LOS ANGELES, CA — “The idea behind Animals on the Edge is not to shock people into action, which is why there are no images of decapitated gorillas, or de-horned rhinos,” said Chris Weston, one of the world’s leading wildlife photojournalists. “Such tactics, I have found, are limited in their effectiveness. The purpose of the book is to educate people about the real problem facing our wildlife — poverty. Animals and people don’t need pity, they need solutions and action.”
And so began a riveting conversation with Weston, a man of action who dangled 100 feet above ground in the canopy of ferocious jungles and endured for hours on end the effects of a suffocating heat index just to confirm one cold, hard fact — the planet is in an extinction crisis. “Animals on the Edge” is a visually-captivating story that is told through the expressive souls of those whose existence sits on a ticking time bomb.
Reporter: At age 40, you decided to leave your family behind and see the world like none other. How did they take the danger you faced?
Weston: It’s not so much the hazards of my job that my family finds hard to cope with but more the time I spend away from home. My wife, I guess, has grown accustomed to it now and accepts that this is what I do. It’s harder on my [six-year-old] son, Josh.
Reporter : What was going on in the Congo when you froze that moment-in-time tableau of a gorilla mom with her toddler?
Weston: Their attention was attracted by an unnerving sound in the forest. Looking at their response through the viewfinder, I imagined how, living in a forest so close to man, they must live their lives in constant anxiety of what is round the corner.
Reporter: What has this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity taught you about the value of life?
Weston: I’ve spent a lot of time in Zimbabwe, a country that has suffered harrowing hardship. At times, supermarket shelves were literally empty, there was no food, no petrol, oil or gas…nothing. However, Zimbabweans have a saying, “We’ll make a plan.” If something can’t be done one way they simply find another means…those things we take for granted.
Reporter: How has this assignment changed you as a human being?
Weston: When I was in Nepal, I interviewed a convicted poacher. He told me how the first thing he did when he woke each morning was check to see which of his children had survived through the night and how he turned to poaching the day his 18-month old son [died]. Every evening I read [Josh] a story before kissing him goodnight and when I wake, I go into his room to kiss him good morning. Not once in those six years have I ever wondered, when I enter [Josh’s] room, whether he’s alive or dead.
Reporter: Many of the images of the endangered animals you captured appear to mirror human faces, human hands. Human emotion. Did you see that, too, prior to triggering the shutter?
Weston: When photographing mammals, my main aim is to try and capture the personality and character of an individual subject. Researching and learning about animal behaviour and spending time with animals in the field, I have discovered that we are not so different, that we share many characteristics with animals. I seek out these common mannerisms and attempt to include them in my work.
Some villagers thought Weston was out of his mind during his mission to capture images of mammals living on the brink of extinction. Weston is hailed by many as being one of the best and more daring photojournalists in the world.
Reporter: What was the most difficult image to document?
Weston: Surprisingly, the hardest image to capture was of the wild Asiatic buffalo in Nepal. They are intensely shy and nervous creatures and wouldn’t let me within 300 yards before running into the far distance. In the end, I had to employ several local villagers to help herd the buffalo into an area where I had set up a hidden hide. It was dangerous work and several of the villagers quit partway through the assignment, citing me as “a mad Englishman.”
Reporter: Prior to this assignment, did you ever consider conservation a luxury like many of those you’ve interviewed?
Weston: A few years back, I went through a period where I didn’t earn much money and living was tight. I stopped eating out so often and didn’t have a holiday for a couple of years. I drove less, walked more and turned the heating on later than I normally would. To save money, I also gave less to the charities I supported. Although I didn’t think of it as such at the time, yes, back then conservation was a luxury. During the financial crisis and great recession of 2008, worldwide charitable contributions dropped by over half-a-billion dollars. At times of financial hardship, many things we take for granted in better times become luxuries.
Reporter: How has animal welfare activist Leo Grillo helped your efforts?
Weston: About three years ago, I got an e-mail from Leo inviting me to travel to California to photograph the animals at his DELTA Rescue sanctuary, after he had discovered a book I’d written about wildlife photography. During the two weeks I was there, we spent many evening hours talking about our two shared passions – photography and animals.
Grillo: When I saw Chris’ work, I saw something I had never seen in wildlife photography – short lenses and closeup field work. Mostly, guys use super long lenses and stay way back. But Chris gets right in there so you get the animals’ environment as well as their place in it.
