Photographs of endangered wildlife have immeasurable impact on conservation efforts around the world. These photographers share what keeps them passionate about their work and offer their strategies for capturing images of the rarest animals on Earth.

Please note: safely photographing wildlife, including endangered species, requires careful research and professional guidance to minimize the effects of human presence in undisturbed ecosystems. 

There hasn’t been a confirmed sighting of the Javan tiger in more than forty years, but some conservationists held onto hope for decades. A few have even periodically installed camera traps in Java’s national parks in case they’re still there. Sadly, these efforts have yielded no proof that the tiger still lives, and although people continue to speculate, wildlife experts believe they’re extinct. Despite our efforts to find them, all the Javan tigers are gone.

It’s unlikely the Javan tiger will ever be photographed again. But, photography does play a critical role in the conservation of some of the earth’s most extraordinary creatures. Through pictures, we can connect with animals we’ll never meet in person and learn to care about their wellbeing as we care about our own. Photographers like National Geographic’s Joel Sartore and Paul Nicklen have dedicated their lives to that purpose.

The same factors that erased the Javan tiger—hunting, development, and other human activities (which can include photography)—threaten species who are still among us.* It is, therefore, our collective responsibility to see them, to read about them, and to protect them before they disappear. We asked five wildlife photographers from around the world to tell us about some of the endangered species they’ve encountered throughout their journeys. These are their joyful, heartbreaking, and hopeful stories.

*Visit the Wildlife Conservation Society, the World Wildlife Fund, or WildAid to learn more.

1. “There are two prime directives for wildlife photography for me: respect and patience.”

Cathy Withers-Clarke

The Importance and Impact of Photographing Endangered Species — Have Respect and Patience

Image by Cathy Withers-Clarke. Gear: Nikon D3200 camera, Sigma 18-250mm lens. Settings: Focal length 250mm; exposure 1/400 sec; f11; ISO 400.

What is the most memorable experience you’ve had photographing an endangered or threatened species?

I am a conservation volunteer, so I spend several months every year out in the field doing everything from checking footpaths and painting signs to assisting with game capture and relocation. If circumstances permit, I take my camera with me.

One of my first encounters with rhinos was with this gorgeous black rhinoceros and her six-month-old calf. We were in a private reserve waiting for a zebra to be darted so a wound could be checked, and suddenly the rhino appeared from the bushes a couple of hundred yards from us. Rhinos have notoriously poor eyesight, and she was presumably coming to check out what the strange noises were.

She kept coming closer, with her calf following, and we were getting nervous, as black rhinos can move quickly and are very protective of their young. We stayed close to the truck, which was high enough and heavy enough to protect us if we climbed onto the top, but thankfully she stopped once she could see and smell us properly. She spent a moment checking us out before turning tail and heading back into the bush.

Pictured: [1] Cathy Withers-Clarke. [2] Cathy Withers-Clarke.

Pro Tip:

The welfare of any wildlife I am photographing is paramount, and I have forgone many photographic opportunities by choosing to respect the signs that an animal is agitated by my presence. Sadly, there are far too many people for whom getting the shot is the only thing that matters. The rules of the reserves are ignored all the time, and this can lead to tragic consequences for the animals concerned. There are two prime directives for wildlife photography for me: respect and patience. I believe that respect should cover everything from researching the wildlife you are photographing to being concerned about their welfare and not interfering with them in any way.

2. “Be patient when watching animals; you must learn and predict their behavior.”

Brina L. Bunt

The Importance and Impact of Photographing Endangered Species — Be Aware of Poachers

Image by Brina L. Bunt. Gear: Nikon D700 camera, Nikkor 28-300mm lens. Settings: Focal length 48mm; exposure 1/1000 sec; f8.

What is the most memorable experience you’ve had photographing an endangered or threatened species?

I am a veterinarian and while my family lived in Uganda, I practiced medicine through various organizations, allowing me to work with wildlife, local farmers, and pets. I began devising a project with Veterinarians Without Borders to monitor the disease transmission in the wildlife-livestock interface and also to provide veterinarians to treat victims of poaching in Uganda’s national parks.

Due to the Idi Amin regime’s ruthless plundering of the wildlife, the populations of animals in all of the parks were nearly depleted. For example, the population of elephants was reduced to around 1% of its original grandeur in Murchison Falls National Park. No one knows the numbers for sure, but it is estimated that there were once over 10,000 elephants in Murchison alone, and the Amin regime reduced that number to around 130 individuals. You can read more about the plight of elephants on my blog.

The Importance and Impact of Photographing Endangered Species — Give as Much Time as Possible

Image by Brina L. Bunt.

Murchison is home to the endangered Rothschild giraffe. Giraffes are the hidden gem of Africa. Once you stand beneath one and experience its agility, power, and ethereal presence, you realize how truly special these animals are. Most people have no idea that they are endangered and that their populations are drastically declining due to poaching. The Giraffe Conservation Foundation is one of my favorite conservation organizations because they are raising awareness, increasing conservation efforts, and creating a light at the end of the tunnel for the survival of this amazing creature.

