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Job Jealousy: Edward Parker, wildlife photographer

When speaking to Edward Parker about his past as a wildlife and nature photographer and author, Into the Wild found what he had to say truly inspiring as someone so totally enamoured by his work.

An avid ecologist inspired by the likes of David Attenborough and Gerald Durrell, Parker studied Environmental Science and learnt about photography as a way of documenting the organisms he was seeing. Twenty years on Parker has forged an incredibly successful career from his passion, and having worked as far as field as the Amazon, Tanzania, and Tokyo has lately been focusing his efforts closer to home on Britain’s ancient trees. For anyone interested in conservation, Parker’s interview illustrates the respect and awe of the natural world felt by many in his line of work.

All images courtesy of Edward Parker

Into the Wild: You’ve been a wildlife and nature photographer for more than twenty years, how did you first get into the field?

Edward Parker: I have always been interested in wildlife and environmental issues such as deforestation and was stimulated by reading and watching the early work of Gerald Durrell and David Attenborough.  I Studied Environmental Science and I learnt photography originally as a way of documenting environmental issues in order to help campaigns for the protection of rare wildlife and endangered habitats

Into the Wild: What’s the best thing about your line of work?

Edward Parker: I really enjoy working with people who live in and around wild areas and seeing how they interact with the environment in a sensitive way.  The local people know where to find interesting wildlife and can tell you about their habits. In the Congo rainforest Baka Pygmy guides took me to a waterhole to see elusive bush elephants.  On one occasion I stayed with a rubber tapper family deep in the Amazon rainforest who were virtually cut off from the outside world who showed me how to predict the next storm by watching how the giant tucandera (bullet) ants moved the eggs to higher ground.  On another occasion I spent time with children planting trees for fish in a part of the Amazon where the water level changes by 50ft between dry and wet season.  This is where whole areas of forest disappear underwater and fruit-eating fish are the man dispersal agents of the seeds which in turn are chased through the submerged branches by pink dolphins the colour of cooked ham.

Into the Wild: Why do you think the protection of ancient trees and tropical forests is so important?

Edward Parker: Ancient trees can be biodiversity hot spots all on their own.  A common oak tree can support a couple of dozen of species when young but over 300 different species of fungi, lichen, insect and birds when they become ancient.  A few of these species would become extinct if there were no more oaks over 500 years old.  Underground in the roots of the ancients there are also thousands of species of microbes and fungi, many of which are still unnamed and which have complex associations which date back to the last ice age. I also think that ancient trees are culturally important linking generations and reminding people of natural cycles that run over hundreds or possibly thousands of years.  So, to lose an ancient tree before its time could have major cultural environmental consequences.

The tropical rainforests that girdle the planet are home to millions of species both known and yet to be described.  For me they are the most remarkable of all the environments that I have worked in.  Their beauty and richness is truly staggering.  And I find considering the millions of subtle interactions between tens of thousands of species in every hectare mind blowing.  Whilst a certain amount of exploitation has to happen because of the way we currently live I feel that every hectare of forest saved from rampant and inappropriate destruction not only reduces the number of species that are being taken to the brink of extinction but somehow enriches us as the custodians of the planet too.

Into the Wild: Where has been your favourite place to travel?

Edward Parker: I have enjoyed most of the countries I have visited particularly Vietnam and Tanzania but I think my favourite has to be Brazil.  It is full of remarkable landscapes from the Pantanal – a swamp the size of France with more than 10 million caiman (a type of alligator), hyancinth macaws, jaguars and piranhas – to the vast sand dunes of the north east and it’s rich African/indigenous culture.

Into the Wild: You’ve twice been ‘highly commended’ for Wildlife photographer f the year and even short-listed for Environmental Photojournalist of the Year in 2002 at the British Environmental and Media Awards, what advice would you give anyone looking to become a photographer?

Edward Parker: My general advice to budding photographers is to follow your interests whether that is wildlife, fashion, trains, sport or portraiture.  Having a great understanding for a subject means that you will know what images are important or unusual and then you can learn the photographic techniques that you will need to get great images.  Also, don’t worry too much about equipment to begin with as most of the medium priced compact and DSLR cameras take excellent quality images these days – much higher quality than was available to people like Cartier Bresson.  A great photograph is a great photograph whether on a compact or a top of the range DSLR.

Into the Wild: Lots of our volunteers are budding ecologists, can you tell us more about the work you’ve been doing for the Woodland Trust?

