Friday, July 31, 2015

Cecil and Brutus: The Legacy of Cecil the Lion

For any of you that have been living under a rock for the past few days, it may come as a surprise to learn that the internet's latest sensation is not a Beiber or a Kardashian, but rather a Palmer. It seems while most of us were going on living normal lives and perhaps even doing good for our planet, an American dentist named Walter Palmer was off doing idiotic things in Africa, bribing local guides with $55,000 Ben Franklins for the chance to bow-hunt a protected male lion named Cecil.

Screenshot from www.cbc.ca

As it turned out, Cecil was probably the last lion on earth that Mr. Palmer should have pointed his moral-less compass at, as Cecil was one of the world's most famous, most photographed, and most known lions.

The uproar has been fast and furious, as well it should be when an animal of Cecil's stature is murdered. Palmer now finds himself at the center of one of the internet's greatest shaming campaigns of all time. His business is in trouble, his life is in tatters, he's in hiding, and he's sorry. Oh my, is he ever sorry. Mind you, he's not sorry that he killed a lion in the most gruesome of ways, he's just sorry that he killed a famous lion. And he's particularly sorry that his grievous actions have brought more attention on him than any of his previous egocentric activities ever had in the past.

And Cecil? Well, Cecil is dead. Killed to be a trophy hanging off this f**king you-know-what's wall to go along with an assortment of other heads of animals he's murdered around the world.

There has long been an argument in the guide-outfitting community internationally that the hard-earned dollars these great white hunters spend on trophy hunts of lions, leopards, elephants, and rhinos helps the local villages to survive, providing them with food and jobs and money for development projects, while at the same time furnishing conservation initiatives. The truth behind these arguments is startling: just three percent of those trophy hunting revenues ever reach the communities located near the hunting grounds.

The real value, it turns out, is in having these great animals like Cecil alive and part of a thriving ecosystem, so that they can truly bring in revenue to a local community, dollars that arrive over the lifetime of the animal in the form of tourist dollars. So while there is no shower of $55K at a time, there are thousands of dollars that flow in each year, adding up to far more than $55K and leaving the animal alive and well to foster new families, leaving a legacy behind in the wild for our children..

Which brings me to Brutus the Bear. Brutus lived for almost thirty years in the protected Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary in British Columbia, Canada. What would the outcry have been if someone had discovered Brutus' mangled corpse with a bullet-hole in it? With an arrow sticking out of his shoulder?

Brutus the Bear lived for almost thirty years in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary in British Columbia

There are 40-50 grizzlies in the Khutzeymateen. Approximately 400 bear viewers a year pay an average of $750 a day (for an average stay of three days) to get the chance to view Brutus and his brethren up close in the protected estuary, while another 5,000 a year pay $200 a day to view grizzlies in the greater inlet, which is also protected. So while a guide-outfitter like Prince Rupert's own Milligan's Outfitting might charge $15-20,000 for the rights for a dentist like Palmer to come shoot one of our bears like Brutus, the bears of the Khutzeymateen bring in direct ecotourism revenues of $1.9 million dollars annually, most of which goes right back into Prince Rupert and the surrounding communities. Guide-outfitters in the area would need to kill 95 grizzlies a year (comically impossible in a population of 40-50) to keep up revenue-wise, essentially cleaning out the Khutzeymateen and all the neighbouring inlets within a few years.

Yet the Khutzeymateen remains Canada's sole grizzly bear sanctuary. Outside of Alberta (which has a grizzly hunting ban in effect), fewer than 10% of Canada's grizzly bears live in protected areas. And even of the ones that do, like Brutus, most of them stray outside the protected areas during their lifetimes because our protected areas simply aren't big enough.

For the rest of those grizzlies that do not have the luxury of living in a protected area, they're at the mercy of sociopaths like Walter Palmer who pay to come up and assassinate our bears. And we continue to let our own resident hunters go out and slaughter our grizzlies, too.

