An image of a pensive mountain gorilla with blazing orange eyes claimed the top prize in the 2022 Benjamin Mkapa African Wildlife Photography Awards.
Taken by US-based photographer Michelle Kranz, the photograph was commended for capturing the ape’s emotion, during a ceremony at the Nairobi National Museum in the Kenyan capital.
The annual award, launched by the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) in 2021, is named after the late President of Tanzania, who devoted much of his time to conservation education in Africa and was a board member of the AWF. It aims to not only showcase photographers’ work, but to raise awareness of African wildlife worldwide.
“We hope to take Africa to the world, and take African heritage to the rest of Africa,” said Kaddu Sebunya, CEO of AWF.
He added he was greatly impressed at how much the contest has grown since its first iteration, with nearly 10,000 entries from around 60 countries. These were whittled down by a judging panel to winners in 12 categories, including “Art in Nature” and “Conflict and Coexistence,” as well as the “Grand Prize.”
“An education program”
The AWF’s overarching mission is to ensure that wildlife and wildlands thrive in modern Africa, through various conservation and community programs. But there are some challenges that the organization has identified in achieving this goal. For Sebunya, the main obstacle is the “limited leadership and ownership of Africans in the conservation sector.”
For many Africans, nature is not just something to be looked at and admired, he said: “When people here see elephants, they see their crops being destroyed and people being killed.” One benefit of the photography awards is to show animals and nature to Africans in a different, positive light. Last year, the photo gallery went on tour around several countries in Africa, and the AWF reported positive receptions among local people. “It’s more than a photo, it’s an education program,” Sebunya said.
He was also pleased to see many more Africans participating in this year’s contest, although would like more involvement from the continent’s younger generation. To this end, the AWF is working to improve young people’s access to game parks and camera equipment, so that more have the means to enter the contest in the future.
But the benefits of the Benjamin Mkapa African Wildlife Photography Awards are twofold – it not only showcases African wildlife to the people who live there, but to the global population as well. According to Sebunya, the competition helps to spark international discussions on conservation, promoting tourism and donations.
The next generation
One image, that won the “Creative Digital” category this year, features an orphaned baby white-bellied pangolin curled up on its rearer’s open palms. South-African based photographer, Prelena Soma Owen, said that her goal with the photo was to shine a light on the endangered species.
Growing up in apartheid, Soma Owen had not been permitted to visit game parks as a child. Now she wants to show people, especially children, stark images of African wildlife. “Many children in Africa do not have the funds or the opportunities to go to game parks and see animals up close, and that’s why photography is so important,” she said, adding that the younger generation will be vital in terms of conservation as around 40% of the continent is aged 15 years or younger.
Soma Owen has done volunteer work, teaching children how to photograph wildlife, and said she has seen first-hand the impact it can have. “In under two months of classes, children of about eleven years old have changed the way they think about conservation,” and are bringing this knowledge back to their communities, she said.
She believes that photography is a more useful tool than statistics for these communities, as it gives them something tangible that they can fully understand.
Changing the narrative
Kenyan photographer Anthony Ochieng Onyango won the “Conservation Heroes” category with a tender image of an elephant’s trunk caressing a ranger’s head. He also believes that photography can have a positive effect on conservation by broadening the way people think about wildlife.
“Most of the images of rangers in Africa are always with rangers holding guns. I want to show the personal connection rangers have to wildlife”, he said. “To me, rangers are my sisters, brothers, fathers and mothers, and deserve much respect for their support of wildlife.”
The AWF aims to add new categories next year, focusing on the impact of climate change on nature.