Christian Ziegler: “We need to fight for the future.”

The German photographer and ecologist on tropical forests, local knowledge and humanity’s tipping point
By Graeme Green
Christian Ziegler is a German photographer and tropical ecologist. He’s a regular contributor to National Geographic, a founding fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, and was the 2005 BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year. His work focuses on threatened species and ecosystems, especially rainforests.

How does your science background and knowledge of animal behaviour help your photography?

I totally depend on scientific information. To create really stunning pictures, I need repeated situations to fine-tune the picture, lighting and composition. Therefore, I look for a place where an animal goes repeatedly to forage, or a den or a nest to breed or to feed the offspring. I need a situation where I can be sure to see the animal again and again, and that means I need expert knowledge and information.

The first step in any of my projects is to read everything about the animal’s behaviour and talk to local biologists and experts about the species.

Local knowledge is especially important when using camera traps because you have to predict where the animal will be. That takes a lot of knowledge of the animal and the local habitat. You have to be able to recognize their trails, dens, scratching or scent mark, so you’re not wasting your time.

Photo by Christian Ziegler

Do you enjoy learning details about animal behaviour and ecosystems?

I’m a biologist. I love it. This is one of the aspects that I enjoy best about my job. I love to learn about new species and how they interact with their environment.

What species of animal have you come across lately that really surprised you?

I recently worked in Bhutan with camera traps. I saw that the leopard is really a very flexible species – I got photos from sea level and in a different camera trap above 2000 metres.  

With camera traps, I love that I get an insight into the secret life of these shy animals, and maybe I will see some behaviour that hasn’t been captured before.

In Bhutan, I also spent a lot of time documenting the behaviour of a few species of hornbills. I had always thought of these species as eating fruit and maybe insects, but I regularly saw two species catching crabs in a local river.

I like to see images of animals in their natural habitat, which is surprisingly rare for many species. I captured some images of red pandas in one of my camera traps. Pictures of this shy mammal in the wild are so rare. I was delighted.

Photo by Christian Ziegler

A lot of your work is about smaller details and celebrating lesser known animals and plant species, rather than iconic animals. Is that where your interests lie?

Definitely. I’m more interested in less well-known species, rare species that are endangered. I want to highlight the lives and habits of these species, where they live and how they interact with their environment, how they mate and raise offspring, how they forage, and so on.

I also love to do stories about plants and invertebrates. As humans, we often have a bias towards feathers and fur.

Photo by Christian Ziegler

Conservation is central to your work. What impact do you hope your photos and stories have?

Most of the species that I photograph are endangered. We’re at a tipping point in human history where we are overstretching our natural environment and driving our fellow species to extinction. I hope my photography can make more people aware of this. For people to recognize and care about endangered species is the first step.

Photo by Christian Ziegler

The human race seems to be wiping out many species and making a mess of our planet. Are you optimistic humanity will change our behaviour?

I’m an optimist, so I’m cautiously hopeful for our kids, but we need to fight for the future. The time is now.

We need to change our behaviour and conserve key species and habitats. This is why I take photographs: to create stories that hopefully have impact.

Photo by Christian Ziegler

What’s the most remarkable wildlife moment you’ve ever photographed?

I spent a total of four months tracking bonobos in rainforests in the Democratic Republic of Congo. After weeks of following them, they accepted me as a weird constant in their lives and they carried on with their lives just a few metres from me. It was an amazing experience to be accepted by these beautiful and peaceful animals.

Do you have a favourite wildlife location?

I don’t know, honestly. It really depends where I’m working and what is my focus at the time. I have many favourites. It changes all the time.

Photo by Christian Ziegler

You live on the edge of a rainforest in a national park in central Panama. What’s life like for you there?

I love it there. I love the light in a tropical forest and the sounds, the humidity, everything about it.  I’ve lived in Panama for more the 20 years. It’s our home.

I live in a small community with many scientists who work with the Smithsonian, so there is constant inspiration.

Last year, my work there was focused on secondary forests. These regenerating forests provide a really positive environmental story. Tropical forests that grow back after farmland is abandoned can rapidly develop complex structures and provide a home for forest species. I wanted to document these novel ecosystems, and tell the public about them.

Photo by Christian Ziegler

Christian Ziegler’s website:

Follow him on Instagram: @christianziegler.

Graeme Green is a photographer and journalist:

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NOTE: The best way to solve the crises facing the planet and its wildlife is by having open, honest, respectful conversations and hearing diverse voices from around the world. The New Big 5 project does not necessarily support or agree with every opinion or idea expressed by photographers, conservationists or organisations featured on the New Big 5 website. The many different wildlife charities, photographers, film-makers and conservationists we’ve collaborated with also do not necessarily support or agree with every idea or opinion expressed by other people or organisations on the website. It’s ok to disagree and debate. But we hope the opinions and ideas can inspire people, make people think, and be part of the conversation to help our planet and the animals that live on it.

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