Dodg­ing flak

For his new book on en­dan­gered species, Tim Flach had to side­step poach­ers and got stranded in Gabon. As he tells Tracy Calder, it was all worth it if it makes us value our pre­cious world more

Amateur Photographer - - 7 Days -

Wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher tim Flach ex­plains his mis­sion to high­light en­dan­gered an­i­mals in the re­lease of his new book

The saiga, a no­madic an­te­lope whose range ex­tends from Kaza­khstan to Uzbek­istan, is a cu­ri­ous-look­ing crea­ture (far left). A sur­vivor from the ice ages, its droop­ing nose can warm up cold air (es­sen­tial for bit­ter winters) while fil­ter­ing out dust (for dry sum­mers).

‘ The saiga looks like some­thing out of the can­teen scene in Star

Wars,’ laughs pho­tog­ra­pher Tim Flach as he re­calls his brief en­counter with the an­i­mal.

Tim may be laugh­ing now but this goat-like crea­ture proved ex­tremely tricky to pho­to­graph.

‘ These an­i­mals have been dec­i­mated through hunt­ing for their horns,’ he re­veals.

Only the males grow horns, which are sold in East Asia for their sup­posed medic­i­nal prop­er­ties. In 2015 a deadly virus hit the pop­u­la­tion and this, com­bined with poach­ing, has caused num­bers to plum­met. As a re­sult, the saiga are now crit­i­cally en­dan­gered – and ex­tremely hard to find.

With the help of a con­tact in Moscow, Tim lo­cated a saiga herd – but it was just the be­gin­ning of his trou­bles.

‘I vis­ited an area near the Caspian Sea dur­ing the sum­mer and found my­self in a fly-in­fested lo­ca­tion,’ he re­calls. ‘By 9.30am the heat was so fierce that it dis­torted the air and my pic­tures were blurred.’

Not to be de­terred, Tim re­turned dur­ing the win­ter months when tem­per­a­tures fell to -35ºC. Against all odds, this time he got his pic­ture.

‘Poach­ers hunt the saiga on a kind of moped, so when they hear a mo­tor, or any kind of noise, they just run and run,’ he ex­plains. ‘I pho­tographed one saiga as he was glanc­ing back but by the time I took an­other shot, he was gone’.


More than two years in the mak­ing, En­dan­gered, Tim’s lat­est book, is eye-open­ing in ev­ery sense. Who knew that vul­tures play such a cru­cial role in dis­ease pre­ven­tion, for ex­am­ple?

‘Vul­tures are na­ture’s clean­ers,’ says Tim. ‘ They live off the dead and they clean the car­casses. Now 90% of them have dis­ap­peared and it’s hav­ing dif­fer­ent con­se­quences in dif­fer­ent con­ti­nents.’

He ex­plains that in In­dia, for ex­am­ple, cases of ra­bies have in­creased as dogs have filled the gap left by the birds’ rapid de­cline. Un­like vul­tures, their di­ges­tive

‘ The planes wouldn’t pick us up be­cause the pi­lots were scared – they left us in Gabon’

sys­tems can­not de­stroy dan­ger­ous pathogens and con­se­quently they pass them on to hu­mans.

De­cid­ing which an­i­mals to fea­ture in his book re­sulted in some in­ter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tions.

‘I asked a lot of em­i­nent peo­ple which an­i­mals I should in­clude but the world’s panda ex­pert is just go­ing to say “pan­das”!’ he laughs.

Nev­er­the­less, he spent six months ask­ing lead­ing sci­en­tists and con­ser­va­tion­ists ques­tions about value sys­tems and na­ture. One of them was Dr Jonathan Bail­lie, chief sci­en­tist at the Na­tional Ge­o­graphic So­ci­ety.

‘Jonathan has been at the coal­face, ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple about con­ser­va­tion,’ says Tim. ‘Like many con­ser­va­tion­ists he is con­cerned about how tra­di­tional wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy can cre­ate ac­tion. There is a dif­fer­ence be­tween what we know and what we act upon.’

Jonathan wrote the ex­cel­lent pro­logue and epi­logue to Tim’s new book.

Telling sto­ries

In the end Tim de­cided to look for sto­ries, rather than fol­low any pre­scribed ‘en­dan­gered’ list. The vul­tures are a per­fect ex­am­ple.

‘In­stead of go­ing af­ter the glam­orous an­i­mals ev­ery­one else chases in the Maa­sai Mara I chased vul­tures, be­cause their story is so im­por­tant,’ he ex­plains.