Edward Parker: I was in charge of a national project called the Ancient Tree Hunt which encouraged the public, environmental organisations and government departments to help record the ancient tree heritage of the UK.  At the end of the project more than 100,000 trees had been recorded on to an interactive map.  The great thing about organisation like the Woodland Trust is that they work with a network of volunteers who get to learn about aspects of woodland management and conservation.  On the ATH we had a network of 130 volunteers recoding trees and training people about how to record and recognise ancient trees.  Many of the volunteers had the opportunity to work with experts whilst at the same time bringing their own valuable expertise to the project.

Into the Wild: What is your motivation behind the work you do?

Edward Parker: My motivation has always been to do with encouraging people to appreciate and help look after the planet’s remarkable biodiversity.  I believe that is possible to co-exist with the natural world much better than we have been doing over the last 100 years.

Into the Wild: What’s the favourite photograph you’ve ever taken?

Edward Parker: What a difficult question!  I have favourite but not one outright favourite.  If pushed maybe it’s of a small boy with tree seedlings in a school tree nursery in Tanzania.  It was part of a short photo documentary of a project set up by a head master in a remote school that fronted on to Udzungwa National Park.  He knew that if the children collected wood from the National Park they could get prosecuted.  So when each child arrived at school they were given a number of tree seedlings which they then tended until they left school and the timber would be sufficient for their first house.  Not only that but they leaned about forestry and sustainable management along the way.

The photo used to hang in the office at DFID when Claire Short was minister.

Into the Wild: What’s your favourite travel memory?

Edward Parker: Again what a difficult question?  Spending time with a rubber tapper family in the Amazon or harpooning fruit-eating fish in the flooded forest of the upper Amazon as part of a sustainable management system for the remarkable fruit eating fish and the pink dolphins of the area.  Or sitting in Baka pygmy settlement at night in the Congo rainforest lit only by the gentle silver light of millions of stars in the milky way

Into the Wild: Where in the world do you plan to travel to next?

Edward Parker: India and Sri Lanka are next on my places to visit.

Into the Wild: If heaven and hell were places on earth, where would they be for you?

Edward Parker: I have been so lucky in that I have witnessed what has felt like heaven on earth.  The East coast of Borneo, parts of the Solomons, standing with trees over a thousand years old in the Amazon rainforest etc. the giant redwood forests in California were all heavenly experiences

Hell could have been standing in an area of still smouldering rainforest in the Amazon or standing by the main open sewer for 24 million people in Mexico City along which people lived in shacks.  Although I would prefer it there any day than being in Cuidad Huarez/El Paso on the USA border because the people in such desperate circumstances were still courteous and graceful and tried to make the most of their lives.  Cuidad Huarez by comparison is the conduit through which drugs enter the States and about as dangerous and unfriendly as anywhere I have visited.

Into the Wild: What has been your favourite animal to see in the wild?

Edward Parker: The Golden Lion Tamarin.  It was one only 2000 left in the wild in the Atlantic Forest in Brazil and calmly had a snack only a few meters away me.  That and black rhino in Namibia

Into the Wild: If you could have any wild animal as a pet, what would it be?

Edward Parker: An Oscelot.  I love cats and with a Jaguar one would always feel that lunch might be you one day.  The Oscelot’s markings are just so beautiful and it is one of the most graceful of all the cats.

Into the Wild: You’ve written over 30 books about the people, places, and fauna you’ve encountered on your travels, what advice would you give the next generation of authors?

Edward Parker: Just keep writing and keep diaries if you want to be a travel writer as you never know when you might have to revisit a time and place for a piece of writing.  Also, use all the media that’s available and read all the best authors in your field so as to keep up with what is considered great writing and to help keep abreast of what styles and fashions are in vogue.

Into the Wild: What message - if any - do you try to convey in your work?

Edward Parker: My message from the very beginning is that we, as a species and custodians of life on Earth,  need to respect the natural world – much like our ancestors did - and use natural resources in the most sustainable and efficient wayway possible.  It should be possible for man to co-exist with the millions of species which grace this blue planet. 

Into the Wild: You’ve had exhibitions this year at both 11 Downing Street and Kew Garden’s Wakehurst Place, what’s next for 2013?

Edward Parker: I am part of a travelling exhibition in Tokyo at present but I am hoping to do an outdoor travelling exhibition on ancient trees to take around urban areas in the UK to try and keep spreading the message that ancient trees are both culturally and biologically important.

Questions by Maria Sowter

If you'd like to start a career in conservation you can by joining any of Frontier's marine or terrestrial wildlife conservation projects. Work alongside local communities to collect import research data and help preserve vulnerable ecosystems in Costa Rica, Madagascar, Tanzania, and Cambodia.

You can also study for a qualification in Tropical Habitat Conservation whilst in the field.

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