Internationally-acclaimed conservation photojournalist Paul Hilton is a wildlife crime consultant and has partnered with some of the largest conservation NFPs, such as the Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace, WildAid and the Oceanic Preservation Society. Hilton has dedicated his life to his craft, becoming renowned for photojournalism that opens our eyes to faraway places and brings dangerous stories into our living rooms.
YOU’RE A PHOTOJOURNALIST AND CONSERVATIONIST. CAN YOU TELL US A BIT ABOUT HOW YOU FUSE THE TWO?
Well, ultimately, I am a conservationist using photojournalism as a tool to try and present issues in a balanced way and ultimately to create change.
I think it’s important to understand why the issues are happening. I then set out to document the beauty and then the issue around a particular species or ecosystem. After that, the imagery goes to work to try to engage people on a particular subject and then hopefully helping them to make an informed decision about any given subject.
Sometimes, I’ll work with charities to create a campaign around that issue. For example, I spend a lot of time with poachers, and it’s important to understand why they do what they do. It’s never black and white, and always very complex.
ARE YOU ACTIVE IN TRYING TO FIND WAYS FOR POACHERS TO CHANGE JOBS OR HELPING TO SET UP OTHER REVENUE STREAMS FOR THEM?
From time to time, I’ll meet poachers who have extensive knowledge about a particular species and if there is a way to convert them to the protection side, then that’s possible, given their location, and job openings.
For example, with the elephants in the Leuser Ecosystem in Indonesia, my role was just to try and highlight the gaps in the rangers’ patrols in the forest and to help bring in extra funding to create dedicated elephant patrol teams. My work helped to increase the rangers and pay the salaries to keep them on the ground and doing their patrols. So, I just try and create change whilst documenting issues.
HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE YOUR JOB?
That is a good question. A lot of the time, I will be contracted by NGOs. I will focus on an issue and create a body of work, and then I will go to someone and say, “I would really like some support funding this”. Then, my work can help with their campaign or spark investigations looking at wildlife crime or whatever else is needed.
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YOU’RE VERY ACTIVE WHEN IT COMES TO SHARK CONSERVATION. WHAT FASCINATES YOU ABOUT IT?
Well, no one even questions the mass consumption of sharks, like the piles and piles of fins in front of shops in Hong Kong and the increasing consumption in Europe, in particular. There is a blue shark fishery off Vigo in Spain, and they are taking anywhere from two to five million sharks a year. And, sharks have a slower breeding cycle than other species of fish. So, as an apex predator, they are very important. Everything in the ocean has been shaped by the shark, and it is critical that they stay in the ecosystem. For example, there is a huge blue shark fishery on the East Coast of America, and they kept killing sharks. Then the stingray population increased, and the scallop fishery collapsed because the stingrays were eating all the scallops because there were no sharks to eat the stingray and maintain the balance. People do not realize that every species is so critical, and they are all there for a reason.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST INTERESTING CONSERVATION TRIP OR PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT?
I think Antarctica. It was like another world. The landscape was so dramatic when we came through the Drakes Passage, we hit this belt of low-lying clouds, then we pushed through the clouds and then the next thing we could see were these dramatic black cliffs with huge glaciers. It was so ethereal. It was like a different planet. It was something that I had never experienced before. It was so surreal compared to everything else I’d experienced. Very, very special.
YOU’VE ALSO DONE A LOT OF WORK TO HIGHLIGHT THE CONSERVATION EFFORTS IN THE LEUSER ECOSYSTEM OF INDONESIA. CAN YOU TELL US A BIT MORE ABOUT THIS SPECIAL PLACE?
It is probably one of the wildest places I have ever been to, in that it was not manicured in any way. You can go to a lot of the great national parks around the world, and they are very orderly – you must follow this trail, you can camp here, etc. But the Leuser Ecosystem is just a true wild frontier. You can get into a longboat and go up these rivers and you feel like you are the first ever explorer. There are orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinos, and so much biodiversity. Even though the ecosystem is under threat with poaching and logging, it is still one of these real, wild frontiers that are getting harder and harder to find in this world.
YOU NOW ALSO OFFER EXPEDITIONS THAT PEOPLE CAN JOIN. WHO ARE THESE TRIPS FOR AND HOW CAN WE PREPARE FOR A TRIP WITH YOU?
The trips are for people who have a passion for adventure and the natural world, and who want to experience a different side of tourism, getting to know the local ways of life and have an authentic trip. People who come on the trips come away a lot more informed about certain issues, and we focus especially on the ecosystem. The trips support the local community and strive to show people that there is an alternative side to tourism. It’s not just a trip you could go online and book, because it’s using a lot of my experience and local relationships that I have developed over many years. We usually take a maximum of eight people on a trip, so that it’s more intimate, but that is depending on the location.
WHAT ARE YOU CURRENTLY WORKING ON?
I’m currently working on the issue of bird trade, with a focus on Southeast Asia. It’s shocking that over 30 million birds are being trapped, caught and caged.
See also: Regenerative Travel After Covid
WHAT WOULD BE A PERFECT TRIP FOR YOU?
I would like to cover the story in the Amazon. I haven’t done a lot of work in that part of the world, and I’d like to work alongside a team fighting to save the forests, given what’s going on over there. So much forest is being cleared for beef production.
Obviously, I could see the beauty, while still highlighting major issues. I just want to spend more time in those places that need more attention. But I also don’t really have a favourite location.
There are so many beautiful places that need our support.
But in saying that, a good group of like-minded people can create so much change.
WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS in 2023?
My plans this year are to highlight the ongoing shark-fin trade. Hong Kong is still one of the biggest trading hubs in the world.
I don’t really have one. I just take one day at a time. I feel very privileged to have the life I have, where I have turned my passion into a career.