Let's be clear about this: this is not hunting for food, it is hunting to kill for the sake of killing. These so-called hunters do it so they can go home and brag about how they stalked and killed a great bear (using a high-powered rifle from 400 meters away) and display its head up on their wall like some great trophy. Do it with a bowie knife and maybe then you're some kind of great hero, though even that would still beg the question, "Why do you need to kill a grizzly bear?"

Some of you may scoff at all of this and think that what happened to Cecil surely couldn't happen here in Canada. We've got a great conservation officer service throughout the provinces that keeps a handle on poachers, right? Think again. British Columbia's top hunting guide in the Guide-Outfitter's Association for 2015 was just found guilty of hunting a grizzly using bait. That's illegal. That's poaching. That's the guy who just won the most prestigious award as the top guide in the province.


It's time for more grizzly bear sanctuaries like the Khutzeymateen

The hunting community is running out of excuses standing up for this senseless slaughter. The grizzly bear hunt does not have a leg to stand on scientifically, economically, or ethically. It is time for it to come to an end, just as it is time for all trophy hunting of all species to come to an end.

We are better than this. We are better than Walter Palmer. It's time we started voting this way in our elections and getting governments in that will listen to the majority of us that want an end to trophy hunting forever.

It's time for more Khutzeymateens and more support for ecotourism worldwide. It's time for Cecil the Lion to leave a legacy that we can no longer ignore.

Fired up and want to do something tangible to help put an end to the grizzly bear hunt in British Columbia once and for all? Then please Share this post across your network of friends on Facebook, Instagram, Google+, and Twitter to help get the word out.  Donate to organizations fighting the hunt like Pacific Wild, Raincoast, or Bears Forever. Or Email our Canadian politicians: British Columbia Premier Christy Clark (premier@gov.bc.ca) and Steve Thomson, the Minister of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations (steve.thomson.mla@leg.bc.ca) and send them this link along with your views on the trophy hunt. 

#CeciltheLion #bantrophyhunting

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Friday, July 24, 2015

Review of the Canon 5DS R Camera Body

When Canon Canada's Alberta rep Brad Allen called me up last Friday and said, "Want to test out the new Canon 5DsR body next week?" my answer was short and sweet and may have sounded something like, "Yes, please," though with a little squeal of glee attached.

The next best thing to getting free gear is of course getting to test out new gear hot off the presses, and while I hadn't necessarily planned on buying the new body, an opportunity to test it out to see if it was a worthwhile purchase for a wildlife and nature photographer like myself was something I jumped at. Plus, I figured, what better way to be able to tell all of my workshop and tour clientele that they NEED to get out and buy the latest and greatest from Canon (or vice versa, that they don't need to and can instead use that money to go on their 53rd trip with me).

Canon announced this splashy new 50.6 Megapixel camera body (there are actually two camera bodies, the 5DS and the 5DS R) as the "world's highest resolution full-frame camera" back in February, and the initial reviews have been favourable (my favourite in-depth review of the new camera bodies is over on the The Digital Picture by Bryan Carnathan).

The 50.6 MP Canon 5DS R camera body

So let's cut to the chase. I got the 5DS R body (identical to the 5DS body except that the low pass filter effect is cancelled on the R body, which when translated to normal english means that it's slightly sharper but may have some funky patterns going on in the background from time to time) on Tuesday of this week and promptly raced down to Kananaskis Country to see what I could find that a) was breathing, b) was moving, and c) was not human.

My entire goal, much like my review of the Canon super telephoto lenses back in December 2012 (the 400 vs the 600 and why I chose the 500 over the 400/600), was not to go into great technical detail about the camera body, but simply to test it and see if I liked it for real world photography. Is it sharp? Is it functional? Will it make me a better wildlife photographer? Can I see it also being useful in my landscape photography or for northern lights work? Would I ditch one of my beloved Canon 5D III workhorses for a 5DS R? And was this the trip into K-Country that would finally reveal the Yeti that I long suspected slept in the bathrooms at Highwood Pass after hours? Almost all valid questions that I wanted answers for....

