- A new photo book by authors and photographers Bjorn Olesen and Fanny Lai aims to raise awareness of Asia’s impressive biodiversity and protected areas, and inspire mindful ecotourism that supports effective conservation efforts.
- Many of the species intimately featured in the book encapsulate the major challenges facing the region from such threats as climate change, deforestation, development pressure, and the illegal wildlife trade, to name but a few.
- But most of all, the book is a celebration of the region’s biodiversity and conservation successes, featuring the stories of rare and imperiled species brought back from the edge of extinction through protected area management and combined efforts from governments, NGOs and communities.
- Mongabay interviewed Olesen to find out what he’s learned during his photography-inspired travels around the region and share some compelling images printed in the book.
For the past two decades, wildlife photographer and writer Bjorn Olesen and travel writer Fanny Lai have published books aimed at raising awareness of conservation in Asia. Beginning in 2012, the husband-and-wife team have spotlighted efforts to save the giant panda; showcased the spectrum of wildlife in Borneo; and provided rare insights in Asia’s forests in support of nature conservation organizations.
Now, their fourth photo book, Asia’s Greatest Wildlife Sanctuaries, gives a glimpse of what’s at stake in Asia’s forests, wetlands, islands and mountains, taking the reader to 27 of the region’s most spectacular protected areas across 14 countries. All royalties from the book will go to support BirdLife International in its conservation work in Asia.
Throughout the book, intimate images of wildlife and habitats by Olesen and two dozen contributing photographers create an accompaniment to the stories of government, NGO and community efforts that led to some of Asia’s most notable conservation successes.
From exquisite birds-of-paradise in Indonesia’s Papua region, to critically endangered ibises confined to tiny pockets of remaining habitat in northern Cambodia, the book is a wonderful portrayal of the region’s birdlife. Other animals, such as snow leopards, red pandas, rhinos, elephants and a plethora of primates, are also warmly depicted.
Narrowing down the wildlife reserves to feature in the book was perhaps the toughest challenge of all, Olesen told Mongabay. The selection “encapsulates our travels, spanning more than 20 years of wildlife sojourns in Asia,” he said. “We have never meant for it to be exhaustive, but rather to inspire readers to get out there and visit some of Asia’s most spectacular wildlife sanctuaries.”
Although the photography is vibrant and bright, the book avoids giving a rose-tinted view of the challenges facing Asia’s wildlife and conservationists. It tells the history of how wildlife sanctuaries emerged from troubling times and although many species have been saved from the brink of extinction, many are still suffering steep population declines due to a slew of pressures.
Mongabay’s Carolyn Cowan recently asked Bjorn Olesen about what he’s learned from his photography-inspired travels to some of Asia’s most magnificent wildlife reserves, including a selection of some of the book’s most captivating images. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Mongabay: What made you want to write and compile Asia’s Greatest Wildlife Sanctuaries?
Bjorn Olesen: If people have little knowledge of the marvels of nature, how can we expect them to care and support nature conservation? With this publication, it is our hope that we can convince our readers of the many adventures that await them in Asia’s protected landscapes. Once people have visited these wildernesses, they will discover how precious wild places are, and realize why we need to continue to protect them.
Mongabay: You write in the book that over the years, you’ve witnessed many conservation successes and species brought back from the brink of extinction, which can inspire the conservation work of the future. Which of these successes particularly stand out for you?
Bjorn Olesen: For some 50 years, the giant panda [Ailuropoda melanoleuca] has been the focus of one of the most intensive, high-profile efforts to recover an endangered species. China now has a sanctuary system, which has grown to 67 panda reserves. The Chinese government invested in infrastructure and capacity building for reserve staff, established antipoaching patrols, and curtailed human activities inside reserves. In 2016, the IUCN downgraded the species’ classification from endangered to vulnerable due to a 17% population rise during the decade up to 2014, when a nationwide census found 1,864 giant pandas in the wild. This shows that when political will, science and engagement of local communities come together, we can save wildlife and habitats.
Other successes that stand out are the case of greater one-horned rhinoceros [Rhinoceros unicornis] populations in India and Nepal, where they receive protection. The global population has recovered from fewer than 200 in the early 1900s to 2,575 individuals in 2007. Some 70% of the species lives in Kaziranga National Park in India, where the population is on the increase, although still threatened by a decline in the quality of habitat due to grazing by domestic livestock.
Also, extensive education projects have led to the recovery of endangered red-crowned cranes [Grus japonensis] in China, Japan, Korea and Russia. In Hokkaido in Japan, feeding stations for the birds have helped the population climb from 33 birds in 1952 to around 1,200 individuals by 2008. The species also breeds readily in captivity, and captive-raised birds have been released into the wild.
Lastly, India’s record of tiger [Panthera tigris] conservation has been most encouraging, with a doubling of the population over the past 10 years. Of the 50 tiger reserves in India, around 10 of them have optimal numbers. Efforts are now focusing on developing “secondary” tiger reserves.
Mongabay: In all your time spent in remote parts of Asia, you must’ve had some up-close or otherwise precious encounters with animals. What experiences stand out for you and why?
Bjorn Olesen: During a visit to Bardiya National Park in western Nepal, I witnessed a congregation of three herds of elephants [Elephas maximus] totaling 39 individuals of all ages. According to the local rangers this was the first time that so many elephants had been recorded in one location. It was a truly magical moment to see such a huge number of Asian elephants, and I still wonder about the reason and purpose for such a get-together.
