Mark Leong first traveled to in China in 1989 and has been photographing in Asia ever since. Born and raised in Silicon Valley, he nonetheless missed out on the internet bubble because he was away at the time. His pictures have appeared in Time, Newsweek, Fortune, the New York Times and the New Yorker. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and the Fifty Crows International Fund for Documentary Photography. His book, China Obscura, was published in the fall of 2004 by Chronicle Books. These photos are from an assignment for National Geographic Magazine entitled “Asia’s Wildlife Trade“. Mark is represented by Redux Pictures.
You’ve been working on this series on the Asian Wildlife trade for more than three years now. How did this project begin?
‘All credit for initiating this series goes to National Geographic, who came to me in 2005 with the idea of photographing the trade. My past work has tended to be more social documentary, so I was a bit surprised, because I had never really shot much wildlife before. But my first job for the Magazine had been a sidebar of a bigger story on the illegal fossil trade in NE China, and that may have suggested to the editors that I would be able to do some under-the-radar work on a similar black/grey market story.
‘In any case, the subject was very fresh to me, exciting but also daunting because of the massive scale and steep learning curve (of which I’m still somewhere down near the foot). There has already been some good photo reportage on the trade, so when my editor Kathy Moran and I mapped out our coverage, we did our best to add new angles, looking at the loopholes of wholesale animal harvesting, captive breeding, and the exotic pet trade.
‘Additionally, Kathy was very interested in balancing the animal imagery with the human cultural element, as with the ivory carver image. To most of us Westerners, turtle meat, shark’s fins and elephant tusks all seem quite exotic, which makes the trade appear even more extreme. But in Asia, consumption of these products can be a very ordinary part of everyday life. Which is not to say wiping out populations of wild species is all perfectly fine in the name of cultural relativism. But it does help to understand the contexts and forces at play’.
You’ve gained an incredible amount of access to witness the illegal poaching and selling of animals. How did you approach your subjects and what were some of the challenges you faced in order to get the shots you needed?
‘To gain entry into this world, I leaned heavily on NGOs that specialize in monitoring wildlife trafficking — for info, assistance and contacts. Not only do these organizations have staff on the ground who know where the hot spots are, they sometimes have also established relationships with the local community members involved in the trade.
‘For example, once I got to tag along with some Malay poachers in the forest with a monitor who knew them from their day jobs as contractors in the village where he worked. Another time, some NGO guys took me to an Indonesian bird market where they introduced me to a vendor they occasionally discussed species with – in the pet trade everybody really likes animals, so there’s kind of a universal bond no matter what side you are on. Bryan Christy, the writer of the text (a penetrating profile of the wildlife godfather Anson Wong), probably knows everybody in the reptile business, and he was able to navigate the network from designer python breeders to wholesale skin merchants who let us into their Sumateran snake slaughterhouse.
‘Sometimes, though, I would just get the location of a market written on a scrap of paper and I would be on my own. I’m American from California, but ethnic Chinese as well, so although I was a total outsider in Southeast Asia, I had a bit of protective coloration. My social documentary skills came in handy here. The harmless, easily-impressed tourist, slightly bumbling but not getting in the way – I do that pretty well, and it compensates for the implied threat of the big black camera. At Pramuka, a Jakarta market notorious for carrying all kinds of prohibited primates, hornbills, raptors, jungle cats and more, I had heard tales of cops being beaten and video gear being smashed by angry vendors. So I tried to be especially wide-eyed. “Is that a monkey or a rat? Oh, a loris? Cool! Can I take it back to San Francisco with me? Or at least a picture, ok? You got any tiger cubs?”
‘In the jungle, leeches were also a challenge’.
In addition to documenting the illegal trade of animals in China and Southeast Asia, you also shot a couple more hopeful images of wildlife departments releasing animals back into the wild and Thai police “cracking down” on illegal dealers. How difficult was it to find these types of stories and did you actively search this out or did you happen upon these events?
