For the past 60 years, the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) has protected animals, restored lost habitats and advocated for policy changes that benefit wildlife. Now, the conservation organization is trying a new approach.
This year, AWF launched the inaugural Benjamin Mkapa African Wildlife Photography Awards. Named after the late Tanzanian president, a longstanding AWF board member, the contest aims to reach a different audience.
While photography competitions are nothing new, the AWF hopes that the exhibition of winning entries will encourage African people to take a more active role in conservation said its CEO, Kaddu Sebunya. “Africans need to take the responsibility for the conservation of their heritage,” he said.
A global competition
Photographers of all ages and backgrounds, professional and amateur, were invited to submit to the competition, resulting in nearly 9,000 entries from 50 countries around the globe.
A judging panel, comprised of photographers, conservationists, activists and safari guides, selected photos from 12 categories including “Art in Nature,” “Coexistence and Conflict,” and “Conservation Heroes.”
Last month, the category winners were announced at an awards ceremony at Nairobi National Museum, Kenya, along with four additional awardees.
The “Grand Prize” went to Italian photographer Riccardo Marchegiani for his photo of a gelada baboon and her infant grazing in the valleys of Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains. “It’s not so much how beautiful the photo is, but (more about) the story it tells,” said Sebunya. Gelada populations are in decline due to habitat loss and AWF is working to protect the species through multiple community projects.
The winning image is among a total of 79 selected for an exhibition, on display at the Nairobi National Museum from now until mid-January.
Putting people in the picture
The “Conservation Heroes” category had special appeal for Kenyan conservation photographer Anthony Ochieng Onyango. A former ecologist who worked with local and international wildlife organizations, he left his job in 2017 to pursue photography full-time.
“I realized there was a communication gap (in conservation) because most of what was being communicated was data in scientific publications,” said Onyango, adding that images are a simple way for people to connect to complex issues.
At first, Onyango struggled to find work and was beginning to doubt his career move, but then he received a phone call from Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda, asking him to photograph their rescued chimps. This assignment helped him launch his new career and one of the photos he took, of a keeper feeding chimpanzees, was selected for AWF’s Mkapa Awards.
“That particular image means a lot to me because I met these really inspiring caregivers and the one in the picture was so passionate about taking care of the chimps,” said Onyango. He prefers taking photos of people and animals together: “I feel without people (in the picture), people just don’t relate to wildlife as easily,” he said.
Promoting African voices
While there were entries from 10 African nations in the AWF competition, Onyango was the only Black African among the awardees, and only one African photographer, 19-year-old Cathan Moore from South Africa, was among the category winners.
There’s a lack of opportunity for young aspiring photographers on the continent, said Sebunya. He added that AWF is seeking grants and partnerships to enable more African people to participate next year, and that categories like “African Wildlife Backyard” make nature photography competitions more accessible to those unable to pay hefty park fees or buy expensive camera equipment, allowing people to use whatever camera they have and photograph wildlife in urban environments.
Sebunya hopes that the competition can open up a dialogue about conservation – and why it’s so important for Africa’s future. Many people in Africa look at conservation as a thing done by and for foreigners, said Sebunya. While he praised the work of international NGOs, he emphasized that it’s vital African voices are heard and for local people to lead conservation efforts.
From January 2022, the photography exhibition will travel through Africa, North America, Asia and Europe. “This our brand as Africans,” said Sebunya. “Through photography, we are going to show the rest of the world what Africa is.”