The new big five

The New Big Five book which recently came out brings together 146 of the world’s greatest wildlife photographers, conservationists, and advocates in a mission to celebrate the beauty of the animal world, and to raise awareness of the crucial issues facing the world’s wildlife. In this interview, wildlife photographer, journalist and founder of the New Big 5 project, Graeme Green, reveals more.

An interview with and photographs by Graeme Green
Additional photographs by Tom Shlesinger, Aimee Jan, Kevin Morgans, Chris Fallows, Gabby Salazar, Shane Gross, and Hao Jiang

Oceanographic Magazine (OM): How did you become a wildlife photographer? Has this always been your dream job?

Graeme Green (GG): I’ve been taking photos for more than 30 years. I started out shooting mainly black and white film, walking around, photographing things I found interesting. When I started working as a journalist, I’d travel to places around the world to report on stories. Primarily, I was there to write but I had my camera with me and would take photos too. One of the early stories I worked on was about vultures in Nepal and India which were dying at a rapid pace. There was a drug called diclofenac being used by vets and farmers. The vultures were ingesting this drug when they fed on corpses, and it was killing them in large numbers.

Over the years, photography became more important to my work and I started to work on both words and images to tell a story. The more time I spent with wildlife, the more I wanted to dedicate time to wildlife photography.

OM: What do you try to achieve with your images?

GG: Wildlife is remarkable, so I want to create images that do the animals justice. I’ve never been keen on the idea of seeing what another photographer does and trying to recreate it. So I try to think creatively and take an image that is beautiful and original, whether it’s setting the animal within its environment, or getting right up-close for a portrait or a detail, like an eye or the textures of skin. You can’t really photograph wildlife these days without realising what a serious situation animals all over the world are facing in terms of numbers declining and the threat of extinction. Ultimately, I want people to be drawn into the images and to hopefully get more involved with what’s going on in the natural world.

OM: Your most memorable wildlife encounter to date?

GG: There are so many. I’ve witnessed a leopard hunting from a tree, pouncing from the high branches onto an impala which is extremely rare behaviour. But I’m more interested in quieter, less dramatic moments. In The New Big 5 book, there’s a photo of mine of an elephant reaching up to high branches of a baobab tree in Ruaha National Park, Tanzania. I spent a lot of time watching that elephant. There were no other people or elephants around, just me and the local guides. I experienced a feeling stillness and peace as this incredible animal went about its daily life.

Last year, I photographed mountain gorillas in Rwanda, my second time photographing gorillas. It’s an incredible feeling to be up-close with the powerful silverbacks and their families. I haven’t yet had much opportunity to take photos underwater, but I’m a scuba diver and freediver. Some of the most incredible encounters have been with marine creatures. I’ve had a beautiful silver thresher shark swim right past my head in the Philippines. I’ve been in the water with large nurse sharks and lemon sharks in Belize, and not too long ago a giant manta ray in Raja Ampat, Indonesia. Spending time with a manta ray is like something from an alien world. It’s unforgettable.

(C) Graeme Green

OM: With negative news about climate change and species extinction hitting us every day, how do you stay positive as a wildlife photographer?

GG: I’m not sure I always do. I think I’m more of a pragmatist. From the 1970s, we’ve had decades of warnings about climate change but failed to take the necessary action. We’ve known animals like elephants and rhinos were being attacked and killed for their body parts, for decoration or traditional ‘medicine’, but again, we’ve failed to take adequate steps to protect them. Around the world, one million species of animals and plants are at risk of extinction. This sixth mass extinction event is the first to be caused by human activity, from pollution, poaching, habitat destruction and climate change. Worse is still to come, and I’m not convinced, based on the past evidence and the current lack of political leadership around the world, that we’re going to change course and do what is needed.

That doesn’t leave much room for optimism. But I looked at signs of hope for the book. Years ago, I worked on assignments where I spent time with 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 people’s livelihoods. I wasn’t optimistic they’d be successful fighting against powerful industries and governments. But in both cases, they won. With so much bad news, we need to remember that people often do make a stand and win important fights. “We can all make a difference, but it’s up to us the kind of difference we choose to make,” as Jane Goodall writes in the closing essay for the book.

Conservation work has already made a real difference. Commercial whaling wiped out two million whales in the 19th and 20th centuries, but since whaling was banned in 1986, humpback whale populations have recovered in the South Atlantic ocean from just 440 in the 1950s to 25,000 today. In the 1970s, it was feared mountain gorillas would go extinct, but today numbers are steadily rising. West African giraffes plummeted to near-extinction, just 49 of them were left, before Niger’s government and communities stepped in, and now there are 600 individuals in the wild. Siberian tigers, Jamaican rock iguanas, checkered skipper butterflies, Nassau groupers, sea otters, and Hula painted frogs are a few other species saved from extinction by people taking action. I wanted to use the book to point to solutions. We already know so many of the answers. It’s a matter of whether we choose to take the necessary action or not.

