Our Planet Hero shines a light on the most inspirational people taking action to protect our planet. Series 1 is sponsored by REN Clean Skincare. In this interview we talk to Tolga Atkas: conservation biologist, writer and environmental photojournalist with a mission to connect people to the natural world through storytelling and photography.
How did you get into conservation, and in particular, photojournalism?
Everybody’s experience with this differs slightly, but for me it occurred through a series of calculated events. My father is from the Turkish side of Cyprus and we travelled quite a lot when I was a child to our little village called Cihangir in Northern Cyprus. I was exposed very early to wildlife, and the environment that surrounded our little village. I experienced the wildlife that was native there, and my father’s brother had a farm near our house so naturally I was always in love with everything the natural world provided. As I grew up a bit and began to understand the wildlife and nature documentaries that came onto the television, I was then introduced to the term ‘conservation’ by the Late Steve Irwin and Sir David Attenborough. I couldn’t tell you when it exactly happened (like the exact date and time), but all I know is that when it happened I was hooked and wanted to make a difference one day towards the conservation of species and the protection of our environment and planet.
I first got into photojournalism when I realised what could be done with a camera and the internet. I always knew I wanted to tell stories one day, and having the opportunity to do that through photos with a short narrative has always appealed to me. When you find something that you are very passionate about, it is very difficult not to share it with others. So, I figured that I was going to dedicate my life to doing this – connecting people to the natural world through photojournalism! I have been doing so ever since 2009 on www.waysofthenaturalworld.wordpress.com – please do check it out if you’re interested in reading some of my work.
What is photojournalism and why is it so important?
My idea of photojournalism is that it is a form of journalism, however, it is shared in a way where the stories are mainly presented through photographs accompanied by a short, but powerful narrative to support the photographic content. As a species we have evolved over the many thousands of years as storytellers. It has of course in the past been through the word of mouth by our ancestors, but now we have the opportunity to share these stories with the help of technology in a much better and effective way. Photojournalism is very important when it comes to wildlife conservation, environmental and humanitarian related issues that occur in our present day. They help us understand that there is a problem that needs fixing, and a combination of photos and text can certainly help mitigate the majority of our world’s problems.
Is there an image that you’ve captured which stands out as a favourite because of the story it tells? Can you share this with us?
In fact there is. I think the most meaningful and important photos I have ever taken are the two photos I have shared below. I captured these images in South Africa during 2018 and 2019, where I was conducting field work for my BSc in Animal Biology dissertation. I was working alongside the fantastic wildlife conservation organisation Wildlife ACT, where we had the opportunity to carry out a controlled dehorning procedure on a magnificent White Rhino. For those who do not understand this process, the rhinos horns are like our finger nails which are made out of a biological substance called ‘Keratin’, and just like our nails they continuously grow and need to be cut. For a rhino though, they depend on their horns for all kinds of behavioural and evolutionary reasons, and the reasoning behind us trimming their horns down is to prevent poachers from killing them for it. This procedure is carried out by wildlife professionals whenever individual rhinos have horns that have grown to a particular length, where they will be removed safely (not harming the animals and causing pain) and stored in a secure place.
I recall observing this whole experience, thinking to myself that this was the closest I have ever been to such a beautiful animal and look at the situation that caused this to happen. I never felt okay, I should’ve been happy, but this is the plight rhinos face for them to have a chance in the wild. The same goes for Elephants, another animal that is heavily poached in Africa for their ivory. After seeing a graveyard of fallen rhinos due to poaching incidents or naturally caused deaths over the years, and seeing the sheer volume of deceased animals – I knew in my heart that I had to document this. So I did, and ever since I have these have been the most memorable and meaningful photos I have ever taken throughout my career journey thus far. You can view more of these photos by looking at my photo stories on this topic: https://waysofthenaturalworld.wordpress.com/the-debt-and-the-fallen/
You have just graduated from university – how have you balanced environmental action with studying and university life?
Indeed I am and the university has been a fantastic experience which I am deeply grateful for. In regards to finding a way to balance environmental action while studying, I always knew that this was something I wanted to do. I also knew that three years at university would go by quickly, so I wanted to make sure that I found time to prioritise my passions from the beginning. By doing this, I probably missed out a lot of many social events, going out to parties and everything else that involves university life, but by doing so I have been rewarded with life changing experiences all over the world. For that I am extremely grateful and wouldn’t have changed anything I did during my time at university.
Tell us more about taking part in Black Birders week. How important was this activity in the promotion of diversity in climate action?
