Many of us are familiar with the ‘Big Five’ as a safari term, but how many of us knew of its roots in colonial-era hunting? One photographer wants to change that—by highlighting the plight of global wildlife today via his celebrity- and expert-backed New Big 5 project. We talk to Graeme Green.
If you’ve ever been on safari, you’ll be familiar with the term, the ‘Big Five’. Referring to the elephant, lion, rhino, leopard and Cape buffalo, it’s often used as a wishlist for the ‘best’ animals to see.
But what some people might not know is the phrase was coined during colonial times because these were the hardest animals to hunt on foot. That’s why journalist and photographer Graeme Green decided to launch a global project, the New Big 5, with a more modern, refreshing take on engaging with wildlife—one that was about shooting animals with cameras, not guns.
After a global vote in 2020 to elect a New Big 5, the elephant, lion, polar bear, gorilla and tiger came out as the winners in early 2021—- you can see a short film announcing the winners here. All are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as either critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable.
The campaign has had widespread endorsement—from wildlife experts, campaigners and photographers such as Jane Goodall, Chris Packham, Joanna Lumley, Moby, Ami Vitale, Paula Kahumbu, Paul Nicklen and Marsel van Oosten, to wildlife charities such as Save The Elephants, WWF, Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, Greenpeace, Wildlife Direct, African Wildlife Foundation, The Ellen Fund and Polar Bears International.
Already, the New Big 5 project is increasing awareness of the ever-pressing need to address the challenges facing wildlife and habitats. We caught up with the man behind it all, Graeme Green.
Adventure.com: What was the inspiration behind this specific campaign, the New Big 5?
Graeme Green: I had the idea years ago, on assignment in Botswana—hearing the word ‘shooting’ for taking pictures sparked something. I kept thinking how outdated and meaningless trophy hunting is to most people now, whereas wildlife photography is more popular and relevant than ever.
Photography’s a great way to celebrate wildlife, with the upside you don’t need to kill any animals, and it’s a powerful tool to help protect wildlife. A new Big 5 of wildlife photography seemed like something that deserved to exist—the ’old’ Big Five is about death and the New Big 5 is about life. I’ve been traveling the world as a photographer and journalist for 15 years and in that time, I’ve become more connected to wildlife and the natural world, and more aware of the threats many species are facing. I wanted to do something to help.
RELATED: Rewilding Patagonia
Why do you think so many big names from photography and conservation were happy to get involved?
Two things gave it appeal. One, it was a simple idea. Two, it’s an alternative to the original Big Five which has its roots in hunting. For me, wildlife is about conservation and celebrating what we have, which is what photography does, and I think that’s why so many people wanted to support the project.
I wanted to get people excited about wildlife via the website too and to think about wildlife in a different way. We have an educational pack for kids and lots of articles and interviews to raise awareness.
I think many of us have become disconnected from nature. We don’t understand the link between our dependency on natural resources for food, for example, and the need to keep ecosystems alive, which all these animals are part of.
Tell us more about the original ‘Big Five’ phrase? Many people won’t know it’s linked to hunting.
It’s a completely misunderstood term. Many people wrongly think it means the most iconic, the largest or the most dangerous animals on safari. But none of those are accurate.
For example, the hippo is the most dangerous animal to man. Yet it’s not in the Big Five. And much as I like buffalo, very few people travel to see buffalo. So it’s already a redundant term.
The original Big Five are the five animals that trophy hunters saw as the most dangerous or difficult animals to hunt on foot. Many lodges, safari operators and organisations have stopped using it, or refuse to use it, although you do still see it in South Africa—which has the largest hunting industry and some of the worst records for rhino poaching and high-level corruption—and a few other places.
If people want to use it, there’s nothing stopping them—but there’s a more positive alternative now.
We know this new campaign isn’t focused on trophy hunting, but what are your thoughts on this practice and the fact some people claim revenues help to protect the land and wildlife?
Obviously, it’s a massively contentious and emotional issue. I know a lot of people who work in conservation who try to not get bogged down in it, as trophy hunting isn’t causing as much widespread damage to wildlife as things like habitat loss.
It’s important to look at it though. Many respected organizations and conservationists say the money it generates mainly goes into private pockets, rather than to local people, and it doesn’t fund many actual conservation efforts.
But others argue that without trophy hunting, land and animals would be lost to agriculture and poaching, and the impact would be even worse. I’ve visited places like Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania where people suggested elephants would have been wiped out if it wasn’t for trophy hunting.
It’s a complex argument. Paula Kahumbu, a respected Kenyan conservationist, recently made a strong argument against trophy hunting, saying it’s a continuation of colonialism in Africa and that we’re capable of finding better solutions to protect wildlife.
I will say that personally I find killing animals for fun an outdated and cruel idea—it doesn’t belong in 2021. However, if you were to ban trophy hunting tomorrow, you might see animals dying in horrific ways and land being cleared. But yes, I’d like to live in a world without trophy hunting so I hope there’ll be a shift in thinking and it won’t exist. Hopefully, the New Big 5 can be part of that shift. But as far as this project is concerned, it’s about championing a positive alternative—a love of wildlife while it’s alive.
We couldn’t agree more. It seems there are many better ways to appreciate the rich wildlife and habitats in our world, especially if you want to help fund conservation?