(C) Magnus Lundgren
(C) Graeme Green

OM: The New Big Five – How did this photography project come about and how are you involved?

GG: I’m the founder of the project and I’ve worked on it for the past four to five years. I’ve had the New Big 5 idea for a long time. More than a decade ago, I was working on a wildlife assignment in Botswana and heard people using the word ‘shooting’ for taking pictures, while they simultaneously talked about the Big 5. I’d heard both terms before, but this time it sparked something in my mind. I thought about how cruel, outdated and pointless trophy hunting is to most people, something that should be resigned to the past, and also how wildlife photography is about life and celebrating the creatures we share the planet with.

The original ‘Big 5’ is an old term used by colonial-era hunters in Africa for the most prized and dangerous animals to shoot and kill: elephant, rhino, leopard, Cape buffalo and lion. I thought it was high time for a Big 5 of wildlife photography, rather than hunting. Shooting with a camera, not a gun.

I started working on the project in 2019. Rather than just being a pretty, eye-catching idea, I wanted it to become a vehicle to generate interest in urgent wildlife issues, like habitat loss, the illegal wildlife trade, and climate change. If the New Big 5 could play a small part in a shift towards a world without trophy hunting, providing a more positive alternative to the original Big 5, I’d be happy. A friend of mine built the New Big 5 website and I reached out to photographers, conservationists, wildlife charities and wildlife lovers to ask them to support the initiative, from Jane Goodall to Moby. The plan was to use the website as a place for people around the world to vote for the five animals they wanted to be included in the New Big 5 – their five favourite animals to photograph and see in photos. And I spent months working on articles, interviews, photo galleries, free education packs for young people, and a series of podcasts for the website, with people like Ami Vitale, Nick Brandt, and Iain Douglas-Hamilton from Save The Elephants, all focusing on wildlife, photography and conservation.

I launched the website and global vote in May 2020. The project has been a huge commitment – around two to three years of work, often through weekends and late nights. It has been difficult trying to balance the project with making a living. But I believed the project could do some good. We announced the results of the vote in May 2021, and the New Big 5 was finally born: elephant, polar bear, gorilla, lion and tiger. The results were covered around the world, including the BBC, CNN, Sky, The Guardian, and we were able to get important wildlife issues discussed in mainstream media, not just about the big five species, but all sorts of issues impacting creatures large and small. That was always the mission of the project.

The New Big 5 book is the next stage in that mission to highlight endangered species, to look at why we are losing so many animals, and to explore solutions, from rewilding to involving indigenous communities.

(C) Graeme Green
(C) Shane Gross
(C) Aimee Jan

OM: What’s the significance of the New Big 5 photography project?

GG: What’s great about the list is how international it is. It’s got elephants from Africa and Asia, lions and gorillas from Africa, then the polar bears, who live across the Arctic regions, including Canada and Europe, and tigers, from India and other parts of Asia. Despite their popularity, all five species in the New Big 5 are endangered. They all face serious threats to their existence. The New Big 5 species are just the tip of the iceberg. The idea with the project and now with the New Big 5 book is to raise awareness about all the remarkable species we share the plant with. The New Big 5 species stand for all the creatures on the planet, from iconic species to little-known frogs, fish, birds and insects, so many of which are in danger. From bees to blue whales, all wildlife is essential to the balance of nature, to healthy ecosystems and to the future of our planet. That was the message behind the project and the book.

What the project was effective in doing was using this eye-catching idea of a New Big 5 of photography, and using the beautiful wildlife photography from so many globally renowned photographers, to hook people in and to get people engaged with wildlife issues. I think it has managed to reach people beyond the normal audience for wildlife issues. I received emails from people saying things like ‘I had no idea lions were being wiped out’ or that they wanted to get involved or support a wildlife charity, having read one of the articles I put together.

Photography can bring home to people the incredible range of wildlife that is at risk. For example, as well as one chapter on each of the New Big 5 species in the book, I put together one chapter dedicated to endangered species from land, sea and sky, which I called ‘What we stand to lose’. This includes some of the world’s most iconic animals, like rhinos, cheetahs and great white sharks. But I wanted to show the range of wildlife facing a difficult future, so there are also photos of frogs, lemurs, wild dogs, amur leopards, spiders, vultures, manta rays, penguins and more. When people see the reality of what is at stake, hopefully that can help more people to get involved.

OM: What can readers of the book look forward to?

GG: They’ll be able to see outstanding photography, with a wide range of creative styles and different species. There are 226 photos in the book, taken by 146 of the world’s greatest wildlife photographers, including Paul Nicklen, Ami Vitale, Marsel van Oosten, Steve McCurry, Cristina Mittermeier, Art Wolfe, and Brian Skerry. My priority with the book was that every photo had to justify its place – it had to be an outstanding photo.

