When passions collide: wildlife photography as a tool for conservation

Photojournalist Brent Stirton shares how ethical wildlife photography can highlight the plight of endangered species and help to protect our natural world.
A rare pangolin walking along the ground with its tail outstretched.

This image by Canon Ambassador Brent Stirton is from his project Pangolins in Crisis, which won second prize in the Nature Stories category at the 2020 World Press Photo contest. Taken near Harare, Zimbabwe, it shows a pangolin, currently the world's most illegally traded animal, learning to forage again after being rescued from traffickers and rehabilitated. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 1/200 sec, f/18 and ISO200. © Brent Stirton/Getty Images

With the natural world under serious threat, the powerful investigative work of photojournalists such as Canon Ambassador Brent Stirton on wildlife conservation issues, sustainability and the environment has never been more important.

Brent's work for international organisations including the Gates Foundation and Human Rights Watch, as well as publications including National Geographic, Le Figaro, GEO and Stern, has helped to raise the profile of conservation issues among audiences worldwide. As he says, "I'm in the business of influencing opinion".

In recent years his wildlife-related work has included stories on the rhino horn trade, pangolins in crisis and gorilla poaching. He is a Senior Correspondent for Getty Images, and has been involved with the New Big 5 project, set up by fellow photographer Graeme Green. The New Big 5 is a global initiative supported by photographers, wildlife experts and conservationists, including Dr Jane Goodall, with the protection of endangered species at its heart.

Here, Brent tells us how taking part in such initiatives, and capturing "irrefutable evidence" of the plight of animals in wildlife photo stories such as his graphic and upsetting documentation of rhino poaching, help him to ensure that action will be taken to protect them.

A rhino with a rope tied around its neck, being moved to safer territory by four men.

Brent worked in close proximity to this conservation team, shooting at the wide end of his Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM zoom lens, for greater impact in his image of cow and calf rhinos in Ezulu Game Farm, Grahamstown, South Africa, being captured and moved to a more secure facility where there is less threat from poachers. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 1/250 sec, f/11 and ISO200. © Brent Stirton/Getty Images

What do you look for in a wildlife photo story?

"The number one starting point is meeting people who need help with their project. If they need coverage to promote what they're trying to do, I try to offer that and be of service to the issue they're working on. I'm mostly looking for things people don't know about, so I can produce work that isn't already out there and is saleable."

When you've decided to cover a story, what is the process you go through?

"First, I ask myself, 'What is the story? What do I really want to talk about here?' I'm interested in trying to guess why things happen – the cause and effect – as well as producing something that might be considered more frontline. I want to provide some insight into what's happening in the world. If you tell these stories, you need to commit to some level of depth, and it annoys me when people don't do that.

"On average, I do at least two weeks of solid research on a subject. That research needs to go into a proposal, which is a mini thesis, then a budget needs to be put together. In terms of making the story happen, I have to engage people, such as fixers and translators, as well as trying to work out what I can within the budget, if there is one. If you're a photojournalist today, you can also expect that at some point you will invest in your own stories; that's just part of living this life."

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A wild saker falcon mother and her chicks in a nest.

Brent captured this wild saker falcon mother and her chicks in the context of the wider Mongolian landscape by shooting close to the birds at the 16mm end of his zoom lens. The saker falcon is endangered because large numbers are being captured for the falcon trade or being electrocuted by power lines. This falcon story won Brent first prize in the Nature Stories category of the 2019 World Press Photo contest. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 16mm, 1/500 sec, f/5 and ISO200. © Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Which of your wildlife stories has been the most challenging?

"I did a story on pangolins which was very challenging. Smaller animal groups are disappearing at a huge rate – we're losing 40-60 species a day – and pangolins represent that situation. As pangolin scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine, I had to get to China. Reporting on the illegal wildlife trade is complex and when I was interacting with the criminal element, I had to do it very carefully to avoid compromising my Chinese partners.

"My greatest fear with these stories is not getting a key picture and not being able to tell the complete story. I'm in the business of influencing opinion, so I need to present evidence of what's happening that's irrefutable, and to place that evidence in the hands of power brokers, so hopefully action will be taken."

You're involved in the New Big 5 project. How important is this initiative, and others like it?

"People are being asked to vote for the animals they want to be included in the 'New Big 5' of wildlife photography [a twist on the old Big 5, which featured the five animals in Africa that colonial-era hunters found most challenging to shoot and kill]. Anything like this that points you towards a continued interest in wildlife is a good thing.

"People need new motivations or new points of interest, and never more so than today. It's one of many tools to bring a little more consciousness to what's happening to the environment. If there's a different way to talk about conservation issues and why people should care about animals, I'm all for it."

My toughest wildlife shoot

Five top wildlife photographers reveal the stories behind their most challenging shoots and how they eventually managed to get the shots they wanted.

How do you believe photography can be used as a tool to aid conservation?

"If you take people into the wild and place them around wild animals for long enough, they see the value of wildlife. Part of my job is to provide that experience vicariously and also to talk about what's happening to so many creatures and how that's wrong. Animals can't speak for themselves, so there's an element of trying to do that for them."

Standing on a sand dune, a man uses a piece of meat on a string to lure a falcon up into the air.

To take this low light shot of Sheikh Butti bin Maktoum bin Juma al Maktoum of the Dubai Royal family training his falcons, Brent increased his ISO and shot with the lens wide open to allow a fast shutter speed and freeze the movement of the bird in flight. Sheikh Butti is the first UAE falconer to train and hunt with a captive-bred bird, instead of one taken from the wild. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 1/1250 sec, f/4 and ISO400. © Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Let's talk about your kit. What are your must-haves for telling ethical wildlife stories?

