Last year, the photographer and journalist Graeme Green traveled to Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas. “Being up close to the world’s largest primate is an experience you never forget,” he tells me. “I spent time with a 200-kilo silverback called Marambo.” Gorillas and humans share 98% of our DNA, and it’s evident in Green’s portraits of Marambo, which are The New Big 5, a book of wildlife photography from more than 145 contributors.
The book—and Green’s larger project of the same name—is a reclamation and reimagining of the “Big 5,” a term used by trophy hunters to describe the animals they hoped to kill and mount on their walls. Green’s idea was both ambitious and straightforward: instead of shooting these magnificent animals with guns, what if we redirected our attention to protecting them and raising awareness through photography (a different kind of “shooting”)?
The photographer organized a public vote to determine the “New Big 5,” or the animals people most wanted to photograph and see in photographs. In the end, the people chose elephants, tigers, lions, polar bears, and gorillas like Marambo.
In the 1970s, mountain gorillas were on the brink of extinction. Swaths of their habitat were destroyed, and they were hunted as trophies. But the mountain gorilla survived. “Mountain gorillas are a conservation success story that gives hope for the future,” Green says.
“Thanks to conservation work from organisations, such as Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and Conservation Through Public Health, and the work of governments and local communities, their numbers have steadily risen.” According to the most recent census in 2018, their numbers are at 1,063. As those numbers increase, plans have been made to expand Volcanoes National Park.
Across the globe, animals are in crisis, but the story of the mountain gorilla and others like it prove that we can still reverse course, ensuring a future for wildlife and humans alike. The New Big 5 book, published by Earth Aware Editions and distributed by Simon & Schuster, is about all wildlife, large and small. The five species selected by public vote represent a point of departure, leading the way for dozens of other species, who are revealed along the way.
With essays from pioneering conservationists and activists and images from passionate photographers, The New Big 5 provides a potential roadmap for humankind—and it’s one we must follow for there to be any kind of future for our planet and its many inhabitants. We asked Green to tell us more.
The New Big 5: A Global Photography Project For Endangered Wildlife by Graeme Green is out now (Earth Aware Editions; $75.00; £60.55), available at Insight Editions.com, Amazon, and Bookshop, with a foreword by Paula Kahumbu and an afterword by Jane Goodall.
Can you tell us a bit about the process of creating the New Big 5 book?
“The book took around two years to put together. I wanted there to be real substance in terms of information and ideas to go alongside the beautiful wildlife photography, so for the chapters I wrote, I did a lot of research and interviewed experts around the world, from Kristine Tompkins (Tompkins Conservation) to Daniel Sopia (Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association), to include their comments and ideas.
“I also spent a great deal of time editing and working on the essays from the contributors, including Jane Goodall, Tara Stoinski (CEO, Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund), Dominique Gonçalves (Manager, Elephant Ecology Project at Gorongosa National Park), and Wes Sechrest (CEO, Re:wild).
“But the most time-consuming aspect was curating the photography. More than 16,000 photos were submitted by photographers all over the world, which meant working weekends and late nights, juggling the demands of producing the book with working as a journalist and photographer to make a living. I also scoured through Instagram accounts and websites for a particular type of photo or a specific endangered species. I wanted every single photo in the book to merit its inclusion—every photo had to be outstanding.
“I also wanted to make sure the book represented photographers from all over the world. The book includes many great female photographers and Black, African, Asian, and Latin American photographers. There’s outstanding talent all over the world. Wildlife photography has a real issue with ‘diversity’—it’s often a space dominated by white, Western males. I didn’t want to put out a book that just perpetuated that idea. I wanted to try to be part of the solution and for the book to make a difference on this issue. “There are photographers in the book from India, Botswana, China, Kenya, Ecuador, Kuwait, Mexico, Brazil, Japan, as well as from the UK, US, Australia… The book and the images are all the stronger for drawing on the real talent that’s out there, rather than just a small sub-section, which has always seemed a strange and limited way of thinking to me.”
Ethics are vital in wildlife photography. Can you tell us a bit more about the requirements you set for the photographs and photographers featured in the book?
