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  • Writer's pictureMike Curtis

The new photography Big Five

Updated: May 27, 2021

For those lucky enough to have been on a safari in Africa, the Big 5 will be familiar list; Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Buffalo and Rhino. While they are indeed all incredible animals that are high on the wish list for most visitors, their Big 5 designation is based on them being considered the five most dangerous animals to shoot and kill by white trophy hunters during the years of European colonisation.

While the Big 5 are still killed by a small number of American and European trophy hunters, the vast majority of the world wishes to see and marvel at these majestic creatures, shooting them only with their cameras, so that others can also enjoy the privilege. Wildlife tourism accounts for 80% of all international travel sales to Africa, that's $27.3 Billion, which dwarfs the estimated $200 million trophy hunting circus. The animals are quite literally worth more alive than dead.

It's high time, therefore, that the term Big 5 is wrestled back from an association with trophy hunting, and is more appropriately applied to wildlife conservation. Wildlife photographer, Graeme Green, has done just that by being the driving force behind a worldwide poll to establish a new photography Big 5. After a year of voting, the New Big 5 have been announced and all are iconic species; Elephant, Polar Bear, Gorilla, Tiger, and Lion.

I've had the great fortune to see and photograph four of the five, but I'm yet to see a wild polar bear. Maybe one day?

Each of the New Big 5 represents a species that has been or is being pushed to the brink of extinction. Tiger and Lion populations have reduced by 90-95% during the last 100 years, while Mountain Gorillas have been driven to small mountain top refuges by habitat destruction. Elephants once again face a poaching crisis and the Polar Bear faces a bleak future due to the loss of Arctic sea ice as our climate changes.

Despite all that, there are rays of hope. Mountain Gorilla populations have been slowly growing for a few decades from a frighteningly low number. While their potential habitable area remains small, there's a well-managed ecotourism industry funding their conservation. Sadly the Lowland Gorillas remain in a perilous state. Great efforts are being made across all the tiger states to reverse the decline in the world's largest and most spectacular big cat. In several countries there has been an increase in the population, however, a lack of connected habitats is limiting their recovery, and constant vigilance is required to prevent encroachment and poaching.

Huge challenges remain to protect Africa's elephants and lions, while the fate of the Polar Bear as we know it, depends on how quickly human beings can transition from carbon-intense to low carbon sources of energy. Most importantly, the fate of all species requires everyone, especially in the developed world, to reduce their consumption of energy and resources, and to recognise the necessity of preserving and rebuilding ecosystems that these animals, as well as humans, depend on completely.

Each of these animals has provided me with some of the standout moments of my life. Sitting quietly at night just metres from a waterhole in Tsavo National Park, Kenya, as hundreds of elephants turned up to drink was an extraordinary and intimate experience. Locking eyes with a female Mountain Gorilla in Rwanda, if only for 10 seconds, was an intensely emotional and profound moment of connection. Nine years later, in Uganda, we saw playful infant Mountain Gorillas cavorting around us, while their mothers trusted us to be no threat, although the dominant Silverback, while relaxed, kept half an eye on proceedings.

However, it is the tiger that heads my personal list. You have to have great patience, endurance and a great guide to track down these solitary big cats, but when you do encounter one the reward is considerable. When a tiger walks toward you there's a palpable tingle of electricity through your body, the entire jungle and all its inhabitants appear to sense it. I was instantly addicted to the intoxicating presence of a tiger.

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