"Until recently my main bodies were the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III, but I recently had the opportunity to use a Canon EOS R5 and from what I've seen so far, it will become my main camera, no question. This is the first camera which gives me the detail of really high-resolution files while also providing the low-light capabilities I need, plus the ability to pull back shadows and have a really amazing dynamic range."

"For the way I work, the bottom line is, I need to be able to walk with [the camera]. Previously I'd be carrying up to three camera bodies, but now it will be purely the two Canon EOS R5s. The camera is smaller and lighter, attracts less attention, it's weather-sealed, and the silent shooting facility will be very useful to me. I think the Canon EOS R5 is the best camera in the mirrorless world.

"In terms of lenses, I'm using the new Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM, which is an incredible piece of glass. It's absolutely the equivalent of the best primes that are out there. The Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM is an incredible lens too. I really do think all the RF lenses are a step up – they're in a different class to anything else in the mirrorless category. I'm now getting 95% of my photos in focus at f/1.2 and that has never happened before. For that factor alone, it's worth switching to RF lenses."

A crowd of people dragging the body of a female gorilla, shot by poachers, through a densely wooded area.

As part of his story on gorilla orphans, Brent photographed local villagers in Mikeno, Eastern Congo, helping to evacuate the body of a lactating female who had been shot by poachers. "I wanted to create a sense of urgency, and it was too dark not to use fill flash for elements of sharpness, so I dragged the shutter and zoomed very slightly to get the feeling I wanted," says Brent. Taken on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM) at 16mm, 1/4 sec, f/4.5 and ISO50. © Brent Stirton/Getty Images

What advice would you give to aspiring photojournalists who want to help wildlife through photography?

"I would say look for stories locally first. If you do that, you can go back to your story and refine it and it doesn't have to cost you a lot of money. I'd also suggest looking at the non-governmental organisations and charitable organisations that work in your area. Working with them gives you a way of placing pictures, and of being of service to them.

"I'd also say you don't need the latest and greatest kit when you're starting out, but what you do need is reliable kit. Buy the best glass you can, but don't buy a lot and put money instead into your production. It's better for you to finance what you're doing than to buy heaps of kit that just sits on your shelf. Just ask yourself two questions, in this order: What do I want to do with my photography? And what do I really need to do it? The more successful you become, the more kit will be important, because it will give you more options."

You've witnessed the destruction of wildlife first hand. Are you hopeful for the future of the natural world?

"There are a lot of good, admirable people out there trying to work on preservation issues, and I'm optimistic that this particular strain of human will continue. Ultimately, I'm hoping that a new green economy evolves. We're beginning to see that the natural world is valuable on so many levels. If we look after wildlife and wild spaces, I believe there's a great potential for them to look after us, both economically and spiritually. There's no question, if we wipe all those animals out, we're next. We need them and they certainly need us. We've been doing a pretty good job on failing them so far.

"In the countries where wildlife crime occurs, it's often about the exploitation of very impoverished communities, and a lot of my photography is about those communities as well as wildlife. I'm a real believer in the idea that if you don't look after those people, there's no hope."

The New Big 5

Wildlife photographer and journalist Graeme Green is the founder of the New Big 5, an international initiative to determine the favourite animal species to photograph, as voted for by the public. Graeme shares a few thoughts on the background to the project and why we must act now…

"I had the idea seven or eight years ago while on assignment in Botswana. Maybe hearing the word 'shooting' for taking pictures sparked something. The idea grew over time. I kept thinking about how outdated and meaningless trophy hunting is to most people now. The rage over the killing of Cecil the lion and other animals shows the strength of public feeling about trophy hunting today.

"Wildlife photography is more popular and relevant to people than ever. Photography's a great way to celebrate wildlife, with the major upside that you don't need to kill any animals. It's also a powerful tool to help protect wildlife. A Big 5 of wildlife photography seemed to me to be something that deserved to exist.

"So many people care about wildlife but maybe don't know just how close to extinction many species are. That's really the central message of the project: that we run a real risk of losing many species we share the planet with, from cheetahs, elephants and lions to turtles, frogs, bats and vultures – each one of them too valuable to lose. The other message is that the solutions are out there. These are problems created by humans, which means humans can also solve them, if we put our minds to it. There have been huge successes in conservation: gorilla numbers are on the rise; black rhinos have been brought back from the brink; whole habitats have been protected. We're capable of turning the situation around."

David Clark

Brent Stirton's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs


Canon EOS R5

A professional full-frame mirrorless flagship camera offering photographers and filmmakers high resolution stills and 8K video. "It will become my main camera, no question," says Brent. "I think it is the best camera in the mirrorless world."

Canon EOS-1D X Mark III

The EOS-1D X Mark III lets you capture winning images before the competition. It's the ultimate creative toolkit, with superb low-light performance, deep learning AF and 5.5K Raw video. Brent will still use the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III in the most demanding environments and when he needs its capabilities for action shoots.


Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM

Super-fast and bright 28-70mm f/2 L-series lens gives stunning results even in low light. "An incredible piece of glass," says Brent. "It's absolutely the equivalent of the best primes that are out there."

Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM

The lens for supreme sharpness, plus remarkable low-light performance. "I really do think all the RF lenses are a step up," says Brent. "They're in a different class to anything else in the mirrorless category."

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