“It was important to me that we avoid any photos that might have caused any harm to wildlife. So we asked every photographer to sign a contract to say they hadn’t used baiting or any behaviour that could cause stress or harm to the animals for their images, and that all photos were taken in the wild, rather than at zoos or ‘sanctuaries,’ where animals are often kept in poor conditions or forced to perform for photos.
“I also wanted the photos to represent reality. We applied standard photography competition rules really, which was to say that we didn’t want fake images that had been produced with creative editing in Photoshop.
“As well as one chapter each for the New Big 5 species (elephant, tiger, gorilla, polar bear, and lion), I put together an extensive chapter on endangered species. For that, I only included species listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as Critically Endangered, Endangered, or Vulnerable, or similar in-country assessments.”
Throughout the process, did you learn anything from conservationists that surprised you or moved you?
“I learnt a lot. I worked on the book for two years and talked to many conservationists, scientists, and other experts for interviews that I included in the book, from Frans Schepers (Executive Director of Rewilding Europe) to Indigenous Amazon campaigner Nemonte Nenquimo (Amazon Frontlines).
“I think the present situation facing wildlife, nature, and the environment is dire. So one of the things I wanted to do with the book is explore solutions and look at hopeful signs. And there are signs of hope to be found, including animals, such as mountain gorillas, West African giraffes, Nassau grouper, and Lord Howe Island stick insects, that have been brought back from the brink of extinction.
“New protected areas have been created. Community projects are helping people and animals coexist. Rewilding efforts are restoring species and ecosystems that were at risk of being lost. Conservation does work—we just need a lot more of it and more urgency to it.”
Do you have a personal favorite story of humans (or a human) helping wildlife that you learned about over the course of making the book?
There are many. One person I’d talked to before for a podcast on the New Big 5 website and included in the book was Farwiza Farhan, environmental activist and founder of Forest, Nature, and Environment Aceh (HAkA). This is a really inspiring story.
“Farwiza Farhan fought the palm oil company Kallista Alam in Indonesia’s Supreme Court in 2015 and won. Kallista Alam was forced to pay $26 million for illegally setting fires and clearing land for palm oil plantations in the Leuser Ecosystem—6.4 million acres of biodiverse rainforest habitat, the only place in the world where the Sumatran orangutan, rhino, tiger, and elephant still live in the wild.
“‘Anger can drive people to take action,’ Farwiza told me. Leuser remains at risk from deforestation and commercial exploitation. But the fines handed down to the company showed the Indonesian government would punish illegal environmental destruction. And Farwiza believes this only happened because so much international attention was focused on the case, which shows how important it is that people get involved.
“‘We can’t look toward the future and have the spirit to move forward if we always assume the worst will happen,” Farwiza said. ‘Seeing the realities on the ground can be disheartening, but we have so much we can win back. None of us can do it alone. Our legal victory can bring hope and strength that, if we work together, this battle is winnable.’
“I also drew on my own experience as a journalist. Years ago, I visited remote Ashahinka tribes in the Peruvian Amazon and also campaigners in Chile both fighting to stop hydroelectric dams being built in their regions, which would have destroyed the local environment, wildlife, and many people’s livelihoods. I wasn’t overly optimistic that they would be successful, going up against powerful industries and governments. But in both cases, they won. With an avalanche of bad news stories, we need to remember that people often do make a stand and win an important battle.
“As Jane Goodall says in her closing essay in the book: ‘We can all make a difference, but it’s up to us the kind of difference we choose to make.’”
What are some of your most powerful memories from your time working in wildlife photography, and are these moments included in the book?
“The photos of mine in the book range from the last ten years or so, from penguins in Antarctica to leopards in Tanzania. These are many of my favourite wildlife photos that I’ve taken and favourite memories. Photographing mountain gorillas in Rwanda has been one of them.
“Additionally, some of my favourite photographic memories are of spending time with smaller creatures. There are photos of mine in the book of a blue-eyed anglehead lizard, a golden tree frog, and a dung beetle. It’s important we don’t just focus our attention on iconic species.
“This is really the message of the New Big 5 project and the book: that all wildlife, from bees to blue whales, are essential to the balance of nature, healthy ecosystems, and the future of life on Earth. Looking at the photos in the book is a very powerful experience, with so many images of remarkable animals, from rhinos to vultures, that could be lost forever, if we don’t change path.”