iLCP Featured Fellow – Sebastian Kennerknecht
Sebastian Kennerknecht is a wildlife and conservation photographer focusing in particular on endangered species and wild cats.
Using highly customized digital SLR camera traps that he builds, in addition to conventional photographic techniques, and extensive natural history research, Sebastian covers the whole story about an animal while also working closely with in-the-field biologists. This often includes visually capturing the behavior and ecology of wildlife, showing the threats that they face, as well as the conservation work being done to protect them.
We got a chance to talk with Sebastian and ask him about his work and new things planned ahead!
- What conservation issue are you most concerned with right now and why?
The conservation issue I am currently most concerned with is the logging of southeast Asian rainforests to convert the logged areas to oil palm plantations. This destruction is happening at an alarming rate. In Borneo, about 300 football fields of rainforest are being cleared each hour. If this continues, less than half of the rainforest on Borneo will remain by 2020.
Why does that matter? The tropical rainforests of southeast Asia are one of the most biodiverse habitats in the world. Millions, if not billions of unique, and often endemic species call these forests home. Since I am partial to wild cats, the palm oil industry directly impacts Sumatran tigers, Sunda clouded leopards, clouded leopards, marbled cats, bay cats, leopard cats, and flat-headed cats, just to name a few.
The Borneo bay cat is only found on Borneo. It cannot sustain itself in palm oil plantations. If the logging continues, this wild cat may be the first feline species to go extinct in 42 million years. We have the power to change this by educating ourselves about our oil palm consumption.
- What do like best about being in the field?
There are so many reasons, but most of all, it has to be the relationships you build with the animals you photograph. It may sound cheesy, but when you spend enough time with an individual, you start to understand its life, its personality, its highs and its lows. Having the privilege to enjoy these unique experiences is something I will never take for granted.
- What is your best scary/funny/inspiring story from the field?
I spent three months in Yemen during their Arab spring, trying desperately to photograph the critically endangered Arabian Leopard there. I failed in the task, and no leopard has been photographed, even by research camera traps since three months before I had arrived there, over five years ago.
One night, a scorpion had crawled into one of my cargo pockets and while crouching down, my arm brushed my pants, at which point the scorpion stung me. In trying to figure out what got me, it stung me two more times. My arm went completely numb and I had no ability to move my hand or fingers.
It was two in the morning when I started to make my way along the village road towards the hospital. A car pulls up and the man inside asks me where I am going. Through hand gestures I get my point across. He gestures back that he’ll give me a ride. Considering the continuing numbness in my arm, I take him up on his offer, despite the kalashnikov and large bag of khat (a plant-based drug that is chewed) sitting next to him. He drives me to the hospital, he calls the doctor to come to it, and after treatment insists on paying for the medicine. He was a complete stranger to me only hours before.
This experience was of course scary due to the arm numbness, which went away with time, but also inspiring. Conservation needs to happen through people. If the general public can take the extreme caring approach of this man and use it for the environment, then we have a real shot at having positive conservation results.
- What value do you see in an organization like iLCP?
iLCP has a big voice. When we photographers, iLCP’s board, and iLCP’s affiliates speak as a collective group, people listen. iLCP allows for greater conservation change than if we all tried creating that change on an individual basis. Conservation is the goal we all share as members of iLCP, and the league provides the platform for us to come together and combine forces to create change.
- What do you get out of being a Fellow of iLCP?
I am still rather new at iLCP, being accepted as an Associate Fellow only last fall, but the advantages of being part of iLCP are numerous. The biggest is the ability to easily converse and ask questions of some of the world’s best wildlife and conservation photographers, people I have looked up to for years and years. Even more so, it’s often not just a one-on-one conversation, but iLCP members will have collective brainstorms on how to tackle a particular problem. Being part of those is beyond insightful and inspiring.
- What makes a great Conservation Photographer?
Most of us start as wildlife photographers wanting to take pretty pictures of the animals we have loved most of our lives. Sure, that’s part of our work, but if we stopped there, we’d be lying to ourselves and to everyone else. Wildlife doesn’t exist in a vacuum, unaffected by people. Our daily actions and choices have significant impacts on animals locally and globally. As a conservation photographer, it is our duty to make the public aware of the consequences of our choices. To give a voice to the animals who can’t scream for help themselves. We, as people are causing many species to decline in population, but at the same time, we as people have the ability to save those same exact species. A great conservation photographer inspires people to do just that.
- What key piece of advice would you offer to an aspiring conservation photographer?
When you are starting as a conservation photographer, the biggest piece of advice I could give is to focus on a local project. Trust me, there are tons of environmental issues in your area, no matter where you live. Find a conservation organization that focuses on those issues and work with them to spread their message. By being local, you can go back to photograph certain species or habitats over and over again. You will have the chance to follow a species through its whole life cycle. And in the end, you will have a direct conservation impact in your own backyard.
- Where in the world you haven’t photographed yet is at the top of your wish list, and why?
There are so many places! One place on the top of my wish list is Morocco. The reason is quite simple: sand cats — google them and you will instantly fall in love. They are one of the least studied cats and their threats are numerous. By working with biologists, I would love to shed light on their ecology and their human caused struggles.
- Anything else you would like to say?
There are two non-related items I would love to quickly talk about.
One, attending iLCP’s conference, called WiLDSpeak last year was simply powerful. The different projects, explained through talks by iLCP photographers were incredibly inspiring. It re-charged my environmentalist batteries, and it provided a ton of ideas on how to push for conservation change with different strategies. I would highly recommend it!
Secondly, I just wanted to say to whomever may read this, please always feel free to get in touch with me, whether with questions, project collaboration ideas, or anything else!