Your resume shows you’ve always had a deep connection with animals. Working as a tiger and lion caregiver for over 20 years, being involved in other conservation projects such as the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary over here in Uganda and currently you’re hosting many presentations about wildlife conservation and photography to the private and public sector in the US mainly.
What's your story?
My love for animals really started with my grandmother. I grew up in San Francisco and my grandmother grew up in the Philippines. She and my mom were very close to animals. Living in a rural area on a small farm with lots of animals. My mom used to tell me these stories about her childhood in the Philippines and how she was surrounded by nature and animals.
Hearing those stories really influenced me. Once my mom and dad gave me a stuffed tiger animal, I was sold. I just knew that one day I was going to work with tigers. Then, actually working with the tigers and lions was really an epic experience and life-changing moment for me. I raised tigers and lions and developed this relationship with them.
You have to understand that they are 100% wild animals. They are not tamed or domesticated in any way. I have been hurt by them, I have gone to the hospital to have my face stitched up and I truly knew from the very beginning that you have to have a real strong respect for their strength, their power and wild nature. I felt so honoured to be in their presence. Seeing their deep emotions I realized that animals just share this rich emotional life just like we do.
Wildlife photography has become a real hype. Can you define wildlife photography and explain why is it such a trend?
Wildlife photography is a broad definition. It can be animals, habitats that can also be landscapes and even plants. I really love taking photos of plants and beautiful flowers and such micro photography works.
It has got very popular I believe since we, unfortunately, lose a lot of wildlife. 58% of the animal population has declined over the past 40 years. Therefore people get more interest in wildlife. And don’t forget we live in a social media culture. More and more people are interested in photography and because of this, people really want to upgrade their skills coming from taking selfies into wildlife photography as an example.
When you enjoy those moments of a safari and you have a platform like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, where you can share your photo’s with everybody else, there is almost this feeling that you can show off about you standing right next to herds of elephants. That’s very exciting. And this is a great fact. It encourages people to learn more about wildlife and to respect these animals.
In East Africa, about 2.000.000 people go on safari annually. Can anyone be a wildlife photographer?
Just photography, in general, requires skills. But for wildlife, you need to be extremely patient and respectful to the animals. I never want to discourage anyone because they don’t believe they have skills. I want to encourage everyone to just go out there and shoot and use your camera. Don’t worry too much rather the photo looks good or if it was framed properly. It’s the experience that will teach somebody to create better photos.
But I also think it’s important to train, by getting to know your camera really well. And as mentioned, you need to have patience and respect for the animals. At the point where I see an animal is being stressed out, I just leave. You need to know how to show respect to an animal. But even when they take off, it’s important to understand that you don’t leave yet. Because what animals will do, they will run and they will turn to assess the situation. And as soon as they turn, that’s the perfect time for you to take the photo.
A lot of people ask me when it’s the best season to visit but I have been photographing in East Africa in all seasons and there is not one where I say “this is the perfect season”. Every season has a different perspective, as also every type of weather. I think people shouldn’t limit themselves and just go, unless there is something out of the ordinary like the Great Migration.
What is a wildlife photographers dream?
To have that shot that other people haven’t! To capture that shot that has very unique perspective or tells a story and captures emotions. Sometimes it isn’t necessarily a beautiful photo or even pleasurable to look at. For example, in one of the contests the photography award went to a photographer that captured a poached rhino and the horn had been cut off. That photo had such a powerful message and it moves people to see how horrible poaching is. We want to see the animals with camera’s, not guns. And in order to get this one picture, we also need to lower the number of vehicles in the parks.
I really think that safari carpooling is a fabulous idea. First of all, it brings in a sense of community. I can’t tell you how many wonderful people I have met through traveling tourism. It’s very important to have a small footprint in the National Parks and the animals won’t get stressed out by all the vehicles getting through.
And also, it lessens the experience for tourism and photographers. For example, I have been to Kidepo National Park in Uganda and we watched herds of lions with nobody else surrounding us. Then there is another situation where you have 15 vehicles and the animals just take off. If you minimize that and people stick to the carpooling concept, not only they get that sense of community and share the experience, but it really does lower the impact.
How can a safari theme as this further support the tourism industry in East Africa?
Because many people that have wildlife photography as a profession or as a hobby, are the ones going into the parks and pay for the fees. Out of these fees, a percentage goes back to the community and jobs are being provided because of this, think about the safari guides. By bringing revenue into the parks, they can support conservation and anti-poaching. And when you’re talking conservation, this has to be a collaborative effort with the communities that share the parks. You cannot just try to protect the wildlife, without protecting the need of the people surrounding them.
In most circumstances, people don’t want to go into the forest and poach. But if they don’t have enough money for meat, this is what they have to do in order to survive. One great aspect of tourism in Uganda for example, is that there is also cultural tourism. There is a collage of different cultures from different tribes. It is very inspiring and beautiful to experience the livelihood of these different cultures. There are also so many different places where you can learn about peoples history, food, dances, their basic ways of life. When you’re able to integrate that with the wildlife experience? Really inspiring!
This Interview would have not taken place without the warmest hospitality of all persons involved. A big thank you and, we are looking forward to the next interview!