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It was very early, dark and bitterly cold when we six photographers loaded cameras into our minibus. I was in Finland, working with Finnature, a wildlife company run by award winning photographers Jari Peltomaki, and his wife Kaisa. My quest was to photograph Golden Eagles in snow. I was there with my wife plus four photographers who had travelled from as far as Latvia, Germany, Holland, and Kuwait.
We set off along iced roads and snow-covered lanes and tracks. Rounding bends, the minibus headlamps caught trees coated in frosted snow illuminating a wonderland of silver. We drove deep into the Finnish forest, the taiga, an ancient spruce forest that marches across the border into Russia and stretches to the Pacific Ocean.
The bus stopped, a sledge was found and quickly filled with expensive cameras. Our driver became our guide, leading us silently through the powder snow. Head torches in front gave glimpses of a low building, our hide. Inside, were comfortable office chairs and a warm stove. We fitted long lenses to cameras and cameras to tripods. Hot chocolate was drunk as we looked through a one-way window and waited for dawn and the Golden Eagles to come.
The sun rose over a forest clearing highlighting a small mound of snow in front of the hide. Our intrepid guide had uncovered a dead hare. It was road kill placed there to draw in the eagles. She returned and told us the rules; keep quiet, do not move too much as the birds see shadows through the glass. We were told to wait for her to tell us when we could photograph. If an eagle landed, we were not to fire off motor-drives. Once the bird had settled, we could press the shutters.
Nature is fickle. There are no guarantees. Despite the huge amounts of money photographers spend on camera equipment, travel, accommodation, and fees, the creatures may never turn up. You need to concentrate and not let your mind wander. You know that the moment you lose concentration an eagle will fly in and out! That might be your only chance for days. I knew from past experience to stay on guard at all times. Pretty soon, however, my mind started to stray. I was thinking why was it necessary for me, and the other photographers, to travel to Finland to get the photos we wanted? What was Finland doing right in conservation and what did the UK (and any other country for that matter) have to do to match it?
My thoughts turned to how to change. Academic Change Theory agrees that to get effective change you have to make things happen at three distinct levels. First is the moral, strategic, and political level. Beneath that is the structural, institutional, and economic level. Finally, there is a popular practical level, one where people will buy into the changes made. To be successful, change should take place within each level and be joined through the levels from top to bottom.
To improve conservation an argument has to be won at a strategic level, that is, it has to be accepted that conservation is a good thing. Conservation might win a moral argument but throughout the world not everyone agrees, and politicians are not guaranteed to back something they do not see as carrying lots of votes. Even if with unanimous support for conservation then the second tier requires change within the structural or institutional agencies, many who have vested interests in maintaining farming practices or shooting estates, or their own business interests. Laws might need changing or be properly enforced and many might face threats to businesses and livelihoods. And finally, the ordinary person on the street has also to see advantages. If that means people could lose jobs or it could be more expensive to farm land or produce food, then the change might not happen. Change can expose huge conflicts of interest not only within each level but between levels. The secret is to find a driver for change that will unite the levels.
In the United Kingdom there is an increasing population of Golden Eagles. Conservationists and ornithologists have been working steadfastly for years using, ringing schemes, satellite tagged birds, nest protection, relocating young wild birds to new areas, re-wilding former shooting estates, and buying up large tracts of suitable habitat. There is no shortage of initiatives for protecting wild birds. Along with many other people I pay into at least five ornithological associations that support conservation issues. Despite all this I was in Finland trying to photograph this species. In UK too many birds of prey, including Golden Eagles, go missing over moorland used for shooting driven game. Despite laws, ornithological research, local awareness, and much publicity this continues to happen. The shooting lobby is very well established and is supported by wealthy and influential people who use economic arguments. Shooting is even supported at government level through national bodies that grant shooting licenses for endangered species. And despite very good evidence, very few arrests are made when laws are broken. At the third level, ordinary people, including ornithologists and wildlife photographers do not have their voices heard or worse their arguments are split and not unified.
Yet, worldwide, the number of people who are interested in nature is huge. National Geographic, for example, is a massive organisation not only producing magazines and films but also providing wildlife trips and expeditions. In the UK, nature films by the BBC, such as those by David Attenborough, are watched by millions and exported worldwide. Viewing figures for wildlife and nature programmes on British TV are regularly higher than the most popular Soaps but their success is rarely reported. Awareness of nature and wildlife is extremely high, but the interest is not coordinated.
Still pondering, I thought of the six photographers carrying thousands of pounds of equipment who had paid a great deal of money to travel to Finland to photograph eagles. Worldwide wildlife photographers are a significant economic driver. Inside the hide the photographer from Kuwait was providing a continual live update to his blog via his mobile phone. And another phenomenon is that everyone is becoming a photographer because of mobile phones and digital cameras. Birdwatchers often carry cameras rather than binoculars. Ornithologists and conservationists and most scientists all use digital cameras to provide records of sightings. Mobile phones have increasingly good cameras and are being used to photograph everything and anything. Such photos are uploaded on to social media like Facebook and Twitter while photographs are posted to Instagram and other photographic sites. Using Facebook, I am in touch with bird photographers and birdwatchers all over the world.
There is huge worldwide interest in wildlife and there is a way of sharing that interest through photography. Could this be the driver that changes the state of conservation throughout the world? Who is better placed than those who use photography to note the decline of species? The very fact that I was in Finland to get good photographs of eagles and not Scotland or England, demonstrated the difference between the state of conservation in these countries. What would happen, I thought, if anyone remotely interested in wildlife photography not only shared their photographs but also provided a narrative about the photograph?
I find many people are interested in how photographs are gained and many documentaries on TV have dedicated sections often called “Behind the Lens”. These tell the story behind the pictures. What if all photographers, on every site tried to link the photographs to the state of conservation in a country? We could praise Finland or explain how difficult it is to find Golden Eagles in UK because so many go missing over moors where grouse are shot. We could praise and raise awareness of conservation measures like the tigers in India or the identification of new species of birds. If every picture were linked to words, we would be raising awareness. If all nature films and documentaries mentioned the need for protecting the subjects they photographed, then may be things might change. Conservation voices could be pointing out successes as well as areas of concern. There would be more companies like Finnature and more publicity for all the remarkable conservation stories around the world.
In this way photography could become a consistent, positive driver of change at every level and through every tier. Politicians could be influenced. Organisations and institutions would see the positive benefits of attracting wildlife tourists, wildlife photographers, and protecting habitats. The huge interest in wildlife could be harnessed.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a small black speck rise over the treetops and vanish. I switched on the camera and pre-focused on the hare. The black smudge came again and grew bigger. Our guide warned the others and with hardly a wing beat the huge bird glided down and thumped onto the dead hare. We waited for it to settle then pressed the shutters.