The story behind the winning image: “Forest elephants are collateral damage to the global mining industry”

A photograph highlighting the heart-breaking impact of human greed on the existence of African forest elephants by Jesper Doest has taken out top prize in the annual Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation Environmental Photography Awards. Here are the other winners and finalists.

It’s difficult to imagine the hardships that the planet, its animals and ecosystems are facing when standing on the pristine Larvotto Promenade in the privileged Principality of Monaco, but somehow this serves as the perfect contrast to the photographs that are now on display here.

This large-scale exhibition features the shortlisted images of the 2023 Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation Environmental Photography Awards, conveying to the public the environmental values that are dear to Monaco’s Sovereign and the Principality, and raising awareness of the issues facing the planet.

From a property completely inundated by flood waters in northern Italy to a family coexisting with rising sea levels in Indonesia, a spectacular butterfly colony in Mexico to a jaguar hunting a crocodile in South America, and a caged panda in China to the “Covid-waste” now endangering underwater life in the Mediterranean, these photographs are as shocking as they are beautiful. They document humanity’s relationship with nature, and ultimately how human and planetary health are intertwined.

‘Captive’ by Marcus Westberg, shortlisted in the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation Environmental Photography Awards 2023, exhibited on the Larvotto Promenade. Photo by Monaco Life

A competition designed to make an impact  

The Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation Environmental Photography Awards, now in its third year, received more than 10,000 submissions from across the globe. The aim is to reward photographers who put their creativity to good use in raising awareness on environmental protection.

There are five categories to the competition: Polar Wonders, Humanity Versus Nature, Ocean Worlds, Into The Forest, and Change Makers: Reasons for Hope.

“The idea that led to the creation of this contest is our main mission to make the general public aware of the protection of the environment,” said the Foundation’s Vice President Olivier Wenden during a ceremony on Thursday night. “You will see again this year that this last category represents the barest part of the exhibition; there are still not enough innovations to be proud of, but this number is increasing year by year and we are therefore very happy to be able to contribute to it.”

The winners were selected by a prestigious jury of professional photographers led by Sergio Pitamitz, an award-winning wildlife and conservation photographer with National Geographic.

“What we were looking for were images that conveyed a message of conservation, that can have an effect to help a species or conserve an endangered environment,” said Pitamitz.

‘Reconnaissance’ by Suliman Alatizi, Ocean Worlds Category. Photo by Monaco Life

“What I witnessed was one of the toughest situations I have ever faced”

The photograph that won the grand prize is titled ‘Fight to the death’, by Jaspere Doest. This heart-rending image shows a scared and defiant elephant that had been struck by a freight train in the Lopé National Park in Gabon.

Jasper Doest explained his story behind the image, which was taken while on assignment for National Geographic.

“During a two-month period, I had the privilege of walking among African forest elephants in the lush green forest they call home. It sustains about 70% of the remaining African forest elephant population, making it crucial for its survival.

“Towards the end of my assignment, I received news that a forest elephant had been hit by a train transporting manganese from Rwanda towards the Gabon capital Libreville, and I was able to join the anti-poacher units who were on route to secure the ivory. I’d expected to find the elephant’s lifeless body alongside the railway track, but to my shock upon arrival, it was still alive. The collision had shattered the elephant’s right hip and sadly the elephant could not be saved. The park director made the decision to help the elephant out of his misery and distribute the meat to the local community.

“The guard assigned to shoot the animal ended up missing and only caused a nonfatal wound. Unfortunately, there was only one bullet available, which led to impatient bystanders taking matters into their own hands. In the midst of the chaos, the elephant fought for his life and retaliated by spraying water at the crowd after one of them attempted to cut off its trunk with a machete.

“What I witnessed was one of the toughest situations I have ever faced. And I had to remind myself out loud that my rule was not to judge, although it would have been very easy to do so. As I recall this gruesome scene along the railway, I am haunted not only by the tragedy that occurred, but mainly by the larger story of human greed that lies behind it.”


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This railway track that runs through the National Park transports valuable minerals, including the dietary supplement manganese, accounting for 11% of the country’s exports. Train incidents are common because the track intersects many wildlife corridors along the way. But as Doest explained, the railway company refuses to reduce train speed.

The manganese mine is operated by a European company headquartered in Paris.

“African forest elephants are on the brink of extinction, but they’re seen as collateral damage to the global mining industry,” explained the photographer. “While it’s tempting to assign blame, I would like to believe that this photograph has the power to inspire change for those willing to take responsibility, and upon receiving this award, I would like to extend the invitation to all parties involved to come together and have a meaningful discussion on how we can collectively put an end to the continuous killing of these critically endangered animals.”

Jasper Doest won both the grand prize as well as the public award for his photograph.

“I see the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation’s Environmental Photography Award as a powerful catalyst for positive change, and I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity to be part of it this year,” he continued.

After Monaco, the exhibition of shortlisted images will tour various locations around the world, and will also be printed in a high-quality photography book.

To see all of the shortlisted images, and read the stories behind them, click here. A QR code beside each image in the exhibition also provides a detailed description.


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