The path of the panda: interview with Kyle Obermann

We caught up with photographer KYLE OBERMANN to find out more about his nine-day trek through Anzihe Nature Reserve in China, and his exposure to the reality of conservation in such a remote and resource rich area.

In an era where there is so much pessimism about China or about global environmental conditions, I think we also need stories of hope and positivity to show that, yes there is hope.

The wildlife photographer Kyle Obermann and his team of rangers finally came across evidence of the pandas they knew were living deep in the core of the Anzihe Nature Reserve in China.

Kyle was invited into the reserve to photograph their habitat - a habitat which is home to 30 percent of the world’s population of giant pandas but which is also under severe threat from poachers and other human activity.

You were one of the first Western photographers invited to photograph in the Anzihe Nature Reserve. How did that opportunity first come about?

At the time I was working as a contract photographer and consultant for Conservation International’s  (CI) China program. CI supported my application to the local government to enter what they call the “main core” of the nature reserve which is where the whole expedition took place. As far as I know, I was the first western photographer to photograph the core of the reserve.

What are the main challenges facing panda and wider wildlife conservation in China?

Panda and wildlife conservation has come a long way in China, but there is still a long way to go. The wild panda population in China is steadily increasing and they have cracked the code to captive breeding, but habitat fragmentation is one of the greatest threats to pandas today.

Similarly, human disturbance and an expanding footprint is the greatest threat to other species like snow leopards, Tibetan gazelle, etc. In the past, poaching brought some of these species to the edge of extinction, but thankfully has been largely stopped. Still, the expansion of herding, roads, and dams remains a major threat.

You spent the last four days of the expedition deep into terrain in the reserve that you say even rangers who’d spent twenty years there hadn’t explored. How did it feel walking into the unknown? Could you enjoy something like that?

From a journalistic perspective, it was a massive honour to have the opportunity to enter this part of the reserve with them. The first two days when we were still above the tree line were very enjoyable.

Every step was a new one, and it is really a special feeling to know you are documenting places that have actually never been documented before.

On the last two days it got much worse, however, as we descended below the tree line and had to hack our campsites out of the soaking undergrowth and go through a repetitive process of finding and losing the animals trails we were trying to track.

But that’s all part of the price you pay for going to someplace completely unknown – one moment it’s marvellous; the next all you want to do is go home.

What was it like, trekking with the rangers who had spent so long in the reserve and were so in tune with it?

Our relation to the wild was worlds apart. This was work, not exploration. Chiku nailao – chore, not play. While I was exploring uncharted territory to photograph, it was simply another day at work for the rangers.

In an era where there is so much pessimism about China or about global environmental conditions, I think we also need stories of hope and positivity to show that, yes there is hope.

The necessary, pressing task of surveying the wildlife and removing the poachers’ traps was essential. It governed every move and drove us on long after tents failed, backpacks broke, clothes soaked, and far beyond where I would have opted for the easier way.

How has your work positively impacted conservation efforts in China?

I’m not a conservation scientist, but I see myself and my photography as PR for conservation efforts and backcountry in China.

Storytelling and photography is an attractive way to draw people’s attention to issues that matter and make conservation more appealing. So, that’s what I do. I try to use my work as a constructive way to support local conservation groups and show people the value of protecting these lands.

Your work frequently highlights the positive impact people can have upon nature. How difficult is that to achieve in this day and age?

Not difficult at all. There are incredible people doing very positive things for nature all around, but media tends to focus on the negative stories – which yes, there are plenty of too.

In an era where there is so much pessimism about China or about global environmental conditions I think we also need stories of hope and positivity to show that, yes there is hope, or, even if you feel like you can’t do anything concrete in your current place, you can support these people who are.

How would you recommend budding travellers go about making a positive impact on the land that they explore, particularly in such a challenging country like China?

This is something I think about constantly. There are things that we should already be doing in order to leave no impact, like Leave No Trace, but to actually make positive impact is much harder.

One thing I would suggest is try to make the narrative less about yourself and really dig deep into the story of the land and the people. A lot of the places we go are areas that could really stand to benefit from our support and have no ability to reach the audience that we can.

So, if nothing else, promote the people who have protected and conserved the land which you are enjoying, share and support their stories alongside your own. This can be true in China and anywhere you visit.

This Author

Marianne Brooker is a contributing editor for The Ecologist. Click here to read more about Kyle’s expedition to the Anzihe Nature Reserve.

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