The Importance and Impact of Photographing Endangered Species — Follow Trustworthy Guides

Image by Brina L. Bunt.

In Murchison, we chose to camp in locations that were high wildlife traffic areas; we quickly learned that our favorite camp spot was also an ideal location for Congolese poachers to set snares. We would roam the areas around our camp with our kids at night, looking for animals with our flashlights. The poachers thought we were communicating with them via our flashlights across Lake Albert (the Democratic Republic of Congo is across the lake); they use flashlights as a form of communication to notify their partners of a successful hunt. The poachers often paddled up in the middle of the night in their canoes, hoping to collect from their snares, and our ranger would have to chase them away with his AK47.

In the two years that my family lived in Uganda, we took eleven trips to Murchison Falls National Park. During every one of these visits, we encountered poachers in our camps, witnessed poachers hunting, or discovered the victims of poaching (elephants or giraffes in snares, dead buffalo killed by spears, etc). This is the most difficult aspect emotionally for me, as it is very hard to watch without being able to help, especially when you come across a giraffe with a swollen hock dragging a snare or an elephant who lost a trunk from a snare. That feeling of helplessness is difficult to overcome.

The Importance and Impact of Photographing Endangered Species — Learn to Predict Animal Behavior

Image by Brina L. Bunt.

Pro Tip:

My advice to other photographers for taking any wildlife shot is, of course, patience and availability. Increase your chances of an encounter by spending as much time in the park as possible. Be patient when watching animals; you must learn and predict their behavior. Take a guide until you are comfortable navigating the area.

3. “Remember, the jungle is the gorillas’ home, and we are just temporary visitors there.”

Attila Jandi

The Importance and Impact of Photographing Endangered Species — You Are a Visitor

Image by Attila Jandi. Gear: Nikon F70 camera, 300mm lens, 500 ISO film. Settings: Unknown.

What is the most memorable experience you’ve had photographing an endangered or threatened species?

Since I was a child, I’ve been amazed by gorillas. In 2004, I was lucky to visit the mountain gorillas in their natural habitat in Rwanda’s Volcano National Park. The greatest surprise was visiting the Susa group, which was monitored by Dian Fossey. Without her, these beautiful creatures would probably already be extinct. Fossey was killed by poachers in 1985. After several hours of wandering through the jungle on the slopes of Mount Karisimbi, we came across the gorillas. There were around twenty gorillas around us, including a silverback called Kurira, the alpha male of the group.

When we arrived, Kurira stood up, roaring and drumming his chest, and he jumped towards us. It was only a bluff. But frightening indeed! When he realized we were not dangerous, he simply started to ignore us. The little ones were playing around and posing for our cameras. Kurira did not care about us at all.

The Importance and Impact of Photographing Endangered Species — Respect Their Home

Image by Attila Jandi.

The number of visitors to the park is limited, and the money goes directly to protecting the gorillas. They are extremely endangered, with only a couple hundred mountain gorillas remaining in the wild in Rwanda, Uganda, and the Congo. Fortunately, Fossey’s work and devotion resulted in involvement by the local population in the mountain gorilla project. On the other hand, poaching and the civil war in Congo led to the decline of the number of gorillas in the wild.

It does not matter if you believe in God’s creation or in Darwin’s theory of evolution; either way, these animals are some of the most beautiful creatures in the world. We would be much poorer without them.

The Importance and Impact of Photographing Endangered Species — Prepare for a Trek

Image by Attila Jandi.

Pro Tip:

If you are ready to visit the gorillas and can afford the permit, you’ll have good chances of seeing them in Uganda and Rwanda. Be prepared to walk in the jungle with harsh conditions, high humidity, and mosquitoes. Take your malaria pills. Follow the rangers’ rules. Remember, the jungle is the gorillas’ home, and we are just temporary visitors there. Respect their home, their life, and their culture.

4. “Get to know not only the species but also the location to make sure you are as unobtrusive as possible.”

Monika Wieland Shields

The Importance and Impact of Photographing Endangered Species — Understand the Location

Image by Monika Wieland Shields. Gear: Nikon D70S camera, Sigma 70-300mm F4-5.6 APO Macro Super lens. Settings: Focal length 300mm; exposure 1/3200 sec; f10; ISO 1600.

What is the most memorable experience you’ve had photographing an endangered or threatened species?

Killer whales, also known as orcas, as a species are found globally, but all over the world, they live in distinct populations that have their own foraging techniques, vocalizations, and socialization patterns. The inland waters of Washington and British Columbia, an area known as the Salish Sea, are the core habitat for one small population known as the Southern Residents, made up of J-, K-, and L-Pods.

