Chronicles of the Black Forest
Born in 1964, in Oberwolfach in BadenWürttemberg, Germany, Klaus grew up in a family of restaurateurs, and spent 10 years as a chef, before finally finding his calling as a forest ranger in 1988. His involvement in nature conservation largely shaped his approach to photography, and his images highlight this connection. Klaus’ visuals aim to show behavioural patterns, ecological contexts, species habitats, and the relationship between humans and wildlife. Although his travels have taken him across the globe, the beauty and the distinct features of the local flora and fauna in the Black Forest region are especially dear to him. Klaus has received international recognition through his images, including The Fritz Pölking Award 2011, and several accolades at the annual European Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards. Since 2002, he has also served as a member of the GDT (Society of German Nature Photographers).
Welcome to Saevus, Klaus. Let’s begin with the Black Forest in southwest Germany that has featured in so many of your images. What caught your attention about this ecosystem from the start?
I feel that the landscape I grew up in and the beauty of nature I was surrounded by were both exceptionally important and formative in my life. For me, the Black Forest, with its high average rainfall is something special; it has a green cover from the ground up to the crown of the trees. This place is my very own rainforest in the middle of Europe.
From being a self-described ‘pub kid’ in a family of restaurateurs to a Forest Ranger and finally a celebrated nature photographer—how much has your background contributed to your understanding of wildlife photography?
Through my travels to different countries in North America, Southern Europe, and Asia, I began to appreciate my homeland and its natural beauty even more. There are lots of gorgeous places all over the world to work in as a nature photographer, but often the magic is in your own backyard. Taking pictures at home, however, does not mean working for only 3-4 days or whenever you get a break. In my experience, I’ve realized that to truly appreciate and understand any region, one has to observe and learn about nature every single day of the year, and take plenty of chances. You have to be at the right place at the right time, familiarize yourself with the lighting and atmospheric conditions; essentially, you have to understand the heart of the place.
A lot of the intention behind your photography is not just to document aesthetic visuals but also contribute to the understanding of animal behavior and habitats. How do you generally approach a subject or theme in this regard?
As a semi-professional photographer with regular work taking up 40 hours of my week, the only way I can take meaningful pictures is through constantly studying my subject before shooting. Often I work on projects for years. At times, when I need particular knowledge about a place or a species, I work alongside a specialist who helps me with detailed information on animals and animal behavior. Lastly, technical know-how is quite crucial to the process as well—especially, knowing how to work with remote initiation, light barrier trigger control—and other related situations that may occur in the wild. Fortunately, I’ve always received great support from all my collaborators and my equipment so far.
Tell our readers more about your experience with ‘Sophie’ – the young vixen that you documented for over several months in the wild. What has this interaction taught you in terms of managing human-wildlife conflict?
At the beginning of my professional training as a forest ranger, I saw several instances of the seemingly problematic coexistence of humans and wild animals. On one of my regular patrols in the forest, I had the chance of observing a small fox that I suspected was the same
Black a resident had complained to me about earlier. Within a week, I received another call from a professional forestry scientist, Anna Rummel, about a young fox playing near a raised hide. It was the same one! Together, she and I accompanied the little vixen we christened Sophie, for more than six months. She was initially shy, but responded slowly with a great deal of trust towards the two of us, though she became naturally timid if anyone else approached. Through my daily observations of her routine, I even discovered new places in the forest that I thought I knew so well; though, like most animals in the wild, her main period of activity was in the hours between day and night.
A day came when Sophie no longer turned up—it was possible that she had found a mate or left in search of another territory. The whole period of our interaction, however, told me a great deal about human-animal relationships. Sophie taught me to interact calmly with my surroundings, and her confidence and trust in me only heightened my sense of responsibility towards the environment. A great deal of my intention behind creating photo stories is to stir up enthusiasm and tolerance for creatures like Sophie in the wild, that would allow them to coexist peacefully alongside us. Wild animals in our surroundings should be met with the equanimity and tolerance that Sophie showed us.
As a forest ranger for over 20 years, what are the changes that you’ve seen creeping up on the environment that you’ve grown up in? What, in your opinion, are some of the most pertinent threats to the ecology and biodiversity of the Black Forest?
Well, on one hand, some areas of the forest are being exploited by the commercial forestry industry, as the market demand for wood rises and becomes a real threat. Other parts are also being extensively used for the purposes of tourism, recreation, and sport. Then again, positive developments include the return or increase in the number of some animal species, such as the Three-toed Woodpecker, the Wildcat, the Eagle Owl, and also a few lynxes. Most importantly, however, global warming and climate change is serving up huge challenges. The Black Forest is located at a middle elevation; the highest mountain is only at about 1400m. This means that animals dwelling in the higher regions (submontane animals and plant species such as the capercaillie) have no chance of finding new habitats to live in with the shift in ecological climate. Consequently, these species may not have a long-term future in these forests.
Europe is right now seeing a wave of ‘rewilding’ and some of the news is fabulous! But is there something that you as a ranger and conservationist would want to raise caution about? Is Europe ready to live with the idea of large carnivores living in close proximity?
There is one thing I’ve noticed with regard to this issue. The residents of western European nations, who were responsible for the eradication of wolves, bears, and lynxes over hundred years ago are, even today, afraid of living alongside wild animals. In contrast, people and cultures that have been living with animals since aeons—the position of tigers in India and lions in Africa, for example—are further receptive to opening up more spaces for the natural world. In my opinion, I don’t think most people in Europe are prepared to accept or live with wildlife in close proximity. Such a major step would first require that we change our behavior and attitude towards the wild—and creating this change itself is going to be quite a long journey.
Your assignments have taken you to several amazing wildlife destinations across the world. Do share some memorable moments from these expeditions that have remained with you till date.
One of the most memorable moments in my life occurred during an expedition to Deer Cave in Mulu National Park, Sarawak, Borneo. As I stood at the entrance of one of the largest cave passages in the world, I heard the sound made by over three million bats as they were leaving the cave. I remember being there for more than an hour; standing 50-100m below their rushing wings as they flew out of the cave in the evening. It was a truly emotional moment, and difficult to put into words. Incidentally, the Bat Observatory in this area has a Bat Cam fitted at the entrance, a surveillance tool that allows visitors and scientists to observe these millions of bats (ranging over 30 species) that live inside the Deer Cave, without affecting their habitat or habits.
As a conservationist and a photographer, what would be your message to the several budding shutterbugs in India, who wish to put their art to serious use?
Photography opens up a lot of possibilities, especially in terms of creating awareness and enthusiasm for the natural world. Eye-catching images are an emotional and authentic way of communicating the stories of nature— both landscapes and wildlife—to people from all parts of the world. Even without words, powerful photographs can generate a strong appeal and directly aid in the cause of conservation of the wild. Though, of course, nature photographers must maintain decorum while shooting in forests; and ensure that the local flora and fauna are not damaged in their pursuit to get a good shot.
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