‘Despite the widespread nature of the illegal trade across the region, it would require phenomenal foresight, timing and luck to coincidentally happen upon a raid or checkpoint seizure, or even a cremation or a live release. So I actively planned ahead: any time I made an official contact with an enforcement or monitoring organization, I let it be known early on that I would appreciate advance notice on such activity so I could quickly jet over to wherever it was going down.
‘Afterwards, it was mostly just a matter of waiting. For the Chatuchak Market bust I photographed in Bangkok, I was able to coordinate with the FREELAND Foundation, which has a strong relationship with the Royal Thai Police. A few weeks before it happened, they informed me that there was an investigation way that could lead to action. But because of the fluid nature of this type of underground commerce, they weren’t 100% sure. Then one day it was “yes, we are confirmed,” and I rushed over to Bangkok, where they showed me very detailed plans, including maps, schedules and photos gathered over several months of work.
‘The morning of the raid we met in a nearby parking lot with a couple dozen police officers — some plainclothes and some uniforms. After a final briefing, off they went, fanning out through the huge market, going into back rooms, seizing cage after cage of owls, tortoises, slow lorises and other creatures. Though a criminal bust, it was relatively low key. The police were polite and respectful. Tourists took pictures. Suspects weren’t cuffed but stood by talking quietly with detectives while other cops confiscated animals and made lists of species in their inventories.
‘After citing some of these pet shop owners, and detaining one reptile dealer caught trafficking rare radiated and ploughshare tortoises, the police brought all the animals in a couple of pickup trucks back to headquarters, where they spread them out for the media. Most memorable was a lone otter, which kept moaning and zipping around in its little cage like a dark wet rope, totally freaked out.
‘Today, I haven’t actively shot for this project for almost a year, but I still have a visceral reaction when I read a breaking news report about, say, a ton of frozen pangolins seized by Vietnam customs en route from Indonesia to China. It’s not like I’m hit by a wave of sadness or revulsion. It’s more of an internal, physical, professional tightening as I mentally pack my gear, gird myself to tackle the government bureaucracy for access, and strategize how to photograph the carcass storage, disposal or cremation. Then I remember that I’m not doing this anymore, and relax as the idealized pyre of smoldering scaly anteaters fades from my mind’.
Although we see quite a few people in your photos, the main focus is on the animals. Can you talk about your decision to photograph in this way?
‘Whether showing people or animals (or possibly inanimate objects), photography offers a way to connect to the emotional center of a scene. To me, this is especially important in shooting topical subjects, such as the animal trade, because by sharing the feeling of that moment, the photo can create a bridge between the individual viewer and the larger, more abstract issue. For many of the pictures involving living animals, yes, I was drawn to their presence at the crux of the situation. These moments were clearly more pivotal for the animals – life/death, freedom/captivity — than for the people selling or harvesting them’.
Have you seen many changes (good or bad) in the industry during the three years you’ve been working on this project? Do you think the Beijing Olympics had any effect on the industry?
‘Being relatively new to the subject, I don’t think my reference point is well-established enough to quantify industry changes over time. With the kind of hyper-awareness that photographers and journalists have for the subjects we have recently covered, though, I have noted the recent surge of publicity in China against the trade or consumption of shark-fin, tiger bone and rhino horn in billboards, tv and print ads by the conservation groups WildAid and TRAFFIC. The basketball player Yao Ming has done a couple of high profile campaigns, including a tv ad where he swats away a bullet blasted towards an elephant’s head.
‘I do not know how specifically Olympics-related these are although it seems clear that the NGOs wanted to take advantage of China’s desire to put on a new environmentally-friendly face leading up to the Games. And I have no empirical evidence, but it does seem to me that awareness, if not action, has increased here.
Extremely generous their time, information and access were the good people of: The Wildlife Conservation Society – Indonesia, Vietnam, and Laos: TRAFFIC – Malaysia, Vietnam, China and Tibet; The FREELAND Foundation – Thailand; Flora and Fauna International – Indonesia; WildAid – China; Animals Asia Foundation – Vietnam; The China Academy of Science; the Malaysia Department of Wildlife; the Indonesia Ministry of Forestry; the Royal Thai Police and Customs; ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network; and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.