The story behind a devastating photo of human greed

The UK’s Natural History Museum announced the winner of its Wildlife Photographer of the Year on Tuesday night (Oct. 17). The recipient, Brent Stirton is a South African photographer who has spent years documenting the poaching trade, among other issues.

Originally taken on assignment for National Geographic Magazine, his image of a dead black rhinoceros with a giant pink gash in place of its horn is titled Memorial to a species. Taken in 2016 in South Africa’s Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve, the photo paints a bleak picture of the endangered species’ vulnerability to human greed.

Stirton wrote of his experience encountering the lifeless animal:

It is suspected that the killers came from a local community approximately five kilometers away, entering the park illegally, shooting the rhino at a water hole with a high-powered, silenced hunting rifle. An autopsy and postmortem carried out by members of the [wildlife conservation group] KZN Ezemvelo later revealed that the large calibre bullet went straight through this rhino, causing massive tissue damage. It was noted that he did not die immediately but ran a short distance, fell to his knees and a coup de grace shot was administered to the head from close range.

There are currently fewer than 5,000 black rhinoceroses in the wild, less than 90% of their population decades ago, according to the Natural History Museum. The illegal rhino horn trade is driven in part by increasing demand in Asia where they are used in traditional medicine.

‘The Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition isn’t just about beautiful images and technical ability—it is also about provoking and stimulating debate,” said Richard Sabin, the NHM’s Principal Curator of Mammals, who notes that judgement should be placed on the criminal organizations that organize the poaching and sale of rhino horns, not on the end consumers.

‘This image is difficult to look at, but what it shows is an inescapable part of the human exploitation of the natural world.”

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