Sitting down with Ian McAllister

Ian McAllister, a conservationist and wildlife photographer, recently wandered from the depths of Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest to give a presentation at the School of Forestry. In addition to being a renowned wildlife photographer, McAllister is a founder of Pacific Wild, a wildlife conservation organization focused on the Great Bear Rainforest. His most recent book, “Great Bear Wild,” is a collection of photographs that document more than 25 years of living in the Great Bear Rainforest. The Herald met with McAllister in the appropriate setting of the School of Forestry’s Kroon Hall to talk about photography, conservation, and the benefits of combining the two.

YH: How do you think the art of photography fits into the work of conservation?

McAllister: I think photography is a critical element. It seems to have more of an impact for remote wilderness areas such as the Great Bear Rainforest than a lot of the primary research that we’re involved in. The combination of all of these approaches [research, policy, and art] is important, but visual imagery and storytelling is something that people relate to and are inspired by. It’s an integral part of conservation. In the absence of [photography], it becomes very much an academic debate, and if you look at how decisions are being made, especially around climate change, politicians aren’t making those decisions because of the latest peer review in science that just came out. They’re making those decisions based on how people feel about it, and we’re visual creatures. We respond viscerally to imagery and so making strong images is important. I love the fact that we can weave conservation, photography, and film work into our approach around education and science and research.

YH: What qualities do you think make a photo effective for conservation purposes?

McAllister: It’s easy to take nice or pretty pictures, but an image that actually tells a story is significant. For me, that is usually wildlife in a landscape where there are things going on—not just animal behavior but also in the context of landscape. I’m always trying to achieve more than one element in an image, and that’s why I do a lot of underwater work.

YH: I’ve seen a really great underwater photo of yours, of a wolf with its head halfway submerged in water.

McAllister: Yeah, so an image like that is something I really like, because there is a whole story there. There are these wolves coming out of the rainforest to feed on herring eggs, and these herring are coming in from the depths of the pelagic zone [the water in a lake or sea that is not near the bottom or the shore], they’re coming to these in-shore waters to lay their eggs every spring. The story is in the incredible interface between the marine and terrestrial worlds where the ocean meets the rainforest. These wolves are conveyors of that story, because they cross both worlds. People don’t think of large carnivores like wolves as marine mammals but when their principal food for a good percentage of the year is salmon, sea lions, herrings, etcetera, they heavily rely on a marine environment. These are two worlds that collide but are seamless. Where they begin and end is almost indistinguishable and wolves tell a bit of that story.

YH: Do you think social media also plays a role in conservation efforts?

McAllister: Absolutely, there’s no question about it. I think [social media] is largely untapped but we see these incredible things that have happened. Three weeks ago, the British Columbia government said they were going to spend a couple million dollars, taxpayer dollars, on a wolf kill because of these endangered caribou herds. They planned to kill 180 wolves right away. We sent that message out to people through social media platforms and within three days, we had 1.5 million people go on our website, we had 150,000 people sign our petition. We did a crowd-sourcing campaign and reached our goal in three days; we didn’t think we’d reach it in 30 days. There are a whole lot of examples like that, and it’s 100 percent through social media. Being a smaller conservation NGO, we never had the ability to pay for that kind of advertising and that kind of outreach; it’s normally something only large corporations or government organizations could ever afford. So it’s exciting, social media allows for great things and a lot of the effects are hard to predict.

YH: What do you hope to see in the next generation of students, in terms of conservation?

McAllister: That’s a tough question. I just know that whatever we do, we have to do it a lot louder and a lot more of it. We have to be more creative because clearly [conservation efforts] are not working right now. In some places, we’re treading water and maintaining basic ecosystem functions, but that’s not enough. We’ve lost so much diversity on Earth. These places that are left are becoming increasingly more important and they can’t just be maintained at a basic level. We’ve got to return those places to their former abundance and diversity. This means we have to do way more in terms of protecting areas. We’ve got to stop so many of these unsustainable fisheries and deal with ocean acidification. There’s a big list of very significant issues that are just being ignored right now. If the status quo continues, it doesn’t look good.

YH: Are you ever overwhelmed by the long list of things we have to fix after what we’ve done to the earth? Do you have any words of advice for people who wonder what we can do at this point?

McAllister: Nobody’s going to deal with all of these issues alone, but collectively we can by having each person do what they do well. When I give a talk, often at the end, students will ask, “Well, what can we do?” And I think the last thing you want to do is to just support an environmental organization and expect things to change. The environmental movement—we don’t know what to do either. But when I witness great change or get inspired by the power of people to make progressive changes, it’s when people are so outraged and incensed about an issue that they feel motivated to do something. When we reach that critical threshold in our society where people feel they have to do something, because nobody’s going to do it for them, then you see things change really quickly. And that’s inspiring.

YH: Do you have any last words of advice or encouragement for students who might be interested in going into conservation work?

McAllister: The best part [of conservation] is that it’s an exciting field and very wide open. For example, we work with technicians who are incredibly bright in computer programming and they help us design all of our transmission and data storage. We’re also working with mariners who keep our boats going and front-line campaigners and ecologists and there’s just a long, long list of very different skill sets involved, and yet, we’re all working as a team towards the same goals.

The best part about it is that you wake up in the morning and you never really know what part you’re going to be involved with. I think that diversity is really a fun part of this work; you get to be involved with a lot of different aspects from science to education to government and policies. I think that anyone that has a passion for it is going to find their niche. You just have to have faith that that will happen, because there are so many different skill sets that are needed all the time. If you can apply those to conservation, you’re going to be in demand for forever.

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