For nearly the past two decades, French photographer Laurent Baheux has traversed the vast expanses of wild Africa – the savannas and grasslands, the woodlands and wetlands – to document its most glorious forms of life. With his patience and trained eye, Baheux’s resulting black-and-white photographs have captured leopards, tigers, zebras, monkey, leopards, elephants and giraffes in hushed and emotive states, lounging with their siblings or cuddling their young. His portraits are visually exquisite while showing the social and emotive semblances across the animal kingdom.
In his latest oeuvre Lions (teNeues, EUR 40), he pays homage to the “king of animals” with new and archive footage of the individuals, families and prides he’s tracked during more than 30 trips across Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. But the book’s purpose is nobler than to look pretty on a coffee table; it also stands as a reminder that the existence of this most beloved of species is not a guarantee. The future of the lion depends on its native habitat – which depends increasingly on the actions and inactions of humans. But it’s not just a one-way street, says Baheux. There are lessons to be learned from lions about how to live off the Earth, not only to ensure their survival, but also our own.
Your first major trip to report on wildlife was to Tanzania in 2002. How have you seen the country’s landscape and wildlife change since then?
I have just returned from a trip to the country, and in 17 years, I have seen the human pressure intensify around areas reserved for wildlife. The cohabitation of large mammals in general – and with predators in particular – has become more and more difficult. We need to understand that the less we leave natural habitat for wild animals, human-animal conflict will continue to increase. Competing with them for their habitat gives them little chance of survival.
Did any daily routines or work habits help you capture these shots?
By photographing animals in their natural environment, I learned to see them first as individuals and not together as a species. Every lion is unique and unlike any other: each has his or her own physical appearance, own personality, own character. To portray this means seeking to bring out these features, this charisma, this truth – as one would do when portraying another human.
What do you find so beautiful about the way lions interact with one another?
What is fascinating about lions is the mixture of strength and fragility they emit. They are big predators, able to kill to survive and feed their families. And at the same time, they are able – like us – to show affection, tenderness, that they love each other and are benevolent to other members of their clan. Through simple portraits, these are all those little moments of the lions’ daily lives that I like to observe and that I sometimes manage to capture.
During the 17 years collecting the footage in this book, did you see certain individual lions repeatedly? If so, what was it like to watch them grow and change ?
Yes. I saw and photographed lions in the prime of lives, handsome and powerful. I found some of them in their old age, at the ends of their lives, much less flamboyant. I’m happy to have had the chance to immortalize them when they were at the top of their reign.
What have you learned from these animals ?
That to survive, they must necessarily live in harmony with their environment and respect the rules that govern the fragile natural balances. They have the instinct of not unnecessarily destroying the habitat that allows them to feed themselves.
You work on your own, in order to be “invisible” and not disrupt the animals’ lives. What is it like, to spend so many hours alone in remote places?
I like to suffer the slow pace of nature. I like to feel that I am not a decision-maker, that it is not me, the photographer, who will choose where, when and how to photograph or even if a photographic moment will happen. Not being in control of the situation allows me, as a human, to find a little humility in the face of nature.
Why have you been so drawn to Africa’s landscapes in particular?
More than the landscapes, it is the encounters with the big animals of the African continent that attract me: to see evolving this big, free and wild fauna in the middle of a savanna that has not changed for thousands of years gives emotions that are difficult to describe. I sometimes feel like I’m going back in time, to the origins of animal life.
What are the biggest threats facing lions, and what can we do to help?
The population of African lions has been halved in the last 25 years and decreased tenfold in just one century. One hundred years ago, there were 200,000 lions. Today, there are only 20,000 left, now considered vulnerable to extinction. This blazing disappearance is essentially due to man, who transforms the lions’ hunting areas into farming spaces and slaughters the prey of the predator, depriving him of his food. The reduction of prey that lions usually hunt, an inexorable consequence of the bushmeat trade, forces lions to come into contact with humans and their livestock to survive. When they attack cattle, they can be killed in retaliation, most often poisoned. As human infrastructure grows and spreads, lions see their habitat fragment, preventing young males from founding their clans. Baheux’
And then there’s poaching, which is still very present. Bones of tigers and rhinoceros’s horns have become rarefied, so lions are now prime targets. Their body parts – skin, teeth, paws and claws – are used in rituals and traditional Chinese medicine. This is still a lucrative market, but also much less risky and much less punished than the arms or drug trade.
Beyond the massive deforestation of the savanna, which has led to the imbalance of lion populations between West, East and Central Africa, income from tourism is what will decide the presence or disappearance of these felines. Countries in Southern and East Africa, which have developed tourism, protect lions to continue attracting visitors. West Africa, which is much less frequented, profits more from a dead lion than a living, exploiting in the wake the territory left vacant. By 2035, according to some scientists, half of the current lion population will have disappeared, and there will be only 10,000 left in the wild. Lions, lionesses and lion cubs could completely disappear by 2050.
What does this book mean to you? And what do you hope it means to readers?
This book is my homage to the nobility of the lion, to the lion’s magnificence. This animal has always been at the heart of myths and the sacred. I would like readers to realize that if the most emblematic representative of the animal kingdom disappears, all life on earth will be threatened. It must quickly become clear that to protect wildlife, we must preserve its spaces.