Sitting in a hide in Siem Pang Wildlife Sanctuary in a remote northeastern corner of Cambodia, I suddenly saw a movement out of the corner of my eye: no sound and very close. I turned around very slowly, and there, right in front of me, were a pair of giant ibises [Thaumatibis gigantea] — one of the rarest birds in Southeast Asia [the global population is fewer than 200 mature individuals]. They stayed around for a couple of minutes, while I tried to photograph this unique occasion. One of those encounters that I will never forget!
But often wildlife does not cooperate. One time in Belum-Temengor Forest Complex in Malaysia, it took me four days to get photos of a helmeted hornbill [Rhinoplax vigil]. One day, long-tailed macaques [Macaca fascicularis] remained in the area for most of the day and the helmeted hornbill never showed up. The day after, we had to rush out of our hide and get down to our boat, because a small herd of elephants was heading directly towards us … But in the end, we did get the images we had hoped for, but you always need lots of patience and time.
Mongabay: Did you come across any cases where species or areas were being protected because of their cultural significance to Indigenous peoples and local communities?
Bjorn Olesen: In many Asian countries cranes are protected because of their great cultural significance. These majestic birds are intertwined with traditions and beliefs of the region. In Japan and China, cranes represent honor, longevity and loyalty. In Korean culture, cranes are considered sacred birds associated with wisdom, nobility and eternal youth. They are admired for their graceful movement and ability to soar high in the sky symbolizing spiritual enlightenment.
Mongabay: Reading your book, I was surprised to learn how few individuals remain globally of several species you feature in the publication. For instance, there are fewer than 700 white-shouldered ibis [Pseudibis davisoni] left, half of which live in Siem Pang Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia. From your experiences observing and photographing them there, do you have hope for their long-term survival?
Bjorn Olesen: White-shouldered ibis habitat is affected by grazing pressure, and the birds are threatened by poaching. For close to 20 years, BirdLife International has successfully worked with government partners and local communities in Cambodia to protect the habitat and wildlife in Siem Pang Wildlife Sanctuary. There is every hope that this approach of combining international and local resources will continue to bear fruit in the future. A new social enterprise, Rising Phoenix, has been set up to further strengthen local enforcement and conservation operations.
Mongabay: What about your experiences photographing critically endangered helmeted hornbills? How are people working to protect them from poaching driven by the illegal wildlife trade?
Bjorn Olesen: The helmeted hornbill, with its prehistoric looks, is one of the most impressive birds inhabiting Asia’s tropical rainforests. Being a very vocal species, it is particularly vulnerable to poachers, particularly during the nesting period. I have only had two encounters with them. Firstly in 2013, while boating along the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, [Malaysian] Borneo, I photographed an adult pair and a juvenile. It was the first time in three years that a juvenile helmeted hornbill had been spotted. My second encounter was with a nesting pair in Peninsular Malaysia, where the nest was successfully guarded by indigenous forest rangers.
Mongabay: While your book highlights many of Asia’s most iconic species, like rhinos, tigers, hornbills and gibbons, you also feature some lesser-known species that might not typically receive so much conservation attention. Do any of these types of species stand out for you as particularly important and in need of more attention?
Bjorn Olesen: Many critically endangered species like vultures receive little conservation action because they are “charisma challenged” and a hard sell to sponsors. An example is the collapse of vulture populations throughout Asia, mainly due to poisons or deadly medication in the carrion they eat. Vultures have a highly acidic digestive system that wipes out disease-causing agents, and thus they are perfectly equipped to dispose of rotting carcasses. [The decline of vultures] has resulted in a serious increase in feral dog populations with higher rates of rabies and potential increases in human disease burden, which could have been avoided with more investment in conservation.
I do believe that saving charismatic species and their habitat also conserves lesser-known species. This is often called the “umbrella species theory”. In other words, protecting tigers and their environment will also safeguard the survival of hundreds of other species that share that same habitat. This is of course not an ideal solution as different species need different support, but in the real world with restricted resources there is a limit to how many tailor-made programs can be sustained.
Mongabay: In the book, you highlight some important areas along bird flyways, or migration routes. Can you tell me about the significance of these flyway corridors for Asia’s birds?
Bjorn Olesen: Conserving habitats, like Indawgyi Lake in Myanmar, along migratory flyways is most important for the survival of migratory birds. These birds rely on specific habitats along their migration route, including breeding and nonbreeding grounds. By protecting these flyways, we can ensure that migratory birds have safe passage and access to the food and resources they need to successfully complete their long journeys. At the same time, flyway corridor preservation is a vital aspect of conserving the planet’s rich biodiversity.
Mongabay: Finally, what do you hope the book achieves? And what advice do you have for readers interested in having wildlife encounters, but looking to minimize their impacts?
Bjorn Olesen: It is my hope to inspire and encourage ecotourism supporting local communities and nature conservation. For families to go out and experience the many natural wonders and adventures that await them in Asia’s many spectacular wildlife sanctuaries. To select a good ecotourism operation, most important is to check their eco credentials: do they employ local staff and local guides, and use locally owned accommodation?
In spite of a constant stream of bad conservation news, I want to convey that not everything in this region is doom and gloom. It is also important to highlight our successes in preserving biodiversity and to honor the many people involved in driving these accomplishments. Many unique protected areas exist today because of notable conservation efforts by local and international NGOs. These are stories that deserve profiling, as they give people hope and encouragement to do more to protect our natural heritage.
Asia’s Greatest Wildlife Sanctuaries is now available worldwide in all leading online bookstores.
Carolyn Cowan is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on 𝕏, @CarolynCowan11.
Banner image: Rufous-necked hornbills (Aceros nipalensis) are commonly found in the forested hills of Bhutan, but their numbers are declining in other parts of their range. Image © Bjorn Olesen.
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