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Karl Ammann: Don’t Write Checks to Conservation Organisations. Take Action Instead

Karl Ammann. Photo: Jan Stejskal /

Karl Ammann is a Swiss-born photographer who has been living and working in Africa for around 40 years. He started with wildlife pictures in Masai Mara, and his first book was dedicated to cheetahs. When he realised the full extent of the horrific state of African wildlife, he decided to go for much more shocking pictures. His work on bushmeat, in particular his books Consuming Nature and Eating Apes and a number of documentaries, have claimed him a place among the best environmental journalists in the world. In 2007 he was named Environmental Hero by Time Magazine for almost single-handedly raising awareness of the issue of bushmeat. He lives near the town of Nanyuki in central Kenya. Photo: Jan Stejskal /


I think we should start direct action protest where necessary. We must send a message that the public is aware and wants to see changes. It seems that very little of that real activism is left.

You had been a wildlife photographer for quite a long time before you started to use photography for conservation purposes. What was the moment that changed your approach?

The first real experience when I realised what a devastating impact we have on nature was the Congo river trip with my wife in the 1980s. We saw all that meat coming on board, it was a huge flotilla of boats being pushed up the river, thousands of carcasses of all kinds of animals, primates and antelopes among them. It was shocking to see how much wildlife is consumed. The next phase was to find out how widespread the issue is. It became clear it is very widespread because people prefer bushmeat over the meat of domesticated animals. Even in cities like Kinshasa, Kisangani, Libreville, it is regarded as part of their culture to have wild meat.

Then the issue very quickly led to logging companies. They were opening up all the forests and that made all the hunting much easier because transporting the meat to markets became much easier. So the logging companies were in the end the biggest contributors to increased hunting pressure. People living in a village in a remote corner of a forest could hunt sustainably for decades without wiping animals out. But the moment they had a road going nearby, the moment they could send meat to the market and make money, they started to commercially hunt and that’s when things started to go downhill very fast. So the issue became a question of pinpointing irresponsible logging companies which were largely western corporations. It also led to the issue of wildlife trafficking which I’m working on now.

You have been living for around 30 years in Kenya. Can you compare what’s changed regarding wildlife?

It’s terrifying how fast things are going and have gone. I used to go every February to a place called Buffalo Springs Plains near Samburu National Reserve and there were always herds of 20, 40, sometimes 50 Grévy zebras. Males would fight, rear up, they would chase each other and kick each other, it was a good action for photography. However, for the last three or four years there are no longer any there. Last time I was there this autumn, there was one single male left which had joined a herd of common zebra. Statistics now say Grévy zebras are down to 2,000 individuals, declining in the last 10 years by some 80%.

I know well one guide in that area, he is 30 years old. He said he used to see giraffes every day when he was young, but his children have never seen a giraffe in their life – and they still live in the same place. So this is all a matter of 20 years from him seeing giraffes every day to his children never having seen a giraffe. Or take Borneo, where I have worked too. All orangutan forests are being taken for plantations and orangutans are pretty much at the end of the road. Or take vultures. When we lived in Masai Mara, in migration times you drove out, looked for the vultures where they were descending and there was a kill. You go to Mara now and you don’t see any real accumulation of vultures any more, they have all been poisoned.

Karl Ammann - Consuming Nature. Photo: © Karl Ammann

"It was shocking to see how much wildlife is consumed." Photo: © Karl Ammann

But the common image of Kenya is that it’s a country that boasts wildlife.

People don’t want to talk about the negative trends. Why? Because conservation NGOs need to raise money. If they have to admit they are not winning, it’s much harder to raise money. Governments want tourism and tour operators want tourists. So very few have the scope, interest and willingness to say: Maybe we have a serious problem here. You find it buried on the internet, but not on the front page of a local magazine. People see five giraffes on their game drive and they are probably happy. It’s the kind of stuff the world doesn’t want to deal with. There are no easy answers.

Do you see some approaches that work? What about private reserves?

South Africa pioneered this, they say they have more wildlife today than they had 60 years ago. And it’s probably correct but the question is, at what price? Everything is fenced in, they breed rhino then sell it to somebody who sells it to a hunter to shoot it and so on. I mean – this is not the wilderness I was hoping to find in Africa. Farmers have now started breeding rhinos in pens like cows. OK, there are more rhinos but as far as I’m concerned, it was the wilderness, it was the combination of wild places with no borders where rhinos could freely move that attracted us. At present I find it only in Namibia, there are still some places where you can roam freely and where rhinos still increase outside protected areas.

But if you look at the big picture, it doesn’t look good. I have known places, even in the early days in Masai Mara, where I would drive the whole day without seeing a car. It’s gone. Now the area is polluted with some 127 lodges and camps and hundreds if not thousands of cars. It’s a circus!

Do you think tourism hurts wildlife in Masai Mara?

I think it has reached that stage now. Warthogs are down, giraffes are down, the lions still get poisoned outside, people outside the reserve still say they don’t get their fair share…

Maybe it’s not because of tourism, but because the Masai people don’t like to have wildlife outside the reserve?

There is a notion among the Masai people that there is a lot of money made by tourism and that they don’t get their fair share. Therefore they poison or kill animals. In Amboseli National Park it’s a similar situation. Every time they think they should get more [money], they throw spears at elephants. It’s a message being sent: we want more of the tourism revenue. Some 30 or 40 years ago this wasn’t an issue. Then we came along and they said it’s their land and they should share in the profits. This is OK, but these communities never get enough, they always ask for more.

