A Violation of Eden, Brent Stirton's photography

Brent Stirton A Violation of Eden

Conservation Rangers work with locals to evacuate the bodies of four Mountain Gorrillas killed in Virunga National Park, Eastern Congo. July 2007, Bukima, Democratic Republic of Congo.

Disorder in the natural world is man-made.

Michael Oryem, 29, is a recently defected Lord's Resistance Army fighter whose LRA group was involved in the poaching of Ivory in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo; 17 November 2014, Nzara, South Sudan.

ICCN Ranger Kambale Kalibumba was killed by a suspected FDLR rebel soldier who shot the Ranger 5 times at close range. At the time the Ranger was in the park on the way to the Ishango post with rations for the patrol. Now in 2015 the man in the background of this image is also dead, killed by rebels while defending the park. More than 160 rangers have died in the last ten years as a result of their work in Virunga National Park, many at the hands of the FDLR, the Rwandan Hutu genocidaires who fled into Virunga after the Rwandan Genocide and who have spread havoc in their exploitations of the park ever since. The FDLR have a long history of killing elephants in Virunga in pursuit fo ivory to finance their campaign. They do this in collusions with elements of the Congolese army, also a fixture in the park and a problem for conservation. ISHANGO RANGER STATION, VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO, 29 February 2008.

A Black Rhino Bull that has been shot 4 times by poachers and had its horn removed, leaving only a massive infected wound. The rhino was left for dead by the poachers but recovered and was found wandering through the bush approximately 4 days after the incident, his face bleeding and screw-worm breeding in the wound. A decision was made to keep the animal alive rather than put him down and heavy doses of anti-biotics were administered. This Rhino died from his wounds one week after this photo was taken. Save’ Valley Conservancy has lost a total of 66 Rhino to Poachers since 2002, including 10 in 2011. Rhino game ranchers in Zimbabwe speak of a number of issues when it comes to protecting their animals in Zimbabwe. There are issues of politics which affect the number of tourists that visit, this has been very low since 2000. Despite the fact that the Rhino actually belong to the state, private ranchers are asked to hire government Rangers from the State at considerable expense in order to protect them. This makes the economics of raising Rhino very difficult. Issues of security are difficult as it is hard to procure automatic weapons from a paranoid government and prosecution for the shooting of poachers can be very biased towards the locals. There is a perception on the part of government that training of Rangers is paramilitary and thus a threat. Rhino horn is currently worth more than gold and the numbers of Rhino killed in Africa currently exceeds over 1500 every year. This is out of a remaining population of under 20 000. The numbers killed annually have risen steadily every years since 2008. SAVE’ VALLEY CONSERVANCY, MASVINGA, ZIMBABWE, APRIL 2011.

A wealthy Vietnamese woman sits and grinds Rhino horn for her personal consumption in a roadside café in Baoloc, Vietnam. The dealer who sold her the horn sits next to her. Rhino Horn is an illegal substance in Vietnam yet both the woman and her dealer have no fear of the police, grinding the horn in a café in full view of the street. The dealer states that he pays $1500 a month to the right people and they can carry on with impunity. The woman says that it has cured her Kidney Stones and now she takes it daily for her general health. Rhino horn is generally used as a fever reducing agent and for the removal of toxins across Vietnam, the biggest market for Rhino horn today. Rhino horn has even been held up as a cure for Cancer by a senior Minister in the Vietnamese government. Rhino horn is now worth more than gold on the international market. 100 grams of Rhino horn in Vietnam sells for $2500 to locals and over $8500 to foreign buyers, these were the prices consistently offered to myself in meetings with 5 separate dealers across the country in October 2011. The demand for Rhino horn is now increasingly fueled by a newly wealthy Asian middle and upper class that can afford the substance which was previously only for the wealthy. The price is further affected by the controlling influence of organized crime. The horn is used overwhelmingly as an anti-fever, anti-toxins medication, with thousands of years of cultural belief behind the practice. This is despite the fact that Rhino horn is now an illegal substance around the world. In 2015 we are losing over 1500 rhino to illegal poaching every year. There are less than 20 000 rhino left in the world and at this compounded rate of killing, the Rhino is racing to extinction. Baoloc, Vietnam, 6 October 2011., Brent Stirton

Artist's Statement

Nature itself is always in balance, with animals as the innocents. Rebel groups manifest in wild spaces because they can hide there from authority, all the while exploiting the environment around them. In the Democratic Republic of Congo conservation Rangers battle multiple paramilitaries inside Virunga National Park. This is Africa’s first national park, a place that has been called the most dangerous conservation space on earth. There are 11 official paramilitary groups, a rebel army and the Congolese army, all inside this park. In these circumstances, 170 Rangers have died in the last ten years.

Wildlife crime is often seen as a misdemeanor, not to be taken seriously. That’s a failure of understanding and a broader failure of leadership. Wildlife crime today is a security issue, with wide-ranging implications beyond the immediate loss of animals. Ivory poachers operate in large, heavily armed groups, crossing international borders to act with impunity against the resources and people of other countries. Rebel groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army now find most of their financing through ivory and mining in protected spaces, trading ivory for guns and ammunition. The security forces necessary to combat these rebel groups cost hundreds of millions to keep in place. Rhino horn’s biggest fight is happening on the South Africa/Mozambique border. Well-armed groups, mostly experienced former fighters from the civil war, are illegally entering South Africa and clashing with the South African military, installed because the rangers themselves are hopelessly outgunned. Organized crime syndicates finance weapons and protection for literally thousands of African poachers, spreading corruption across the continent. Surely these are not just “wildlife issues.”

Losing animals means losing tourism, vital to the economies of many African countries. Alongside this chaos, the way we manage wildlife is changing. Species survival is increasingly pragmatic. Nowhere is this more controversial than in the canned lion hunting practices of South Africa. This is legal in that country, an uncomfortable fact and one that may soon include Rhino breeding for commercial horn purposes. We are seeing a huge rise in the trade of lion bone for Asian pharmacology. This is happening because the Asian world surges with new wealth as global tiger populations continue to plummet. What does this mean for the future of lions and indeed for the future commercialization of all wildlife? Disorder seems an appropriate word.

About the photographer


1969, South Africa


South African

Based in

South Africa

About Brent Stirton

Brent Stirton is a South African photographer whose work has been published by National Geographic Magazine, Time Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, GEO, Newsweek, The Sunday Times Magazine UK, Le Figaro, CNN, amongst other respected titles. He works with organisations including the Global Business Coalition against Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the World Wide Fund for Nature and Human Rights Watch.

Stirton has received multiple awards from bodies including the Unicef Photographic Awards and the Sony World Photography Award. He has won the Wildlife Photojournalist of the year award from the British Natural History Museum on two occasions, and the National Magazine Award for his work in the Congo for National Geographic Magazine. Brent currently spends most of his time working on long-term investigative projects for National Geographic magazine and GEO magazine, most with a sustainability theme relating to man’s relationship to the environment.