So in case you don't really care about seeing the images and just want to know if you should go drop $4,300 Canadian on a spanky new 5DS R, my final findings can be summed up as such: Will this camera make you a better wildlife photographer? No, it will not. Would it be a useful tool in a photography kit for a wildlife photographer? Absolutely. Would it be a useful tool in a photography kit of a landscape photographer? Even more absolutely.

Straight out of the box and into my hands, the 5DS R is basically the 5D III with a different name on it. It feels the same, looks the same, and has similar menus and controls. It took me all of three minutes to customize this model to the specifications I wanted (for instance, I always change the Depth-of-Field Preview button so that it becomes a toggle between AI Servo and One Shot AF mode...that way I can be shooting in One Shot mode and if the animal starts moving, I hold down the Depth-of-Field Preview button and I'm instantly shooting in AI Servo mode tracking the movement of the beast -- this mimics what back button focusing accomplishes, which is good since I was never able to train myself to do back button focusing).

There were two things I was really impressed with off the bat with the 5DS R (besides drooling over the thought of blowing up a 50.6 MP wolf shot to the size of a small house and still having it be tack sharp): one, the redesigned shutter/mirror is super quiet even in regular 5 fps mode (1 less fps than the 5D III), which is a phenomenal improvement for wildlife photographers like me that hate those machine-gun clackings of bodies like the 1DX and the Nikon D4s. It's substantially quieter than even the 5D III in regular high-speed drive mode.

And two, the in-camera crop feature is one of the sexiest things I've ever seen in a camera. The ability to flick a menu 'switch' on the fly and move between full-frame (50.6 MP), 1.3x crop (30.5 MP) and 1.6x crop (19.6 MP) is addictive, ridiculously fun, and extremely useful for wildlife photography purposes. It's basically like having a 50 MP landscape body with a 7D II built into it (the 5DS R has the same AF system as the 7D II -- which is fantastic for wildlife shooters), since the 1.6x crop leaves you with the exact same size file as you'd get out of a 7D II.

So what does 50.6 MP look like when you first pull an image up on screen? If it's a sharp image (more about that later), then it looks out-of-this-world good.

A bighorn sheep ram in Kananaskis Country shot handheld ISO 640, 1/1250th at f5.6 with the Canon 5DS R

Click on the eyeball above to see a full 100% crop of this

Because of the size of the sensor, you do have to be cognizant of the fact that movement in wildlife photography gets amplified even more than it normally does, so I was already aware that getting sharp images with the 5DS R was going to require slightly higher shutter speeds and real attention to proper lens technique. But with that said, I still didn't really have an issue handholding my 500mm down to 1/500th of a second with the 5DS R, which is pretty close to what I handhold it at with my 5D III (I can get sharp shots down to about 1/320th sometimes handholding the 5D III).

As I believe I mentioned above, the in-camera crop factor is absolutely spectacular. Check out these two samples of what you can do in-camera, moving from full-frame to 1.3x crop to 1.6x crop all within a few seconds (click on the photos to see larger versions).

Full frame to 1.3x to 1.6x (click to enlarge)

1.6x to 1.3x to full frame (click to enlarge)

Now of course there's nothing stopping you from cropping a full frame shot after the fact in Lightroom to get the desired tighter shots, but there is just something about doing it in-camera that I found to be extremely useful in framing and composing shots. Plus, it's fun. Really fun.

Another aspect that I didn't realize regarding the in-camera crops was that you still get the full file. What this means is that you can go in and fix mistakes by re-cropping from the full frame file, even if you shot in 1.6x crop mode. Wish you hadn't cropped so much off the left side? Fix it in Lightroom from the full frame file after the fact! You can even un-crop if you find yourself wondering what the file would look like if you hadn't used the 1.6x crop mode.