Absolutely. If you want to spend money, you can take wildlife photography safaris led by photographers such as Marsel van Oosten, Marina Cano, Nelis Wolmarans or Suzi Eszterhas and learn from the best. There are great companies all over the world offering trips like this, and you can hire equipment, such as lenses, too.
The pandemic has wreaked havoc, with job losses, and income and food security. It’s been a nightmare for conservation. But photographic tourism, when the world opens up again, will be a big part of channelling money back into conservation efforts.
Apart from increasing awareness of wildlife in trouble, the New Big 5 is also addressing issues of diversity in the world of conservation and photography. How important was that?
Yes, a lot of conservation work and photographic work isn’t inclusive. Both wildlife photography and conservation are often dominated by white males.
I’ve worked hard to make sure this is an inclusive campaign and to address issues of under-representation. We’ve worked with and featured photographers from around the world, Sandesh Kadu from India, Michel Zoghzoghi from Lebanon and Kenya’s Clement Kiragu and many others from Japan, Rwanda, Dubai and more, as well as a lot of incredible female photographers, such as Usha Harish, Melissa Groo, Shannon Wild, Daisy Gillardini and Beverly Joubert.
That was important to me from the start, and I’ve seen other campaigns and initiatives take note and work to make photography more inclusive, which is great.
We’ve done the same with wildlife charities. We’re not just working with big international organizations, but also smaller charities from Asia, Africa, South Africa. Articles and interviews on the New Big 5 website include ideas and expertise from voices that aren’t often included in the conversation. This has made the project much stronger and more meaningful.
What about the local people who live in and around these landscapes that ‘travelers’ want to visit?
There’s a real colonial hangover, especially when it comes to safari lodges and land. The wealth went to certain people, meaning local communities were excluded. In fact, local people have often had to deal with the downsides of wildlife—for example, animals invading crops—and none of the benefits of safari tourism.
But there’s a movement in the conservation world to better involve local communities, and for local people in Africa and elsewhere to become the decision-makers in wildlife and conservation. I hope new attitudes will result in fairer societies and reduce poverty, which in itself is a major cause of poaching and harm to wildlife.
How do you marry up a need for tourism with climate change and other negative effects of travel?
I think we should probably travel less, more carefully, and for longer. We should also care more about where our money goes. We do need to see a bigger shift in how tourism is undertaken.
It’s not about not traveling. It’s good for us to learn and engage with the world, and it’s great for connecting people and protecting wildlife. Take habitat loss—tourism can actually be a good thing to stop areas being developed for agriculture and animal populations being lost.
“The children are our future,” so goes one particular song. How are you engaging with the next generation of would-be travelers, tourists and conservationists?
We have these educational packs on the New Big 5 website but we will definitely reaching out more. It’s so important and this generation of children is far more aware than we were.
Kids pick up information or learn things at school and then have conversations with their parents—and these chats can end up driving change in their home environment, such as more recycling or re-using items.
And the great thing about photography is it appeals to people of all ages. We get people visiting the website from so many different countries, male and female, young and old, which is great.
What are your biggest concerns when it come to the future of wildlife conservation and the environment?
The most worrying thing is that despite increasing awareness, policies at a national and international level are not what they should be. Most of us support change, and yet it doesn’t get done.
I think in the US and the UK, people, including politicians, make a lot of noise but don’t really tackle it. I once interviewed Al Gore and he was telling me how people were talking about climate change and environmental change in the 1970s. It’s a depressing thought that we’re hearing the same arguments and calls for action 50 years later.
Look at the fires in Australia and the US, flooding, droughts, glaciers melting…. It’s happening now. It’s no longer a problem ‘in the future’.
Do you feel broadly positive about the future?
There’s no point in saying the world is doomed, but I do want people to feel the urgency. We hear about solutions and positive stories, such as saving species, but we’re sleepwalking into a disaster and we know we’re doing it.
With wildlife, many people didn’t know what a dire situation, say, cheetahs are in—fewer than 7,000 left now. Lions are losing territory and populations are being lost at a terrifying pace. I wanted to get these kinds of messages across, and to focus on solutions, from tech solutions and apps to community projects and conservancies. Conservation does work.
A big area I’m interested in is rewilding. It can bring back species, increase biodiversity, lead to cleaner air and water, create work opportunities, and offer a chance to live more closely with nature. It feels like a no-brainer to me. It’s exciting to see the knock-on effect too—bring back fish, you get more otters, more insects, more planets and flowers.
I’ve written about rewilding projects in Argentina and Romania. Huge areas of South America have been rewilded, bringing back animals like jaguars. We could rewild great areas of the UK too—there’s a big drive to make Scotland the world’s first rewilding nation.
What key message do you want people to take from the New Big 5 initiative?
The aim is to highlight issues such as habitat loss, poaching, human-wildlife conflict, the illegal wildlife trade and the climate emergency.
The key message though is: All wildlife is important and we’re all connected. The idea of the New Big 5 was never to say that one species is more important than another—from bees to blue whales to termites to tigers, we need all these animals. The New Big 5 simply highlights the need to focus on the threats facing them. The pandemic we’re all still suffering through is a huge example of what happens when our relationship with nature is so destructive.
I’m aware this project might not win the war, and I’m not a natural optimist. But in the face of huge problems, every success matters. Conservation works—you just need to look at something like the slowly rising numbers of mountain gorillas, down to the work of organizations like Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.
We have a lot of solutions to the world’s problems. We just need to put them into action and move faster.
You can also watch this short film about the project, produced with One Earth and The Ellen Fund.