By Jacalyn Beales
Zoo photography may help bridge the gap between captive animals & the plight of their wild counterparts
It was Thoreau who once said of nature, “All good things are wild and free.” Every wild animal has in their physiological makeup a need and desire to be free. To live and roam in their own natural habitat. But for centuries, humans have been curious about these wild animals, especially the most illustrious ones. Thus, zoos were created to bring people closer to such species, affording us the opportunity to peer into the life of a wild animal. But some feel the modern-day zoo is capable of doing more harm than good. What is paraded as conservation is occasionally nothing more than a cruel world of captivity; a world wherein wild animals are but a shell of their former selves. Some call for the abolishment of zoos, claiming the institution does little for real conservation. Others, sing their praises and believe zoos are necessary for the continuation of certain species.
But what about their wild counterparts?
In Africa, iconic species like lions and elephants live in their own world of captivity. Lions are caged and captive-bred for exploitation, whilst elephants and rhinos are poached for their ivory and horns, even within the boundaries of National parks and reserves. Half-way across the globe, such species’ can be found behind glass enclosures; their African counterparts, at the end of a gun. The illegal wildlife trade, trophy hunting industries and trafficking of wildlife parts have made it all but impossible for wildlife to live free of harm in Africa. Consequently, reputable and ethical zoos will periodically step in to help, their efforts to conserve the wildlife quite notable. Zoos often provide sanctuary for animals, often breeding specific species in captive-breeding programs to ensure they are not lost forever to extinction.
AZA (Association of Zoos & Aquariums) and other accredited zoos are notorious for their leadership in caring for endangered species, thus operating under much higher standards than some zoos we frequently hear horror stories about in the news (like the Surabaya Zoo in Indonesia, for instance). Yet, still there exists a stark contrast between the the captive and the wild. Some travel to Africa to see it first hand, but others who cannot venture so far use the art of photography to encapsulate the lives of these animals, raising awareness about the plight of their far-away cousins through the lens of a camera.
Having never had the opportunity to visit Africa, German photographer Manuela Kulpa spent time traveling across Europe in an effort to capture the portraits of wild animals. Her subjects? Captive African species.
From lions and elephants, to cheetahs and zebras, Kulpa documented brief moments of these zoo-bound creatures whose wild lives have been interrupted by captivity. In a series entitled African Souls, Kulpa’s beautiful yet heartbreaking photos act as a reminder that captive species resemble little of their wild heritage. Through her photos, Kulpa shows the world the magnificence of these species, and the need to conserve their wild relatives.
Alison Lee Rubie, Australian photographer and Founder of Lobby for Lions, also documents brief moments of the lives of captive African species at her local zoos. Having traveled to Africa before, Rubie has witnessed first hand both wild and captive animals; some in their natural habitat, others in man-made ones. She feels zoo photography can help educate people on the plight of Africa’s wildlife. “People relate to visuals, and a picture speaks a thousand words,” says Rubie. “I am inspired to take photos of wildlife in reputable zoos, and promote the conservation efforts undertaken by these zoos, to assist me in educating people about African wildlife and their cousins in the wild.”
The argument for and against zoos and captive species is, at best, a tempestuous one. There is little doubt that many zoos operate under horrid conditions, a select few acting as perfect indicators that the modern-day zoo may eventually go extinct, like many of its in-house species are at risk of becoming. But for those who can see a different side of the coin, photography can be used as a tool for raising awareness about wild species through the lens of captive ones. If a picture speaks a thousand words, these photographs say more for wildlife than any zoo could ever hope to. When capturing wildlife with a lens, we are afforded the briefest of glimpses into the soul of nature and the wilderness which calls to us all.