We’ve had the honour to support Maria Slough with some equipment from Calumet Rental that she needed for this trip. We strongly believe in the statement that a picture says more than a thousand words. We also hope that the fantastic work the charity does will soon put an end to all the animal cruelty.
Featuring an insert by Roger Bralow BVSc MRCVS
On a damp Saturday night our plane left Heathrow bound for China and the rescued Moon Bears of Chengdu. It has been a few years since I last had the honour of photographing these magnificent animals and this time I was travelling with Surrey based veterinary surgeon, Roger Bralow and a new lens on board for my Canon EOS 5D Mark III courtesy of Calumet Photographic. We landed in the early hours of Monday morning and it wasn’t long before exquisite bird song and the low growl of waking bears at the Chengdu Bear Rescue, run by Hong Kong based government registered charity, Animals Asia Foundation, stirred us into the day ahead.
As a photographer I’m driven by the excitement at what images I’m going to capture. On commercial shoots, I meet with the client and art direct the end result, which is creatively part of what I love about photography, but when I’m photographing animals it requires a totally different approach.
The bears at the Animals Asia sanctuary have been rescued from the horrors of the bile trade. This trade includes the daily extraction of bile from their gall bladder, often several times a day and they are kept captive in grossly undersized cages which prohibits them from moving for the duration of their life, some 20 years plus. As a government registered charity Animals Asia are working with the governments of China and Vietnam to end bile farming, and while that work continues I’m lucky enough to spend time with the rescued bears, immortalising their new lives with the power of a single image.
There were several aspects of this trip that I wanted to capture; travelogue style snaps that I knew would be taken on a phone camera, portraits of people and exteriors that would require a standard kit lens, the Canon 24-70mm; low light portrait shots and bear portraits for which I used my favourite lens recently purchased from Calumet, the Canon 70-200 F2.8 IS II USM lens.
One of my biggest challenges was going to be capturing the bears at rest and play in their vast enclosures, and to find the natural beauty in those shots I needed a high quality wildlife lens that wasn’t so cumbersome it prohibited my movement around the site. Enter the Canon 200-400 f/4 L IS with built in hot swappable 1.4 extender.
This lens was a sweet revelation. Although initially heavy it comes with a comfortable handle with grip and you can attach a monopod directly to the lens for extra stabilisation. I always use a wrist strap for extra security or double up the neck strap around my wrist. The focal range runs from 280mm to 560mm when extended and the autofocus motor in the lens itself was beautifully silent. I spent much of my time using this lens on viewing platforms and roof tops and found it really easy to work with once I got used to the weight.
When photographing the bears you have to move very slowly and remain as quiet as possible. This is their home, their sanctuary and taking photographs of them must never disturb their daily routine. This is not a zoo where people are allowed to call out to the animals to get their attention. Some of the bears are naturally inquisitive and welcomed my return day after day to my favourite viewing spots. The built in hot swappable 1.4 extender came into its own in such situations. Easy to manoeuvre without removing your eye from the viewfinder, a dulcet click lets you know that the lockable switch is in place. The movement of the zoom is smooth and the combination of both of these made sure I never missed a moment. As I watched the bears from the rooftop verandas in China this lens also enabled me to capture other wildlife such as the birds in the trees.
My kit lens, the 24-70mm as always served well for capturing standard landscapes and some mid range wide shots with the help of a flash gun on the darker overcast days, and an array of phone cameras meant I never missed those unexpected moments when carrying a full frame camera and kit just wasn’t possible.
During our time at the sanctuary I was invited to photograph a health check on one of the bears. I have done this previously and always find it such an honour. Anyone under a full anaesthetic has a vulnerability about them, and a bear is no different. It isn’t possible to fire the flash until the bear is fully sedated, and even then I like to avoid it as much as possible out of respect to the procedure I am capturing. I have used the 70-200mm f2.8 ISII USM lens on hire many times, but having recently purchased one from Calumet it has now become my favourite essential telezoom lens which I use across a diverse range of commercial work. I even got what I paid for the hire back when I bought it. In surgery with the vet team and Roger the 70-200mm enabled me to capture intimate moments of the health check without encroaching on the medical team at work.