Weston: For many reasons, Animals on the Edge would have remained a notion without Leo. When we first talked about the project, it was no more than an idea. Leo helped bring it to life. Not only did he facilitate the book’s production, he provided encouragement along the way and was a constant inspiration to make the book the best it could be. Although it is my name that appears on the cover, we did it together.
Reporter: Who actually came up with the title, Animals on the Edge?
Grillo: Chris did that. We spoke about actually doing something to save individual animals, not just whining about losing a species. I proposed the project as a program for our non-profit educational organization, LIVING EARTH PRODUCTIONS. As ANIMALS ON THE EDGE grew, it took on its own life. Chris’ photos will be given as gifts to our non-profit through its Web site.
Weston: Between Leo and me, we have created Animals on the Edge as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in the U.S. and as a registered charity in the UK. Through these organizations, we plan to help realize the dreams for conservation that are brought to life in the book.
Reporter: Since Rwanda was your favorite place to visit, do you plan to go back?
Weston: I do plan to return to Rwanda both to support the amazing work they are doing there in protecting their population of mountain gorillas and also because I would love to document the Kwita Izina – Giving of Names – ceremony that is held each year, where the entire country comes together in a week-long festival culminating in the naming of that year’s new gorillas.
Reporter: That ambush by AK-47-wielding policemen in the Congo must have made your hair stand on end.
Weston: It all happened so quickly, I’m not sure I gave it that much thought. However, there is no doubt it was one of the scariest moments of my time in the field. The problem with people is, unlike animals, they can be very unpredictable and often act on irrational emotion, things an animal never does.
Reporter: At what point did you fear for your life?
Weston: I have never once, during this assignment or any other, felt that my life was in danger from an animal. Sure I can tell a few stories and ham them up for an audience but the reality is that few animals other than a polar bear see human beings as natural prey. Most attacks on people are what are termed defensive attacks, where our actions – intentional or not – have caused an animal to respond in a certain way. If you never put a wild animal in a position where its only recourse is attack , then you’re unlikely to put yourself at risk.
Reporter: The ruthless killing of the dominate male orangutan in Sumatra blasted a powerful message. What was your feeling after this peaceful animal fell victim to 26 air gun pellets?
Weston: When a dying man kills an animal to survive, you can at least understand his actions. In this instance, there was no rhyme or reason to the orangutan’s death. When I returned home, it took me a few weeks to recover. It was the lowest moment of the whole assignment, my whole career, and the only point at which I felt like giving up. But then I made it my mission that the orangutan’s death wouldn’t be in vain; that the book and what resulted from it would be his epitaph.
Reporter: Which incident set the momentum for your personal moment of awakening?
Weston: I guess the true moment of enlightenment came several years ago when I met the Kenyan farmer Matunde, who opened my eyes to the problems poverty causes and how historical attitudes and approaches to conservation were unsuccessful and unsustainable. It was this meeting that set in motion the thoughts that underlie the book. Over the course of my travels for “Animals on the Edge,” there have been a number of encounters that have backed up those thoughts.
Reporter: Which single image has made an indelible impression on your psyche?
Weston: For me, the most iconic image in the book is of the [newborn] gorilla being cradled in its mother’s huge and powerful arm. More than any other, this image tells the story of what “Animals on the Edge” is all about…the protection of vulnerable wildlife. That I was the first human to see this gorilla baby was a particularly poignant moment and the way its mother revealed it to me was representative of a connection between man and animal that makes my job so fulfilling.
Reporter: This book has been so successful worldwide. Is another one planned?
Weston: Leo and I are currently talking about the next book from “Animals on the Edge.” I would like to do something that focuses on the concept that all animals have an individual character and personality – something that will underline our belief that animals are people, too.
Weston is currently in Mexico attending a conference of the International League of Conservation Photographers, a group which believes that awe-inspiring photography is a powerful force for the environment, especially when used in conjunction with advice provided by scientists, politicians, religious leaders, policy makers and top animal welfare advocates, like Grillo. The group’s plan is to hopefully replace environmental indifference with a new culture of stewardship and passion.
Following the conference, Weston expects to squeeze in some time to sit down with an equally-busy Grillo in Los Angeles to discuss additional conservation solutions and plans of action. Grillo is a 30-year animal rescue expert and founder of D.E.L.T.A. Rescue, the largest care-for-life animal sanctuary in the world.
“It’s about prevention rather than cure,” said Weston.
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Editor’s Note: Chris Weston and Leo Grillo were interviewed by journalist Sharon Raiford Bush.