air, but look closer and you realise that it’s their immense whiskers that create a mesh pattern. This seething mass of fish was photographed in the waters of the Keoladeo National Park, where they are routinely fed wheat atta or dough by the babas or priests of a nearby temple. Their mouths yawning wide, their bodies’ slick and thrashing, one can almost feel the splash of water while looking at this picture. The fish-eye perspective lends even more allure to the image.

Photographer: Aditya Padhye
Entry/Sanctuary Wildlife Photography Awards 2014
Location: Bharatpur, Rajasthan
Camera: HERO3 + Black Edition, Shutter speed: 1/395 sec., Aperture: f/2.8,
ISO: 100, Focal length: 3 mm.
Image taken: September 26, 2014, 9:07 a.m.



High Alert

High tension embellishesevery pixel of this image, as Western Marsh-harrier, coots and sambar, all play out their destined roles in the Bharatpur wetlands. The frenzied water birds are relatively weak fliers and as panic rules, the raptor’s intent becomes clear. The alert sambar in the background adds greatly to the impact of the image, which underscores the vital importance of wetlands such as Keoladeo, which happen to be among the world’s finest repositories of carbon, and are critical to the water security of Rajasthan.

Photographer: Karthik P. H.
Entry/Sanctuary Wildlife Photography Awards 2014
Location: Bharatpur, Rajasthan
Camera: Canon EOS 60D, Lens: Canon 300 mm. f/2.8 with 2x converter, Shutter speed: 1/1000 sec., Aperture: f/6.3, ISO: 200, Focal length: 600 mm.
Image taken: February 8, 2014,2:30 p.m. 


Enough is Enough

In Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park, a wild pig turns the tables on this astonished leopard. Pig and cat mimic each other in stance as they each rear up on their hind legs, determined to win an advantage in the brawl. While the uninitiated may place their bets on the leopard, the wild observer knows that an enraged, adult wild pig is a daunting opponent, and that the swine does often manage to drive away the predator.

Photographer: Chitral Jayatilake
Entry – Sanctuary Wildlife Photography Awards 2014
Location: Yala, Sri Lanka
Camera: Canon EOS 1D X,
Lens: Canon 500 mm. IS II, Shutter speed: 1/800 sec., Aperture: f/8,
ISO: 400, Focal length: 500 mm.
Image taken: September 26, 2013, 8:53 a.m.


Nowhere to Go

A ghost crab attacks an olive ridley hatchling that has just emerged from its underground nest. Odisha’s coastline has offered nesting sites to marine turtles for millions of years, but the newborns must run a gauntlet of predators – kites, gulls, jackals, wild pigs, hyaenas, crabs, fish and more. Today, however, new threats to the survival of the turtles including ports, industrial complexes, tourism resorts, prawn farms could prove to be one-threat-too-far.

Photographer: Aditya Panda/Sanctuary Photo Library
Location: Bhitarkanika, Orissa
Camera: Pentax K10D, Lens: Tamron 90 mm. macro, Shutter speed: 1/125 sec., 
Aperture: f/10, ISO: 100, Focal length: 90 mm.
Image taken: April 7, 2009,12:51 a.m.

In the Shadow of Man
Sitting pretty is a Manohar’s bush frog, a species discovered in 2008. Little is known about the behaviour and ecology of this amphibian, a habitat specialist that inhabits highland reeds. The stunning little frogs are easily recognisable by their brown spotted, golden-yellow upper parts, and meek vocalisations. An Indian endemic found only in the southern Western Ghats, it is at risk from habitat destruction and fragmentation.

Photographer: Sandeep Das
Entry/Sanctuary Wildlife Photography Awards 2014
Location:  Agasthyamalai, Kerala 
Camera: Nikon D7000, Lens: Nikkor 105 Macro, Shutter speed: 1/125 sec., Aperture: f/9, ISO: 400,
Focal length: 85 mm.
Image taken: July 7, 2014, 2:49 p.m. 


The Zen Master

Unflustered by the mob of drongos, a Brown Fish-owl in Ranthambhore appears to snooze calmly even as the first of the smaller birds launches its attack. The lighting embellishes the owl with a celestial radiance, while the pale background makes the charcoal-coloured drongos appear all the darker. Brown Fish-owls have prominent ear tufts that lay at the side, and not atop their heads. They prefer to fish in still waters, and capture prey by extending long legs, and skimming the water surface to grasp their target in knife-like talons.

Photographer: Sandeep Mall
Entry/Sanctuary Wildlife Photography Awards 2014
Location: Ranthambhore, Rajasthan 
Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Lens: Canon EF 200-400 mm. f/4L IS USM EXT, Shutter speed: 1/3200 sec.,
Aperture: f/5.6, ISO: 1250, 
Focal length: 560 mm.
Image taken: May 2, 2014, 5:24 p.m.
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