Alice Roberts spoke to Michael and Harrison Cooney about their recent project, which tells the story, through photographs, of the men and women who have devoted their lives to the war against poaching
feel we all have our part to play in this war,” says Harrison Cooney. Raising awareness was the part that Michael and Harrison saw would best suit them – and thus the ‘Wildlife Defenders’ was born. The project aimed to use photography as a medium to shed light on the plight of the rhino and acknowledge the hard work and sacrifice that goes into protecting these endangered animals. A seasoned traveller, Michael ran the logistics, and his son, photographer Harrison, was responsible for the creative aspects and overall vision.
What would you like the viewer to take away from your photographs?
Harrison: I want the viewer to feel as though they are on the ground with the people in my photographs. I think it’s important that they become engaged and ask why those men are carrying rifles or why is this guy flying a helicopter or why that rhino is peering through the stockade posts. I believe a good photograph should tell a story without words. I hope to draw people in to learn more about rhino poaching and its short and long-term implications, and also hopefully influence others to choose career paths that will protect both animals and our planet.
What sparked your interest in telling the story of the plight of the rhino?
Harrison: I didn’t want to continue sitting on the sidelines in the USA and hoping things would get better. I was committed to doing my part to help increase awareness of the poaching crisis in southern Africa. Rhinos have been around for 50 million years, yet humans can either wipe wild rhinos from the face of the Earth or protect them for future generations – an incredible responsibility for us to hold.
How has poaching impacted your visits over the years you have been visiting Africa?
Michael: My first visit was in the late ’90s, and although poaching was an issue, it had not reached the pandemic that it is today. The people we met while working on our recent project made it clear that it is a very complicated issue but ultimately boils down to greed and corruption. Recently, even terrorist organisations have been linked to poaching operations as a way to fund their ideology worldwide. However, nature is incredibly resilient if given the opportunity to heal and replenish. The people we met, and Harrison created images of, are hopeful and discouraged at the same time. All agree the problem could be quickly solved if there were the political will to do so. Laws must be enforced and strengthened to have a real, sustainable impact.
What have you most enjoyed about working as a team?
Michael: Combining our talents on a professional level is very rewarding. I sweat the small stuff (logistics etc), which allows Harrison to focus exclusively on his craft. Throughout the three weeks together, we developed a deep respect and appreciation for each other’s skill set. And after debriefing at the end of each day to evaluate what we could have done better or differently, we returned to being father and son.
Harrison: It was great to have someone on whom I could count, and who would have my best interests at heart. In December 2016, I asked my father to join me and explained my vision and what I wanted to accomplish. As a project manager his entire career, he took my original idea to a whole new level. My dad has always supported me in whatever I wanted to do, but this may take the cake. From getting stranded in the bush during African thunderstorms to having hyena interrupt photo-shoots, we made so many memories I know we’ll never forget.
How can people living outside of Africa get involved in rhino conservation?
Harrison: Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty – both figuratively and literally. Learn as much as you can about the problems and the solutions. Use social media to communicate with your peers to let them know that if poaching continues at its current rate, there may not be any rhino left in the wild in less than 10 years. Ask them to spread the word through their social media channels as well. Make your feelings known to your elected officials and write letters to ambassadors at embassies of countries that can influence both the supply and demand. Donate to legitimate organisations that you can verify are using the money for its intended purpose. To get your hands dirty, literally, volunteer at a rhino sanctuary in South Africa. It will be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life, and you will see firsthand what is happening on the ground. Again, do your homework to make sure you choose one that always puts the rhinos’ interests first.
To read more about the Wildlife Defenders, click here. You can also follow them on Instagram (@TheWildlifeDefenders), Facebook (The Wildlife Defenders) or Twitter (@WildDefenders).