Outside of the sanctuary this lens captured beautiful reportage images of the surrounding areas and shooting RAW at all times to one of the memory cards, which I highly recommend if you have the facility to do so, as this lens will capture any noise from moisture in the air or adverse weather conditions which can be reduced in post. Inside the bear dens where the bears are resting or sleeping the 70-200mm performed brilliantly in the very low light conditions; using the light available to produce an image that is faithful to the actual colours and shadows and highlights that the naked eye is witnessing.
It is the sitting and waiting for the bears to offer up those golden moments to capture that I treasure the most when photographing them. This time alone amongst the Moon Bears of Asia is sacred. You watch them sleep and play and stretch their limbs in the warm dust of their enclosures, and you are reminded, that the life that they lived before in captivity proscribed them from enjoying any of these simple pleasures. This trip, I got to share all that with Roger Bralow whose experience of the bears was entirely different to mine, seen through the naked eye rather than a lens.
To have these moments bestowed upon you and your cameras by the bears is life changing. When I capture an image a little piece of me transports itself into the photograph and telling the story of the rescued Moon Bears of China in the forthcoming exhibition Under an Asian Moon, will I hope raise awareness of the work of Animals Asia Foundation and help the continue to change the lives of the Moon Bears of Asia.
Under An Asia Moon will exhibit at London Drummond St Store from July 2017.
Meeting the Moon Bears for the First Time
by Roger Bralow
I have always loved travelling. That first feel coming off the plane in a new place still excites me. There was a different smell and taste in the Chengdu air than the light rain I had left at Heathrow.
I was incredibly aware that this was a different country and more importantly a very different culture. So many things in China are different than the UK; the organised mayhem of the traffic, the queuing systems (or lack thereof) and the markets selling things that not only do I not recognise, but even after an explanation, I still would not understand who would buy it. Our taxi wound its way through a series of inconspicuous streets turning corners into even more unassuming streets making me wish I had the phrasebook to ask if our driver knew where he was going or the Mandarin term for ‘driving in circles.’ I laughed to myself wondering about the term ‘Shanghaied.’ Eventually we pulled into a street that looked like every other street and we arrived at the bear sanctuary.
Sanctuary is not a strong enough word to describe this place. Haven? Shangri-la? This exquisite setting in the middle of nowhere was full of bears. Beautiful, majestic Moon Bears. These bears had been fortunate enough to have been rescued from the atrocity of bile-farms. There is a bittersweet tale here of the most horrific abuse imaginable and the rescue of these magnificent animals. This is what a sanctuary should be. The bears in Chengdu play. They climb trees. They laze about in the sunshine. They lie on hammocks and tyre swings. This is not their natural habitat, but they are able to behave like bears.
The sanctuary at Chengdu welcomes visitors with a statue of a glorious bear towering proudly above. This is quickly met by the sharp contrast of the cages from the rescued bears rusting away in an intentionally neglected heap. Even a minimal concept of spatial awareness shows these cages should not be able to hold these bears. There are cages that I would consider too small for a one kilogram rabbit, much less a two-hundred kilogram bear.
One of the problems with being a Vet for the last twenty years is that when I watch an animal, my eyes are immediately drawn to what is wrong. Is she limping? Does he look comfortable? Some of the bears have more difficulty with mobility than others, but they are all very well looked after. The incredibly caring and proficient team of Vets, nurses and bear-workers ensure they are comfortable, well-fed and treated for whatever ails them.
One of the great things about being a Vet is that I can get involved. I can help. While I was there I got to work with the head Vet Dr. Emily Drayton (Eddie) and her team doing a health check. One of the bears, Ki, had been coughing and needed a recheck after being on her medication for a few months. Eddie handed me the ultrasound probe and I smiled as I scanned Ki’s heart, making sure everything was working like it should. Luckily Ki is fine.
There are still thousands of bears in need of rescuing, and hopefully this atrocity will someday stop. Until that day, the tireless work by Animals Asia Foundation and the team at Chengdu gives help and hope.
Thanks to the Olsen Animal Trust and David M for their support in facilitating this trip.
For more information on the work of Animals Asia please visit www.animalsasia.org