An­other ob­vi­ous can­di­date was the ploughshare tor­toise (see im­age on page 28). Highly prized by poach­ers due to their glo­ri­ous shells, these land-based rep­tiles only live in Baly Bay in Mada­gas­car and take 15 years to reach their breed­ing age. As a con­se­quence, the Dur­rell Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Trust goes to great lengths to pro­tect them. It might seem dras­tic but de­fac­ing their shells seems to be the most ef­fec­tive way to de­ter poach­ers. With this in mind, Tim pho­tographed ploughshare tor­toises both with and with­out their man-made en­grav­ings.

The western low­land go­rilla was an­other must-have sub­ject for the book. Habi­tat loss and il­le­gal hunt­ing are the main threats here but what’s less well known is the

role these gorillas play in the trop­i­cal for­est ecosys­tem. They have a fruit-based diet and dis­perse seeds via their drop­pings. Once again, Tim was af­ter the story but this time he got more than he bar­gained for.

‘ There was a mil­i­tary clam­p­down dur­ing my visit,’ he re­calls. ‘Law and or­der broke down, so it was a strug­gle to get home. The planes wouldn’t pick us up be­cause the pi­lots were scared. They didn’t be­have in a par­tic­u­larly hon­ourable way and left us in Gabon. I had a won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence watch­ing the gorillas but then it comes back to hu­mans again.’

Tim did get home even­tu­ally but the ex­pe­ri­ence left its mark.

Like most im­ages in his book, the low­land gorillas were pho­tographed with a Canon EOS 5DS.

‘It’s got a 50MP sen­sor and is amaz­ingly good at catch­ing high-speed ac­tion,’ en­thuses Tim.

To prove his point he draws my at­ten­tion to an in­cred­i­ble pic­ture of a low­land go­rilla scoop­ing a hand­ful of wa­ter to its mouth. The wa­ter has cre­ated a re­flec­tive coat­ing on the go­rilla’s knuck­les and you can see the for­est canopy on the sur­face of its dark skin.

‘ This pic­ture was taken hand­held from a boat,’ ex­plains Tim.

Fa­mil­iar faces

If you’re fa­mil­iar with Tim’s work, you might recog­nise a few pic­tures in En­dan­gered – the shots of Celebes crested macaques, for ex­am­ple are taken from his ‘More Than Hu­man’ se­ries. He makes no apolo­gies for the rep­e­ti­tion.

‘ There are 20 im­ages in the book that I bor­rowed from my other projects, partly be­cause it seemed crazy to go back and redo them, but also be­cause I knew I could re­work the files,’ he ex­plains.

‘Pho­tog­ra­phers evolve and we know how to man­age things dif­fer­ently, so we can take a file and start again from scratch.’

There are fa­mil­iar set­tings, too. The pic­tures of mil­i­tary macaws were shot in Tim’s stu­dio, for ex­am­ple. But there were also count­less times when he was forced out­side his com­fort zone. On one such oc­ca­sion he dived to a depth of 35 me­tres in the sea off the Gala­pa­gos Is­lands with a school of ham­mer­head sharks cir­cling high above him.

‘I’m not an un­der­wa­ter pho­tog­ra­pher and I’ve never pre­tended to be but for my own in­tegrity I needed to cover ev­ery as­pect,’ he says. ‘Oceans make up the ma­jor­ity of the sur­face area of the planet, so I couldn’t just ig­nore them!’

So, hav­ing pho­tographed ev­ery­thing from a sin­gle caved­welling olm to a swarm of mi­grat­ing monarch but­ter­flies, I won­der how Tim feels about the state of the planet and our role as its cus­to­di­ans.

‘I feel that I could, per­haps, be use­ful,’ he ex­plains. ‘I hope the book brings sto­ries that touch peo­ple emo­tion­ally and make them bet­ter placed to know how to move for­ward. Our most val­ued trea­sure is the world we are in and if we are not care­ful, we are go­ing to spoil our nest and lose the most valu­able thing we have.’

Above: Fire­flies are bee­tles and use light to at­tract a mate and warn off preda­tors – sadly the re­cent use of pes­ti­cides is killing off the river snails on which they feed Left: Makara was the first In­dian ghar­ial to be captive-bred out­side of his...

When the weather turns, po­lar bears make a pit in the snow and hun­ker down, al­low­ing the snow to drift over them

The saiga has been hunted for its meat and horns for cen­turies, but a deadly virus in 2015 and 2016 killed thou­sands

In the wake of the 1989 ban on trad­ing ele­phant ivory, poach­ers have switched their at­ten­tion to the mag­nif­i­cent ca­nines of hip­pos

To de­ter poach­ers the shell of the ploughshare tor­toise is in­ten­tion­ally de­faced


En­dan­gered by Tim Flach is pub­lished by Abrams (ISBN 978-1-41972651-4) and fea­tures more than 180 im­ages doc­u­ment­ing the lives of threat­ened species. Tim Flach stud­ied fine art at St Martin’s Col­lege of Art and De­sign. He emerged with a fas­ci­na­tion for...

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