My original shot of a pika, shot in 1.6x crop mode

The crop and full frame file in Lightroom, so I can now adjust my crop if I want to


The final crop, adjusted slightly so the pika is now dead center of the frame

I un-cropped this shot a bit, because I found it too tight and not quite sharp enough as I had composed it originally

Another feature of having such a large sensor to play with is that when I found myself shooting at high iso (iso 2500) late in the evening and getting shots that were quite noisy and not as sharp as a daytime shot might be, I was able to downsize them to the size of a 5D III file and eliminate most of the noise and sharpen up the image at the same time. Here's a sample of that:

Full frame moose at 50.6 MP, 100% view, not the noise and lack of sharpness (click to enlarge)

Downsized moose with noise reduction, 100% view, note increased clarity and sharpness (click to enlarge)

The final image, which would print well from 12"x18" up to 24"x36" -- 1/400th at f4, ISO 2500 -- 5DS R and 500mm

Overall, I was much more impressed with the Canon 5DS R camera body than I thought I would be. It's AF performance was fantastic, the files are absolutely unbelievable, and the ISO performance was only a step below the 5D III and a step above the 7D II. At 5 fps, it's still fast enough for wildlife photography, and I think anyone selling a lot of prints and/or looking to get into the high-end fine art wildlife print market should absolutely be picking one of these camera bodies up for their own kit.

Likewise, while I haven't had a chance to use the body for landscapes yet (I'm hoping Canon Canada will loan me one for my two back-to-back landscape photography workshops in the Bugaboos in early August so I can test it out some more -- any of you wanna-be nature photographers looking for something to do the week after next, the wildflowers are CRAZY this summer in the Bugs and we still have a few spots left in one of the workshops!), I can already see where the 5DS R would be a phenomenal landscape camera on par with many medium format cameras already out there.

Handheld with 500mm and Canon 5DS R at 1/1250th f5.6, ISO 640

Let me know if you thought this review was helpful or not in the Comments section below. Thanks everyone.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Banff's $67 Million Dollar Joke

As usual, it is a rant that gets me back onto my blog train. This time around, it's the federal government's announcement last Wednesday, July 15th, that the Bow Valley Parkway in Banff National Park is going to get a $67 million dollar facelift widening its shoulders to create a bike path between Banff and Lake Louise (under the guise that the changes will make it safer for cyclists and motorists, alike).

Fresh on the heels of a series of government sell-outs/development approvals in the core of our mountain national parks -- the ridiculous Skywalk at the Icefields in Jasper, the Mt Norquay gondola in Banff, and the Marmot Basin ski hill expansion in Jasper in the heart of endangered mountain caribou range -- this decision to widen the Bow Valley Parkway reeks of business interests getting their way once again within our national parks at the expense of ecological integrity (y'know, that minor thing the entire parks system was created to protect).

Will wildlife sightings along the Bow Valley Parkway become a thing of the past?

Who does this "infrastructure improvement" benefit? Certainly not the wildlife along the Bow Valley Parkway. Anyone that has driven the Trans-Canada Highway between Banff and Canmore in recent years can attest to the extraordinary popularity of the new Legacy Trail (a paved bike path that runs parallel to the Trans-Canada Highway between the two resort towns) and it's easy to count the impact it's had on local recreation between the towns. Yesterday, I drove that stretch of highway at 2:30 p.m. and counted 113 cyclists, runners, mountain bikers, skateboarders, and roller skiers using the 21-kilometer pathway. So now imagine how many recreational users are going to take advantage of the proposed new bike path along the Bow Valley Parkway, with broad, paved, 2.5-meter shoulders, and a leisurely, winding route through gorgeous montane and subalpine forests and meadows. It will be a zoo. A zoo without any animals in it, that is.

A number of years ago I was invited by Parks Canada to be on a Bow Valley Parkway (BVP) stakeholder committee to determine the future direction of the BVP in terms of wildlife management and visitor engagement. Specifically, one of our key tasks was to help determine whether or not Parks Canada should close certain parts of the Parkway during key times of the year to protect wildlife.

The process was long and drawn out over years worth of meetings, research, and communication between stakeholders. I held a unique position on the committee in that I was a member of the business community (I had business relationships with all three resorts on the BVP), yet I was also a vocal environmental advocate in the community, so I had close ties to many of the Parks representatives and the environmental organizations.