I keep saying that community-based conservation has been a big catch-word for the last 10-15 years. They say it’s a win-win solution: the communities win, conservation wins. But the truth is that 90% of community-based conservation turns into blackmail-based conservation. Local communities say: OK, you want to keep this elephant here, you pay. If you don’t pay, I kill that elephant.

I have worked in many places in Congo and it’s always the same. The people still consider themselves to be the horses and “westerners” are the riders. In their eyes we still come and dictate what they can and cannot do. And they don’t like it, it’s their land. So they want to take our money but they really do not want to change. If they can take our money and still break the rules and cheat us, they will do it. To some extent it’s human nature.

Karl Ammann - Consuming Nature. Photo: © Karl Ammann

"Logging companies were in the end the biggest contributors on increased hunting pressure." Photo: © Karl Ammann

So how did it happen that the general public, at least in Europe, has a feeling that not everything is OK with the nature but it’s not really that bad either?

I’m Swiss and when I was young I couldn’t swim in lake Constance because it was polluted. But it’s now clean. We have lynx reintroduced – but we can bloody afford it. We are a very rich country, so if we want bears, we can hire specialists and experts and spend millions of dollars to do the necessary. But will Kenya or Cameroon ever reach the point when they will be spending millions of dollars on reintroduction of species which they have lost? No, it simply won’t happen. To say it will happen here because it happened in some rich places in Europe is an illusion.

But it looks like quite a lot of money is being spent on conservation in Africa…

This is one of my problems. I did a film on Gombe Stream, a famous national park in Tanzania on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika where Jane Goodall was making her research on chimpanzees. Her organisation spends US $ 2.5m a year on the community and on keeping a bunch of scientists studying the last 80 chimps living there. The chimps look pretty sick, I don’t know if it is the vegetation, if they have SIV virus or whatever. But the point is: 2.5 million dollars on 80 chimps every year? This is a waste of money. It just doesn’t make sense anymore, not with such a small park. It’s only some 30 square miles of forest along the shore. There is not a single baboon left outside the park, there is hardly a tree left outside the park due to a 4.9 % human population growth around it. With 2.5 million dollars a year you can do a lot, maybe even for 100,000 chimps in some other area. The chimps in Gombe Stream have no long-term future in genetic terms.

I see a lot of projects like this. I understand it’s hard to give up, but I believe on giving up in a whole lot of countries. If there is no political will, there is no point. If the administration is as bad as it is in DR Congo for example, where they butchered the last okapi in the okapi breeding centre, they looted, raped and burnt people and ate them on top of it, why send more money and start all again with no guarantee there wouldn’t be a new war and looting spree in a few years? There is no hope the site will get better. I wouldn’t put a cent of my own money on it. Ask all these conservationists: would you put your personal money in your project? They are happy to spend donor or taxpayers’ money but how about when it comes to their own money?

It’s a lifestyle. I know people that have been in these parts for 40 years doing the same thing, especially in Congo. And they are loosing on every front, they lost the northern white rhino, they are losing eastern lowland gorilla and so on. But they are still there, still collecting donor money, still coming up with new projects after 30 years of failure. And this is again human nature – we want to write a check because it makes us sleep well. We feel better, we’ve done our share.

Years ago I saw a campaign in Switzerland, Austria and Germany, it was a poster with a little orangutan sitting in a human hand and it said: “His life is in your hands.” Of course everyone wrote a check or made a donation by their mobile phone and slept well. The campaigners made money, financed their campaign, they sent some money to Indonesia and took care of some orangutan orphans, but who is going to stop the oil palm plantation owners from cutting down the forest? They still do it like before. There is nobody standing out there in front of those bulldozers.

Karl Ammann - Consuming Nature. Photo: © Karl Ammann

"At the moment it’s all about enforcement. The only thing I respect are the people who go out and enforce rules and try to keep nature alive as long as we don’t have better solutions." Photo: © Karl Ammann

Do you see any reasonable approach to conservation?

At the moment it’s all about enforcement. The only thing I respect are the people who go out and enforce rules and try to keep nature alive as long as we don’t have better solutions. For example the people who fight in the field against poachers. This is the frontline of conservation.

Apart from that I think we must get national governments to accept that their taxpayers and voters care about the environment and wildlife and expect them to take appropriate action. I believe that with China’s consumption of rhino horn, ivory and apes for their zoos and safari parks, we have to use a name-and-shame approach. They are more concerned about their image and face loss than anything else. My colleague Bryan Christy named a few in October’s issue of the National Geographic and they reacted more strongly than to any kind of questions made at CITES meetings [CITES is the UN Convention that aims to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival].

I think we should start direct action protest where necessary. We must send a message that the public is aware and wants to see changes. It seems that very little of that real activism is left. I grew up 30 years ago and I knew people who chained themselves outside the Bundeshaus in Bern when they wanted something. There are now only a few of that calibre left. Greenpeace still do that, they climb buildings and put up posters. So if you want an example, yes, that kind of activism might help create the level of awareness which is missing at the moment.

Additional info on Karl Ammann’s website.

Featured image credit: Jan Stejskal /

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About The Author(s)

Jan Stejskal

Jan Stejskal

Journalist, based in the Czech Republic

Journalist, currently an editor-in-chief of the - leading Czech on-line news, comments and features on environment and nature. As he has to illustrate his stories, he takes photos as well. Master degree in anthropology.

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