Friday, July 31, 2015

The thrill of the hunt

Atlantic Puffin, Close Up, Iceland

It may be hard to believe, but there are still a few wondrous places on Earth where animals aren’t afraid of people. With word this week that a hunter with more money than compassion brutally slaughtered a lion from one of these special places, I’m afraid we’re about to lose another.

I’ve never photographed a lion in the wild, but like most nature photographers who’ve ventured very far off the beaten track, I’ve had my share of absolutely magical encounters with wildlife. One that has had a dramatic impact on my view of animals and our relationship with them happened nearly 10 years ago on my first trip to Iceland.

While birding was not my focus on this trip, I was in the country at the peak of the puffin breeding season. Puffins are at sea for all but a few months a year. They come ashore only to breed. More than half of the Atlantic puffins come ashore to raise families in Iceland; many of those nest at the top of a sheer cliff in the remote West Fjords. Between the puffins and the stunning scenery the area had to offer, I knew I had to go.

As I parked at the Látrabjarg lighthouse, I pulled out my standard kit for photographing wildlife: a 600mm super telephoto lens that weighs more than 13 pounds and a heavy-gauge aluminum tripod to support it. A few minutes after I started hiking I could hear the noise of more than 100,000 nesting birds — puffins, razorbills and guillemots. A few minutes after that, the first puffins started coming into view.

I found a nice cluster of puffins and began to set up my camera to start snapping pictures when one of the puffins started waddling toward me. He clearly wasn’t angry. When a puffin would land on the bluff, often another puffin would waddle over to check it out. It feels odd to write this, but it almost seemed like this bird was coming up to say, “Hello,” in somewhat the same manner as other puffins were welcoming other new bird arrivals.

The puffin that came up to me stuck his head in the hood around my lens. I have no pictures. That particular lens cannot focus on anything closer than 18 feet; the puffin was only inches away. After about 30 seconds, he came back out and stood beside my lens looking at me.

I didn’t know what else to do — I couldn’t take any pictures — so I made small talk. I asked how he and his family were. I asked if he would mind if I took their picture. As I talked, he tilted his head to the side a bit, looking almost curious. After a couple minutes, he apparently got bored with me, so he stumbled off — puffins are birds of the sea and are very awkward on land — and re-joined his own kind.

Over the next few days, I never got another “welcome,” but I also never found any bird there that didn’t accept me. As far as any of the birds were concerned, I was just one of the 100,000+ creatures using cliff.

I don’t for a minute think any of them thought I was a bird. I don’t think animals are stupid. I do think they knew I posed no harm and that we could co-exist, happily sharing the amazing location.

I knew that this was a special experience; I had never quite experienced anything like it. The magnitude, however, didn’t sink in until I arrived at another puffin colony about 200 miles away. At this colony, located on the island of Grímsey, puffins are regularly hunted. In Látrabjarg, they are not.

As I hiked across the small island, which straddles the Arctic Circle, I came across numerous groups of puffins. If I got within 100 feet or so, I could feel them start to grow uneasy with my presence, so I immediately backed off.

By all accounts, Cecil, the lion who was slaughtered in Zimbabwe, was like the first group of puffins I described. He lived in a national park. He had no reason to fear people. Anybody who visited him only wanted to take his picture.

Now that he’s gone, I fear we’ve lost more than a majestic creature; we’ve also violated the trust of yet another group of animals. And, like Cecil, once that trust is gone, it’s gone for good.

In Norway, for example, it’s been nearly 25 years since an orca was killed by a hunter. Today, however, orca pods that have ever lost a family member to a hunter still flee immediately when they hear a boat’s motor. They remember.

It’s not realistic to expect that everyone will become a vegetarian. Most animals aren’t even vegetarians. But unlike some disturbed people, animals have respect for what they have to kill. Animals don’t kill more than they have to. They don’t kill just so they have some new decorations for their burrows or dens.

Killing solely for the sake of killing something doesn’t make us better than animals; it makes us worse. And we all lose something special every time that happens.

(Learn more about Kevin Ebi's newest book, Living Wilderness, the first comprehensive portfolio of his fine-art images and download a free preview. Follow his photography on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram .)

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