In the final meeting of the committee, I abstained from attending and instead submitted a seven-page letter which I had the chair of the committee read out loud. I knew that I was a potential 'swing' vote and I also knew that my decision was likely going to alienate myself from either the business community or the environmental community. Yet my choice was clear, despite the fact that closing the BVP during critical times of the year would impact my photography business directly financially, I was 100% in favour of the closure and chastised those who were putting their own business interests ahead of the interests of the park's wildlife.

From April 1st to June 25th each year now, the Bow Valley Parkway is closed to all traffic (including bikes and pedestrians) from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. each night to "give animals free rein to use the area and feed in the critical spring months following winter hibernation." Designed specifically to provide some relief to grizzly and black bears to forage on the BVP's wide right-of-ways that green up early each spring, the closure has also benefited local wolves, cougars, elk, and deer, among others.

The BVP closure was implemented to allow animals to feed freely along the roadside

The committee that I was a part of never did discuss widening the Bow Valley Parkway or making a designated bike path along it. Safety was not an issue, nor was increasing recreational use. After all, we had just agreed to decrease use. What we did discuss was how to make the BVP more wildlife-friendly so that visitors could see more wildlife along it: light more prescribed burns, create more meadow-like habitat using selective logging and thinning, add speed bumps to reduce speeding. 

We definitely did not discuss how we could turn the BVP into a wildlife-free zone during daylight hours, which is exactly what this proposed bike path and widening of the road will do for all but the most habituated animals. It's not hard to see that there will be a dramatic increase in bike and foot traffic, and that wider roads with broader shoulders will likely lead to an increase in speeding and reckless driving from locals and tourists. And it's critical to note that widening the Parkway will take away at least 5 meters of vital right-of-way, this same valuable roadside foraging habitat that the mandatory spring closure was supposed to allow animals easy access to.

So with more traffic, more disturbances (roadside wildlife reacts far more negatively to cyclists, for instance, than to vehicles), and less roadside forage for animals to eat, the end result is going to be a Bow Valley Parkway with a lot fewer wildlife sightings. It's a lose-lose situation: park visitors that drive the BVP to see wildlife lose out on that chance, and park wildlife loses out on getting to eat the fabulous roadside buffet of grasses, dandelions, willows, and berries that currently exists on the Parkway.

And that doesn't take into account the enormous, disruptive impact the construction process would have on everyone (wildlife and humans) for several summers in order to widen the road.

Would the widening of the BVP make it safer for motorists and cyclists as the July 15th federal announcement highlights? Absolutely. The road that has never had a cycling OR vehicular fatality on it would continue to be just as safe as it always has been, maybe even more so (a number of cyclists wondered aloud on Twitter this week why an already safe road needs to be made even safer). Meanwhile, the 1A highway west of Morley in our federal riding really does not have shoulders on it (the BVP actually already has shoulders and is quite easy to pull over safely on, particularly given the 60 km/hr speed limit) and is a constant source of fatalities, yet not a dime will be spent on that piece of infrastructure which runs through the Stoney Nakoda reserve. Maybe that's not as sexy as announcing big funding for our premier national park with the national election around the corner?

And what's being missed in all of this is that our national parks should not be prioritizing road biking over ecological integrity. People can road bike anywhere in the world, they cannot drive a beautiful, scenic 60 km/hr road and have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see bears and wolves anywhere in the world.

If the federal government really wants to spend that $67 million on something useful, then I suggest they use it to enrich existing wildlife habitat along the Bow Valley Parkway to truly enhance the visitor experience for everyone from wildlife photographers like myself to the family of five from India that is visiting Canada for the very first time in the hopes of seeing a wild bear in the mountains.  Spend that money on clearing the right-of-ways along the Icefields Parkway so that visitors and locals alike can see more wildlife along there and avoid collisions with animals that can step straight onto the road from the dense cover that lines that road for much of its length. Or take those valuable dollars and continue to build wildlife fencing along Highway 93 South in Kootenay National Park, which has long been a killing field for everything from moose and wolves to deer and bears.

And if you really have to build a bike path between Banff and Lake Louise, do it where it belongs: right beside the Trans-Canada Highway just like the existing Legacy Trail.

Got a Comment? Agree or Disagree? Let me know in the Comments section below.

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