Megafauna are the supermodels of wildlife photography. They are beacons of the health of a developed ecosystem. In fact in most cases today an ecosystem in poor condition, as the megafauna are marginalised, poached and pressured into declining numbers. Why is rhino horn is now more valuable than gold (a commodity with a latent destructive power of its own)?
The mythology surrounding animals is a hard one to let go of. It is deeply ingrained in us from birth, and we revel in anthropomorphic fantasies. This is exhibited in film, photography, literature, our treatment of our pets, the way we photograph them on Instagram…it goes on.
It isn’t necessary to let go of this fantasy entirely though. Changing it in photography would be a great start, to show that these animals are ordinary, to lose the magic that surrounds them.
The megafauna lend themselves to beautiful photography and subsequently we are bombarded with images of tigers, lions, elephants, leopards, rhinoceroses and the great apes. For some these are the new hunting trophies, reflections of expensive equipment and high travel budgets.
All of this aside, the money spent on tourism to see and photograph these animals in the more stable environments does a great deal in protecting them and their habitats. What doesn’t protect them, and what is outstripping this protection, is the market value of the endangered species when dead.
It’s a simple story of supply and demand: a burgeoning Far Eastern middle- class with money to burn demands it, the supply is, of course, limited.
The supply issue is driven by the law and the danger, which come hand in hand. International and local laws prohibit the killing of these animals for any reason. Immediately there is a risk factor involved that will legitimately allow higher prices. The militarisation of both the poaching and the anti-poaching movement is another matter though. With this Darwinian-style arms race there is simply no way the anti-poaching movement will ever win. The more the legislative and military preventions increase, the higher the price of the commodity. Increased opposition financially incentivises the poachers to be more aggressive and more complex, giving rise to some form of poaching guerrilla army.
Then there is the demand side – how and why is this something that is so desirable? It’s worth asking the question of how photography influences the subjects’ mystique, most pertinently in the Far East. A quick Google search of ‘tiger’ will reveal a steady stream of the same photo, all aiming to bottle up the mystique of a tiger. All serene grace,latent violence and power. All attributes many people would love to have. As the tourist photo of a tiger is a form of hunting, selling this mystique of a tiger is exploitatively akin to poaching, albeit on a far more benign level.
What is deeply damaging is that this imagery serves to maintain a mystery about tigers that is unrealistic. It is an unromantic notion but the more imagery like this the more the mystery is enhanced. Surely this super-animal status only serves to make tiger-based medicine more desirable? The same goes for elephants, for rhinos, for all iconic species – if they have mystical powers, this only plays into the hands of “medics” selling their body parts.