Yes, this event was certainly something special and I applaud the individuals that thought about it and pursued their goals with it. It really made some noise (the good kind) and circulated through everybody’s social feeds, was on people’s minds and people were meeting up to talk about it. It was a very important topic and discussion, and I think everybody from a BIPOC (or BAME as we call it here in the UK) will be experiencing things differently now in regards to their career journeys and how they’re treated as individuals. This event helped people realise that the planet doesn’t care if you’re White, Black, Latino, Asian or from any other race. It made the world realise that if you’re passionate and willing to help contribute to change – then that was enough and it was heart-warming to see so many people who normally wouldn’t have been recognised obtain some attention. I hope that this lasts and we all learn to now live in peace, unity and love – because in the end we are all human!
You created Pine the Fox, a story-telling platform designed to inspire and spark a fascination with the natural world for children. Could you tell us a bit more about the platform and why engaging children has been such an important part of your work?
I have had numerous amounts of experiences in the natural world, and every experience has always contributed towards some form of creativity. Well, that is what has occurred for me that is. Whether it has been through artwork or writing – the natural world has always been my go-to source for inspiration. Aspiring to inspire individuals has always been something that makes me wake up early in the mornings, and by doing this through my passions has made the whole journey very rewarding. One day I thought to myself that I most likely secured every kind of audience with my work but a children’s audience. It is with the younger generation who need to know about our planet, to know of its problems and to have the chance to want to protect it one day. So, I figured that one day I’d create something for children as well that kind of shares little hints of what is going on in the world around us, but in a fun way that is accessible to a young mind. Pine the Fox, was born from my many encounters with foxes in London and in Gloucestershire.
As a species they just always found a way to fascinate me, and I always wondered why people were never excited to showcase such a beautiful animal. A lot of time travelling around the globe, working in the field and spending time away from home really allows you to be imaginative. You can kind of collect all of these experiences from the natural world, whether from real-life experiences or fictional ones, and create something special if you really wanted to. That is what I intended with Pine the Fox, and my overall aim with this is to turn this idea into a book one day. To allow foxes to be valued as much as people adore iconic animals like pandas, lions and elephants. Check out Pine the Fox by heading to www.pinethefox.wordpress.com.
How do you think we can overcome the ‘disconnect’ with nature that lots of people may be experiencing?
It can be quite hard to connect with nature in our present day. There are many scenarios which stop us from doing so, such as not having the opportunity/or access to do so, distractions from technological advances and social media, lack of awareness with nature/wildlife and just having busy lives with family and work. When you have all of these contributing factors occurring in people’s lives, limiting people in individuals ways – then it is easily seen why some of us are somewhat disconnected from the natural world. It can be easily overcome though by simply finding a way to involve nature in our lives. It doesn’t take much nowadays. Sometimes it can be as easily done as disconnecting from our technology and social media platforms for a day or so and just getting outside. You know, going for a walk somewhere that has green spaces or giving your garden a new makeover and making it wildlife friendly. There are so many ways to connect to nature, all it takes is an individual wanting to be part of a natural world that wants you to be a part of it.
How do you think big brands can do more to protect our natural habitat and encourage it to thrive?
It all depends what you mean by big brands. But the largely recognizable brands that heavily utilize resources that are not good for our planet, its wildlife and the environment – can start to think about achieving their brands vision and goals by shifting to a more sustainable approach. Most brands now are realising how important this is and it is really great to see. Whether it is having plastics that are biodegradable, or foods/materials which are ethically sourced and made sustainably – these are all small steps to reducing our carbon footprints. These are the ways to help mitigate climate change and to hopefully protect our planets natural habitats.
How do you think we can design our towns and cities better to co-exist with wildlife?
We need more green spaces that surround our cities/urban areas, or areas of land which can be completely left alone like what is occurring at the Knepp Wildland Project in West Sussex or the Alladale Wilderness Reserve in Inverness, Scotland. I see that Heal Rewilding are working their way to achieving this goal to – for nature to be given a chance to recover and regenerate itself. To naturally attract wildlife that historically roamed in certain areas. If we learn how to design our cities and towns in a way that accommodates not only people, but wildlife too – only then will we learn to value the wildlife around us and learn to co-exist with them.
What does a ‘wildlife friendly’ lifestyle look like to you?
Where an individual questions each and every action they commit to, and ask themselves whether it would harm the wildlife and environment around them. At the end of the day, it is all down to actions and that includes our lifestyles that we choose to follow and live. If we decide to be more conscious about the natural world and its inhabitants – then that is positive actions taken daily which when combined collectively over time contribute towards so much good. This will then be beneficial not only for the wildlife and nature around us, but for ourselves as well!