Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017, Memorial to a Species by Brent Stirton

Wildlife photographer exposes illegal rhino horn trade

VIKINGS: The exhibition, Christian Dior or spectacular wildlife photos? It was hard to choose but the featured piece was so challenging that I couldn’t resist.

You’ll discover all the patterns, designs and colours you could ever hope to see on a runway or in nature in these spectacular images in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017 exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). The exhibition features 100 original images in a showcase of the world’s best nature photography in its fifth consecutive year at the ROM.

The grand title winner and centrepiece of this year’s show is South African photographer Brent Stirton’s Memorial to a Species, selected by a panel of international judges from among 50,000 entries from professional and amateur photographers around the world in the  categories: Earth’s Environments, Urban Wildlife, Creative Visions, Under Water, Black and White, and various age groups for youth competitors.

Stirton’s winning image is of a dehorned black rhino, killed by poachers in South Africa’s Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve. An award-winning photojournalist and photographer’s photographer, Stirton creates stirring portraits and controversial images of the atrocities that could bring the rhino species to the brink of extinction. He has received international recognition for his efforts to expose the tragic consequences of the illegal international trade in rhino horns. His entire body of work, including those in progress, binds poverty to socio-economic cultural issues mostly in Asia and Africa, and suggests a unique intimacy with his subjects in projects like Acid Attack, Bangladesh; Liberia / Sierra Leone 2002-3; Papua New Guinea, Culture in Transition, Timbuktu, and God’s Ivory. It’s almost as if he is invisible but people seem to let him in – into their environments, communities, homes, labs, and personal space.

Stirton’s work has been shown in many countries, including the World Press Photo exhibition currently making its way around the world. He has won nine World Press Photo awards; Wildlife Photojournalist of the Year three years in a row by the Natural History Museum (NHM) of the UK; an Emmy; and a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for his work on a documentary called Virunga National Park in Conflict produced for National Geographic Television; the National Magazine Award for his work in the Democratic Republic of Congo for National Geographic Magazine and was honoured by his peers as the Photographer’s Photographer for that magazine. He has also been recognized by the United Nations for his work on the Environment and in the field of HIV/AIDS.

The rhino series projects are extremely explicit and charged with a challenge to our very humanity. The central image, Memorial to a Species is of a rhinoceros with the middle of its face cut off, exposing raw, bloody, flesh where its horn used to be. Stirton captures the mutilation and process of annihilation of a species. He labels the image as a tribute to the memory of the rhino, from a possible future when the species will no longer exist.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that of the 500,000 rhinos that roamed Africa and Eurasia at the beginning of the 20th century, the five subspecies are in danger of disappearing due to habitat loss and poaching. There are fewer than 30,000 rhinoceroses left in the world and some species have already disappeared in some regions.

Black Rhino – critically endangered – 5,000
Greater One-Horned Rhino – vulnerable – 3,000+
Javan Rhino – critically endangered – 60
Sumatran Rhino – critically endangered – 100
White Rhino – near threatened – 20,000

Between 1960 and 1995 black rhino numbers dropped by 98 per cent to fewer than 2,500 animals in their home region of Namibia and eastern coastal Africa. WWF contributes their critical endangerment to crime, particularly poaching and trafficking of rhino horns on the black-market. Hunters track and capture the animals, remove their horns and sell them in a profitable yet illicit underground trade system similar to that of the ivory trade for  elephant tusks.

Stirton documents what happens in the underground market before the horns make their way into the hands of wealthy urbanites in places like China and Viet Nam. He chronicles the effects of the rhino trade on the animals and efforts of conservationists in national parklands to save the species.  His images are of people caring for and nurturing the animals, their protection by armed rangers, people in the process of getting arrested for poaching, and those who prepare and consume rhino parts as a medicinal by-product.

Conservation efforts have brought the rhino population back up, but organizations like Save the Rhino don’t believe there is reason to celebrate.

In January 2018 the South African Department of Environmental Affairs minister, Edna Molewa, released the 2017 poaching numbers from across South Africa. Although the numbers indicate a slight decline (26) from the 1,054 animals killed in 2016, Save the Rhino says that the “1,028 rhinos killed in South Africa alone during 2017 works out to nearly three rhinos being killed every day.” They say, “while poaching is down in Kruger National Park, it is significantly up in other provinces, particularly KwaZulu-Natal.”

“ROM’s presentation of Wildlife Photographer of the Year helps build greater public awareness about the plight of endangered species and the importance of wildlife preservation,” says Dr. Mark Engstrom, the ROM’s senior curator and deputy director of collections and research.

White rhinos are the second-largest land animal, measuring 11 feet long and weighing 4,500 pounds. You can see one at the ROM. 

What’s the difference between a black rhino and a white rhino?

A unique-to-the-ROM presentation of Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017, and a must-see, is the original interactive monarch butterfly installation created by ROM visitors. The ROM is well-known for its expertise on the  monarch butterfly species dating back to pioneering entomologist Dr. Fred Urquart. The exhibition features a growing butterfly swarm and explores the museum’s connection to the discovery of monarch butterfly migration patterns. The installation positions photography as a form of citizen science where the public contributes to the tracking of species populations.

“A single image can make a difference. It can tell a story. It can engage and inspire. Wildlife photography provides scientific information that supports our natural world . And, it can become part of a bigger picture and a bigger discussion, ” says ROM ornithology technician Mark Peck.

Another photo worthy of distinction is The Hairy Raincoat by Alberta’s Josiah Launstein, a returning Wildlife Photographer of the Year finalist whose photo is in the 11 to 14-year-old category in the exhibition. Launstein made his debut as a finalist in the 2015 competition with two entries in the 10-year old and under category.

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition is on loan from the NHM in London, and has been running for 53 years as of 2017.  It is considered the most prestigious photography competition of its kind.

See images of breath-taking scenery, animals in the wild, and marine life on display as part of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the ROM until March 18, 2018.

by Cherryl Bird – Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Twitter @ladycbird | Instagram @cherrylbird

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