“It seemed dreadful to see the great beast Lying there, powerless to move and yet powerless to die, and not even to be able to finish him.”
–George Orwell, Shooting an Elephant, 1936
Does hunting and conservation truly go hand-in-hand? How do we generate income from the wildlife that the people share their lands with? What right do we have to ask native people to share their lands with wildlife that kills cattle, and people, without being of benefit to them?
In a time of commodification of wildlife and heavily populated urbanized worlds in which people often don’t know where their food comes from, these are the difficult questions that British documentary photographer David Chancellor, who splits his time between London and South Africa, strives to find answers to in his stunning series of works, “Elephant Story” and “Hunters.”
Traveling across Africa for an earlier project on HIV/AIDS, he became more and more intrigued by game reserves and the complexities of trophy hunting.
Beginning in about 2008, he began documenting legal hunts in Africa.
“Hunters always talk about hunting and conservation going hand-in-hand,” he says. “I wanted to understand how killing an animal can conserve it.”
As a boy, Chancellor was moved by Orwell’s powerful and emotional account of killing an elephant.
The story came to life while photographing an American hunter kill an elephant in Zimbabwe.
“The traumatic events of the elephant hunt brought his words back,” he recalls.
Yet, he also cautions against knee-jerk reactions.
“I’m not a hunter, I never will be,” he says. “What I am is an observer of our extremely complex relationship with wildlife, and I work with those who are at the forefront of this relationship.”
His series, “Elephant Story” arose from photographing a hunt under the CAMPFIRE program (Community Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources). Under CAMPFIRE, at least half of the revenue from leasing trophy hunting concessions to foreign hunters (95 percent of whom are from the United States) goes to local communities. The meat from such hunts is also totally utilized by the community. Hunters leave with the skin, ivory and elephant’s feet.
Chancellor documented “Elephant Story” in this powerful video:
The series and book “Hunters” followed. A second book, “With Butterflies and Warriors,” focused on his award-winning series documenting community-based conservation in Kenya, is in progress.
“Hunters” took Chancellor across the world. His subjects include bear hunting in Maine, a cougar hunt in Utah and a legal giraffe hunt in South Africa.
Hunting as conservation is certainly not a new idea.
“From Charles Darwin and John James Audubon to the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway, the most enlightened hunters have long viewed themselves as naturalists and conservationists, committed to sustainability among animal populations and the preservation of wild places where they stalk game,” Chancellor says, adding that hundreds of millions of dollars in federal excise taxes levied on hunters go directly to wildlife management and related activities each year in the United States alone.
“I often get criticized for not making my feelings felt. If you understood the work, you’ll understand my feelings.”
“And anyone who keeps a freezer full of venison is likely to tell you that the act of killing your own dinner in the wild is more humane than buying the plastic-wrapped meat of industrially raised livestock.”
But it’s not as simple as that, either. And his quest to find answers has taken a toll.
“‘Hunters’ has hugely impacted my life, and that of my family. It’s difficult, traumatic work. I’m so aware of our relationship with wildlife now in all its forms. I’m constantly inspired by what I see, and often appalled…I’m not trying to expose good practice or bad practice. What I’m trying to do is understand why we are doing what we do.”
At the heart of it all, and perhaps the most critical point, he says, is that the animals are not the problem.
“Our very presence boxes them into smaller and smaller places….and then we have to manage them as they strive to survive in the new world that we’ve made for them — our world, not theirs.”