Sometimes, a photograph expresses something more powerful than any number of words. That’s the case with this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year winner, a brutal shot of a rhino that was murdered and left intact except for its horn.
For most humans, a rhino itself is a valuable thing worth preserving and photographing, especially as the population dwindles towards extinction. To poachers, however, its horn looms larger than life as an otherwise unattainable source of money thanks to international black market demand. Photographer Brent Stirton, who spent five years tracking the rhinoceros poaching crisis, captures the bloody indignity of the nose-less rhino; its raw, red wound a poignant blight on what otherwise could be a peaceful scene of a beast resting amidst its natural surroundings.
Stirton’s photo is appropriately titled Memorial to a Species, and while the other photos honored along with it for the London Natural History Museum annual award capture nature approaching its best—more unbridled and unperturbed—the grand title has been bestowed upon this dismal scene.
Like any lasting photo, the image is both specific and metaphorical. With each passing year, global wildlife populations find themselves increasingly jeopardized by human activity, whether from habitat degradation, poaching, climate change, or over-hunting and fishing. Large herbivores, known as megafauna, are especially at risk. A 2015 report in the journal Science Advances found that they’re facing steep population declines across the planet, and that roughly 60% are threatened with extinction.
While elephants are the most often-used posterchild for this crisis, there are far fewer remaining rhinos. According to the WWF, very few rhinos survive outside of national parks and reserves, and two of the five species are Critically Endangered: There may fewer than 100 Sumatran rhinos remaining in the wild, a population reduction of more than 80 percent since the middle of the 20th century. Northern white rhinos are believed to be extinct in the wild, with only a few captive individuals remaining. Southern white rhinos are the most common, numbering around 20,000, and black rhinos, which have managed to increase their population over the last few decades as more protections have come into place across Africa, now number between 5,042 and 5,458.
Cathy Dean, CEO at Save the Rhino International, said in a statement that Stirton’s photo, which is of a black rhino, helps tell the story behind the disheartening facts.
“The statistics—three rhinos killed every day, more than 1,200 killed every year—are still almost as grim as they ever were, but they don’t tell the real story: the horrific brutality, cruelty and pointless killing of one of the world’s most iconic beasts by criminal gangs who are only interested in the profit they can make,” she said.
At this point, rhinos are completely at the mercy of humans: We kill them, and we fight to protect them—an extremely dangerous job that requires putting one’s own life on the line to save another species. Their horns are valued across Asia for their traditional healing properties, even though they are made from the same material as a human fingernail. And now, a photo of one of them has beaten almost 50,000 wildlife photography entries from 92 countries. It will be displayed along with other winners at exhibits across the world for the rest of the year. Meanwhile, the battle between poachers, animals, and law enforcers will continue to play out at the edges of civilization.
A few decades from now there really may not be any more rhinos in the wild, with no more opportunities to memorialize the species. So it’s good thing this photo is getting attention now, before it’s definitely too late. The jury that selected the images sees it, ultimately, as a hopeful symbol.
“Brent’s image highlights the urgent need for humanity to protect our planet and the species we share it with,” Natural History Museum Director, Sir Michael Dixon, said in a statement. “The black rhino offers a sombre and challenging counterpart to the story of ‘Hope’ our blue whale. Like the critically endangered black rhinoceros, blue whales were once hunted to the brink of extinction, but humanity acted on a global scale to protect them. This shocking picture of an animal butchered for its horns is a call to action for us all.”