There are fewer than eighty whales left in this fish-eating population. The decline of regional Chinook salmon is the number one reason for their decline. While toxins and vessel effects such as shipping noise and military testing activities are also risk factors, their fate is tied up in this simple phrase: No fish, no blackfish. Since the whales aren’t getting enough to eat, they’re having difficulty getting enough nutrition to carry pregnancies to term. That makes encounters with calves particularly bittersweet: they’re the hope for the future of the population, but not nearly enough of them are being born and surviving.

The photo above depicts one moment I will never forget. The baby in the middle is a young whale from K-Pod, designated K42 and also nicknamed Kelp. He is surrounded by his mother, older brother, and an adopted auntie, a whale from another pod who had an affinity for youngsters. To me, this photo has always embodied the life of a Southern Resident killer whale: in their society, offspring stay with their mothers for life, so whales are always in their family groups and don’t ever split up. The title of this photo is “You’ll Never Swim Alone.” Throughout his life and whatever risks he might face, Kelp will always be surrounded by the other whales of his community.

Thanks to decades of dedicated research, we know this population of killer whales as individuals: they all have names, and we know their family histories, and to some extent, their personalities. The Southern Resident killer whales are incredibly charismatic, and once people know them, they want to help protect them. I use my photography as a way to introduce people to these whales.

Pictured: [1] Monika Wieland Shields. [2] Monika Wieland Shields. [3] Monika Wieland Shields.

Pro Tip:

As with any type of wildlife photography, it’s critical to follow any rules and recommendations to avoid disturbing the animals. With the endangered Southern Resident killer whales, there are regulations in place to ensure boaters give the whales enough space while on the water, and I follow those regulations at all times. The ideal way to watch and photograph wildlife is to put yourself in a place that they frequent and let them come to you, rather than approaching them and potentially interrupting their behavior.

There is a lot of information out there about how to respectfully observe all types of wildlife, so it’s important to do your research before you head out into the field. Not only are there various rules for different animals, but animals often behave differently in various regions as well. Get to know not only the species but also the location to make sure you are as unobtrusive as possible.

5. “Learn about the species you want to photograph, including its characteristics, behaviors, population, and the threats they face.”

Caroline Pang

The Importance and Impact of Photographing Endangered Species — Learn What the Animals Face

Image by Caroline Pang. Gear: Fujifilm X-E2 camera, Fujinon XF55-200mm f/3.5-4.8 lens. Settings: Focal length 190.3 mm (in 35mm: 285.0 mm); exposure 1/125 sec; f4.8; ISO 800.

What is the most memorable experience you’ve had photographing an endangered or threatened species?

The lower Kinabatangan floodplain is one of Malaysia’s best natural havens. There are ten lots of fragmented forest that form 26,000 hectares of wildlife sanctuary within the lower floodplain. I co-managed a community-based conservation project in the lower Kinabatangan to safeguard 5.6 acres of land owned by a local community. This land is part of an important wildlife corridor, especially for Borneo Pygmy Elephants.

Borneo Pygmy Elephants are the smallest elephants in the world. There are about 300 individuals in the floodplain who are struggling for space and food. Their existence is under threat due to massive conversion of their habitat into agricultural land, especially for palm oil cultivation.

I document the elephants’ migration route and their behavior whenever I am on site. On one particular day, I joined the honorary wildlife warden, who is also one of our project team members, to survey the project site and the river. We knew there was a herd nearby, so we cruised downriver. I was keeping my eyes and ears wide open, hoping to hear the trumpeting sound of the elephants. Finally, I spotted them by the main river. There were about thirty individuals with two young calves. All were happily grazing, and some were swimming.

Later, we heard another herd calling out from the opposite bank. Now we knew that there were two herds, one on each side of the river. Those that we saw earlier began to assemble themselves into small groups, with the young ones in the middle. They submerged themselves one by one into the river, swimming across. Some of the elephants went on to our project site, while the rest continued to the other part of the lower Kinabatangan wildlife sanctuary.

This whole migration process took about four hours. What a memorable sight. It was an emotional experience to watch how intelligent these highly threatened animals are. They cautiously assembled themselves so they could reunite with another herd and continue to find spaces to live and to feed. I am very happy to see them going to our project site, which is rightfully their space and also part of their migration route. I’m happy to know that they have stayed within the site for several days, enjoying the large banana plots that we have planted as part of their food source.

The Importance and Impact of Photographing Endangered Species — Respect the Animal and Habitat

Image by Caroline Pang.

Pro Tip:

Learn about the species you want to photograph, including its characteristics, behaviors, population, and the threats they face. Learn about the habitat and terrain. It is important for nature and wildlife photographers to adhere to field instructions and best practices to ensure that we are not adding stress to the animals with our presence. Do not manipulate or provoke the subject just to get a shot of certain behaviors. Always remember that we are entering the home of these endangered species. Respecting nature and their habitat is important.

Top image by Monika Wieland Shields.