In my wildlife paintings, humanity's absence is conspicuous. As much as we naturally yearn to learn about animals, to befriend them, even love them, as humans we must respect their boundaries. The lives they lead in my work are their ideal state, roaming and thriving in their territories completely free from the interference of humans.
As a whole, we humans aren't doing a great job of upholding our end of that bargain. Even as people become more educated than ever, have access to more information than any person at any time in history, as a species, we have pushed wildlife into the margins, expecting them to fend for themselves in ever shrinking terrains and ignoring their many crucial roles in keeping the Earth a beautiful and healthy place to live.
This Year In Encroachment
As human overpopulation & the encroachment onto wildlife territories continues, animals of all kinds quickly find themselves without the proper habitat to thrive. This creates a stressful situation for wildlife and increased human-animal encounters, often resulting in challenging behavioral changes, or outright death.
Public interest in funding preserves and rescue organizations, on the other hand, continues to wane. Around the world, funding for the organizations that make it their mission to deal with the displaced and injured animal victims of human sprawl plummets to the point of closures. This leaves countless animals unprotected as their habitats suddenly shift from a vibrant ecology to a human monoculture. As ecosystems lose their apex predators, some management of the remaining herbivores becomes necessary. But increasingly, animals once considered a minor nuisance to relatively new human occupants are green-lit for mass culling.
Nowhere is this push and pull between humans and animals more prominent than for African elephant populations, a subject I focus on in both my art and my activism. Although the most lethal poaching is now fueled by organized crime with military style ambushes, there is still the more down to earth crisis that exists in Africans’ day-to-day lives. This is where the bad poachers/good animals dichotomy blurs, and becomes a problem that requires an incredible amount of individual effort and attention in the attempt to stop the massive elephant deaths caused by poaching.
Humans live on the threshold of many of the areas where African elephants thrive. And a primary source of income for these communities tends to be farming. A natural consequence of sharing land with behemoths is that, sometimes, those animals destroy crops and equipment.
For people who live hand-to-mouth, anything that so disastrously disrupts this economic tightrope needs fast mitigation. And so, many struggling farmers turn to serving as support for poachers, understandably benefiting from the payments and relief from future issues with elephants on their land. It is hard to love elephants when they have just destroyed a whole seasons’ worth of crops in one night.
It takes a keen, empathetic eye to identify problems like these and come up with the complex solutions they require. My friend Kate Evans' organization Elephants for Africa exemplifies the kind of solutions we need. They work to solve the exact issues faced in Botswana's Makgadikgadi Pans National Parks surrounding communities. In 2012, Elephants for Africa Foundation relocated here from the Okavango Delta. After 20 years of being a dry riverbed, the Boteti River was flowing once again. With the rush of water came a resurgence of male elephants, and with the elephants came the conflicts with humans.
In addition to their specialized conservationist efforts of studying and tracking male elephant behavior, Elephants for Africa makes great efforts to work with locals, helping them understand bull elephant habits and activity, spreading information on the positive aspects of sharing land with elephants, including lucrative tourism that would disappear without the presence of these massive creatures to marvel at.
Will Humans Ever Change?
Humankind has come a long way, culturally and spiritually, but we clearly have a long way to go when it comes to respecting other species. Some of us go out of our way to buy foods from livestock treated with respect; others avoid consuming animal products altogether. As these approaches to consumerism become more popular, they serve as signs that millions of people are reaching a different level of consciousness and are capable of and committed to doing something to preserve these animals' dignity.
Sometimes all it takes is to hear a single new idea, to suddenly find yourself enlightened on a topic. We've all had that experience. We need to try our best to pass those moments on to others. As angry as we might be at the people who willfully harm, or those who have access to educate themselves and simply don't, there's little value in dwelling on that. Perhaps we need to project to others the cold truths of the dangers of human overpopulation, while grounding it in the beautiful imagery of the animals we need to protect. My work represents animals in their ideal state; it's up to us to show others how important it is to keep those images alive.