But I also wanted there to be real substance in terms of information and ideas to go alongside the photography, so for the chapters I wrote, I did a lot of research and talked to experts around the world, such as Dr Bruno Oberle, executive director of the IUCN, and Amazon campaigner Nemonte Nenquimo from Amazon Frontlines. In the book, I explore the reasons why we could lose so many species in the blink of an eye, and also look at solutions. I also talk about issues such as poverty and inequality, and how they’re connected to the issues facing the natural world.

The book further features some fascinating and insightful essays from leading conservationists, including Jane Goodall, Paula Kahumbu from Wildlife Direct, Tara Stoinski from Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, Krista Wright from Polar Bears International, Anish Andheria from Wildlife Conservation Trust, and Wes Sechrest from Re:wild.

(C) Kevin Morgans
(C) Chris Fallows

OM: Why is it important to give the ‘new big five’ title to endangered species?

GG: It was a creative idea to turn the original, out-of-date idea on its head. The idea of killing animals, including endangered species for fun has always seemed strange, archaic and miserable to me. Wildlife photography, on the other hand, is a brilliant way to celebrate the natural world and to highlight the threats currently facing many wild animals. As the project ran, it was interesting to receive messages from people, including wildlife lovers, who had heard and used the original Big 5 term without knowing where it came from. Many assumed it meant Africa’s biggest animals, forgetting giraffes, hippos and others, which are larger than leopards or lions. Others thought it meant the most dangerous or lethal, or the most popular or charismatic animals.

The original Big 5 is still used by some tourism companies in Africa for marketing. But I heard from many supporters of the project who detested the original Big 5 term, including camp owners and safari managers who’d banned staff from using it. One owner of safari camps in Kenya called it a “butcher’s term”. Conservationists I heard from also felt it was insulting to their efforts to stop endangered animals, like rhinos, elephants, and lions, from going extinct for a term to still be used that’s directly connected to the hunting that wiped out so many animals across Africa.

As for how it can help with conservation, I think these five iconic animals can serve as ambassadors for all animals, large and small, from land, sea and sky. For me, it’s not just about the New Big 5 but caring about all animals. That’s what I used the project and the book to highlight, pushing out from these popular animals and helping to highlight fish, small beetles and frogs, turtles, manta rays, vultures, whales and so on. If nothing else, I’m happy with the idea that people might devote their time to photographing the New Big 5 animals rather than going out to shoot and kill the original Big 5.

OM: The book showcases images from some of the largest names in wildlife photography. How did this collaboration come to life?

GG: It has taken time and effort and a lot of reaching out to people. Many of the photographers I contacted were happy to support the project and the book, people whose work I’ve long admired, like Marsel van Oosten, Ami Vitale, Art Wolfe, Steve McCurry, and Paul Nicklen. It was also great to have the support of people like Jane Goodall, Djimon Hounsou, Paula Kahumbu, and organisations such as Save The Elephants, Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, and Polar Bears International. So many people love wildlife and nature, and want to see it protected – which means they’re usually happy to be part of a project working towards that goal. I wanted to use the project and book to try to make a difference. People were ready to support that idea and believed in what I was trying to do.

OM: What are your personal big five?

GG: It’s hard to choose. Lions, gorillas and elephants are certainly in there. I haven’t yet photographed polar bears but hope to do so one day. One of my favourite experiences was photographing gelada monkeys in Ethiopia. They would be high on my list. More and more, I enjoy photographing smaller creatures, such as lizards or frogs. I spent time photographing dung beetles recently in Rwanda – all species have their role to play. As I mentioned earlier, I haven’t had much opportunity to do underwater photography, but I’m fascinated by sharks, whales, and manta rays. I love seeing photos of them, and they would be high on my list to photograph in future.

(C) Gabby Salazar
(C) Hao Jiang

OM: What do you hope to achieve with the book?

GG: The book is the tip of the iceberg in terms of how many endangered species there are around the world. The number of at-risk species we really could lose would fill entire libraries. It’s crazy to think of a world without all these creatures. Looking through the photos in the book is a powerful reminder of the beauty and diversity of the natural world, and what we stand to lose if we don’t take urgent action to protect wildlife and the planet. I hope the book helps to bring home to people exactly what’s at stake. The book also talks about what is at stake for us humans, if we continue down the path we’re on, destroying biodiversity, polluting nature, and heating the planet. It’s also a book of ideas, with the opinions of leading experts in their field. I hope people read it and these ideas can filter into the conversation, including looking more at solutions such as rewilding, indigenous leadership, reducing poverty, and joined-up thinking.

Main photograph taken by Tom Shlesinger.

The New Big 5: A Global Photography Project For Endangered Wildlife by Graeme Green is out now (Earth Aware Editions; $75.00; £62), available at Insight Editions.comAmazon, and Bookshop, with a foreword by Paula Kahumbu and an afterword by Jane Goodall.


Additional photographs by Tom Shlesinger, Aimee Jan, Kevin Morgans, Chris Fallows, Gabby Salazar, Shane Gross, and Hao Jiang

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