Robert Marc Lehmann is sounding alarm bells with his photography. His subjects are rare and endangered species. The marine biologist and research diver has told us about his most moving encounters.
Eye to eye with the last of their kind
The minutes tick by, but nothing happens. “Forget it.” I look at my team. “Pack up, it’s not showing up.” An overwhelming sense of disappointment overcomes me. It took so much time, so much effort to get here: Countless emails, endless phone calls, forms, applications, permits… I set my camera down, frustrated. I’m in the only place in the world where I can photograph this animal, but it just won’t show up.
The Sumatran rhinoceros is one of the planet’s most endangered species. Fewer than 90 are left of its kind. The primary reason for their impending extinction is the loss of their habitat, but there is another threat to the survival of these last few animals: Their horns, weighing only 500 grams each, are prized among poachers. They go for 500,000 US dollars on the black market. Here, at the Sumatra Rhino Sanctuary, eight rhinoceroses live in large swathes of jungle. They go to a specific area for food only, and this is where the carers and veterinary doctors examine them. Each animal is precious and must be protected from infections and parasites.
Suddenly, I hear the cracking of broken branches comingfrom the jungle. The undergrowth splits open – there it is. I can’t believe my eyes. It’s as though I am facing a dinosaur. It sniffs in my direction, and its small, cloudy eyes blink briefly. I rapidly lift my camera and take a photo of this incredible creature. In that brief moment, which I had awaited for so long, I manage to snap one-of-a-kind images of one of the world’s rarest mammals.
One of the last of its kind: This Sumatran rhinoceros lives in a closely monitored area purpose-built for its species. What looks (and, to the animals, feels) just like wild jungle is actually a high-security refuge protecting the thickskinned giants from the dangers of the outside world.
Some people claim that beached whales cannot be saved, that they are inevitably sick, injured or collapsing under their own weight. I say: Nonsense!
In 2013, I lived in New Zealand with Dr. Ingrid Visser, the world’s most famous orca researcher, and assisted her work. On one incredibly emotional day, I had the chance to save a beached orca from certain death. Koru – that was the whale’s name – had probably run aground on a sandbank while hunting for rays. He was lying in the blazing sun, panicking and alone. It would’ve been a death sentence for the young male. Fishermen had sighted the large animal and immediately alerted us.
The most important thing when dealing with a beached orca is to keep it hydrated. Their black skin rapidly heats up in the sun, which puts them at risk of collapse. Whales also drink fresh water. Normally, they get the fluids they need from their food, so a beached whale is at extreme risk of dehydration.
We looked after the frightened whale, who was calling for his mother the entire time. She must’ve been close. It felt like an eternity before the rising tide brought back the life-saving water and freed Koru from the sandbank. We had to keep watch over the whale to prevent him from running aground again and reunite him with his family. For hours, we stayed by his side in our boat, constantly hoping and worrying. I can’t describe the emotions I felt when another black fin suddenly emerged next to us. The family was back together, and Koru was safe!
Orcas can reach a length of ten meters, a weight of more than five tons and speeds of up to 64 km/h. They are the most widespread mammal in the world, with populations at home everywhere from the far north of the Arctic to the southernmost points of the Atlantic. Orcas are incredibly social and live in family groups of up to twelve animals.
A good chance of a wild future
I am lying in the tall grass, armed with my camera. The air is filled with the buzzing of insects and the grazing noises coming from the giant European wisents just a few meters away. Being so close to such an enormous animal, without a fence to keep you safe, is an incredible feeling. With a body weight of more than 600 kilograms, the wisents could easily crush me, but I don’t feel at all tense around them. In fact, the peaceful animals exude an enormous sense of calm. I slowly breathe in and out as my camera clicks and a photo appears on the screen: It’s one of those rare pictures that fill me with pure delight, as it showcases the success of this incredible project.
In 1920, all the wild wisents in Europe had gone extinct. Or rather, they’d been exterminated. In the past, these primal-looking giants were at home nearly all over the continent, but over time, they were hunted down and their habitat was turned into arable land. Soon, there were none left in the wild. Exactly a dozen animals survived, protected in zoos. They are the ancestors of the more than 4,000 wisents living in large-scale repopulation projects across Europe today. My friend Milosh runs one of those projects: A nature reserve established on a former military site in Czechia, home to ten European wisents and 25 wild horses. I had the great honor of being the first photographer to document the repopulation of the herd.
This “little” creature is not just any wisent, it is the first calf born in freedom here. “These images give me hope that the wisents may become a part of our natural environment again,” says Lehmann.