7 Aug 2018

Inside Asia's Forests of Hope: A Photo Essay

The Rufous-necked Hornbill occurs in the eastern Himalayas, the hill tracts of north-east India and the Annamite Mountains of Vietnam.
By Margaret Sessa-Hawkins

Most people, when they retire, turn to a life of leisure. Not Bjorn Olesen. Following his retirement, he became a full-time conservation photographer. Most recently, he, along with wife Fanny Lai, travelled to eight forests in eight countries for their new book ‘Asia’s Wildlife: A Journey to the  Forests of Hope’ (available for purchase on Amazon now). Bjorn talks about what the project was like, and why conservation photography is so important to him.


"Photography has been a serious hobby of mine all my life." Olesen says when talking about his late-in-life career change. "My father was a photographer, so I’m sure that’s part of the reason it’s always been an interest. When I retired, though, that was the first time in my life I had the time to really go out and enjoy it; and since then I’ve been doing photography full-time."



Olesen decided early on to focus on conservation photography. "I think it is good to have a purpose with what you are doing. With a lot of stuff that Fanny [Fanny Lai, Bjorn’s wife and work partner] and I are doing, we have an assignment so we can give it to an NGO. To have that purpose makes life as a photographer a lot more meaningful."



Of his worries about photographing in eight different countries in a short period of time Olesen said, "Before we started the whole task was very daunting, because we didn’t know a lot about these locations, we didn’t know what sort of support we’d get in each location. But with the help we got from each of the partners, support became the least of our concerns."



There were many special moments on the shoot according to Olesen, but one in particular stands out. "In Bardia National Park in Nepal we went down to the river to see if we could spot any elephants. Within 15 minutes a herd of elephants arrived and we got a lot of good pictures. Then 10 minutes later another herd of elephants arrived and merged with the first herd. Half an hour later another herd came, and at that point there were maybe 40-50 elephants. Our guide said he had never seen so many. We were looking at around 50 percent of the elephants in the national park."



According to Olesen photographing the critically endangered Helmeted Hornbaill proved difficult. "We didn’t want to disturb its nest," Olessen explained. "So we had to take photographs from quite a distance. We took photographs for four days to make sure we had the right image. Overall, the quality of the photographs we took was good. In the moment, though, you are just hoping your settings are okay."


One positive to the trip was getting to see areas and species safeguarded. "Conservation inside the protected areas was generally better than I had expected," Olesen said.


"There were still [conservation] challenges though," Olesen admitted. "If you take Khe Nuoc Trong in Vietnam: they had lots of poachers putting out snares, which was a constant battle, but it was becoming easier. If you take the Harapan Rainforest in Indonesia: there were lots of problems with encroachment outside the forest."


The limited time Olesen and Lai spent in the areas brought its own challenges. "What we stressed to all the partners is we want to have the best birding guide with local knowledge of where the birds are because we only have 7-10 days in each location, so time was at a premium."


The time crunch also had its positives though. "To visit all these different places within one year was quite exciting. When you see so many different endangered and endemic species, that’s really a dream that most people will never experience."


Overall, Olesen hopes the book will help people to see all the positive actions that are being taken on behalf of the environment. "Often, when you hear about nature conservation in the press, it’s all negative news. So we wanted to tell people about the many successful programs that have been done in Asia. We shouldn’t censor bad news, but we should make a greater effort to report these success stories as well."


If you would like to buy a copy of 'Asia's Wildlife: A Journey to the Forests of Hope' it's available for purchase on Amazon.