I’m a wildlife photojournalist, my work and my personal project focus on stories related to wildlife conservation. I’ve seen first-hand the destruction left behind by the horrific illegal wildlife trade.
After years of shielding myself from this industry because I felt helpless and wasn’t sure I could handle it emotionally, I made a pivot in my career. I now focus my time photographing people around the world who dedicate their lives to helping animals and bringing wildlife conservation stories to life. My project has been published in The Washington Post, National Geographic, and Greenpeace, but this article has no affiliation with any of those publications.
I’ve documented the people out there on the front lines protecting and aiding animals while risking their lives in the process. I’ve patrolled with rangers in Kenya that have been fired upon by deadly poachers trying to execute endangered rhinos just so they can sell the horn to some imbecile and power-hungry person in a far-off land who thinks it will help them have better sex or even cure their cancer — the stupidity and ignorance baffle me.
I’ve spent time in the Malaysian jungle with a woman who had to set up an illegal sanctuary (now she has full government approval) for rescued gibbons, saved from pet traders who operate out in the open and post pictures and do business on Facebook and Instagram. She’s had her life threatened by these monsters because some attention-hungry celebrities think it would be cute to have a baby gibbon as a pet and yearn to boost their following and thirst for more coveted likes… all the while ignoring that to catch that one baby gibbon, a whole family of gibbons was most likely slaughtered during the process because gibbons will fight to the death to defend their families, but no, they don’t have feelings.
Let that sink in, a woman who uses her own money and time has had her life constantly threatened and she must live with that in her mind every day because there is enough demand out there that think it would be cute to have a gibbon as a pet. That brings us to the Tiger King docuseries on Netflix.
Just as this COVID-19 outbreak was taking over the world and the release of Tiger King was taking the entertainment industry by storm, I was at a pangolin sanctuary in SE Asia working on my personal project. I was documenting the incredible team at Save Vietnam’s Wildlife laboring on a thankless and impossible battle rescuing and rehabilitating pangolins to be released back into the wild.
That’s a whole separate gruesome industry that I won’t get into now, but you can see more here. During my time there I came across a baby tiger that was confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade.
That poor baby tiger wailed all day in its small cage awaiting its fate, never mind the unbearable terror it must have suffered already with its captors. The pangolin center doesn’t have the funding nor the facilities to keep the tigers full time and the tigers can’t be released into the wild of Vietnam for a variety of reasons. The tiger was smuggled across the border to Vietnam coming from who knows where originally and they were destined to either be sold as pets or to be shipped off somewhere else for another sorry excuse for a human’s amusement or ending up in a private zoo, not so different than Joe Exotic’s.
The tiger might have even ended up butchered and sold for its bones, which are made into a gummy substance and used in traditional medicine in some Asian countries (again with no proven medicinal value). Even though they were rescued, now they will end up in a poorly funded national zoo instead of being free to roam in their native forests. Imagine the anguish.
Okay, back to the Tiger King and my frustrations with the narrative that surrounds it. From an entertainment standpoint, it has all the ingredients for a viral series: mullets, murder, and mayhem (I’m aware their slogan is different, but that’s how I like to describe it). Tiger, ligers, and groupie cougars, pure visual pleasure, I too enjoyed it from a pure entertainment perspective, but we need to look deeper and change the dialog around it.
I feel the filmmakers missed a chance at the end of this series to do more to educate the audience about the illegal wildlife trade and to hold these people responsible for their contributions to it. Even if it was just briefly, I wish they provided ways that we as a society can help fight this industry. This is not political, not an issue that should be polarizing — it’s inhumane, and it would’ve been the right thing to do to point the finger.
To their credit, they do mention a fact on how more tigers exist in captivity in the US than in the wild but I was left hungry for more. I do understand it’s hard to include everything in a documentary for an industry as complex as this. I hope they use this series to raise more awareness, I feel they have a responsibility to do so. I’m not solely blaming the filmmakers, I feel as a society we are taking the easy way out and not engaging in the right conversations.
I’m not here to point fingers or play the blame game as that is rarely, if ever, productive. Rather, I hope this article serves as an eye-opener to an abominable industry that affects more than just animals, people are dying and ecosystems are being disrupted and destroyed. I was optimistic that the series might serve as a wake-up call to the public, politicians, and governments but I haven’t seen that so far and it’s frustrating.
On Twitter, Facebook, and talking with friends, the discussion revolves around the trashy personas of these idiots and in some regards, celebrates them. I totally understand that we gravitate to Netflix and entertainment in general as escapism, but occasionally we have an obligation to make changes, to stand up what is right. Sometimes we need to act, sometimes we need to give voice to the voiceless and this is one of those times. This industry is horrendous, you see just a glimpse of it in Tiger King but that’s only a fraction of what’s truly out there.
I’m hoping after all the entertainment value wears off and we stop singing “I saw tiger and tiger saw man”,( I admit it is catchy) that we as humans will remember to have compassion and do the right thing. I feel the director and the general public focuses too much on the sensational aspect and while there were buckets of it, they missed an opportunity here to change the discussion on what’s important. At the same time, they’ve done what any good documentary hopes to achieve, they’ve introduced us to a world and forced us to start a dialog and I applaud them for that and they don’t shoulder all the blame.
Now it’s time to shift the dialog away from sensationalism and trashiness and towards an important issue. So, from my side of things, here is a list of a few things you can do to make a difference, I hope you can find it in your heart to do so.
1. First and foremost, stop bringing your families to these awful places. It’s more than these private zoos, elephant “sanctuaries”, SeaWorld, etc., just stop contributing to their existence. Flipper the dolphin performing at a tourist aquarium was most likely captured in the sea and he’s not smiling, he’s miserable, any marine biologist that studies dolphins will tell you that. Flipper was probably captured in Japan and many other dolphins were probably killed during the process. See the incredible work of these people here.
Not all of them are bad, many government zoos do some amazing research and conservation work and some sanctuaries are actual sanctuaries for animals that can’t go back into the wild for one reason or another. Just do your research, a quick search online and you can learn the truth, you owe it to yourself and your families to know what you are funding. Many of us have a friend in conservation, ask them, they can tell you if a place is good or bad.
2. Instead of going to these places, visit a museum or go to the library and sit with your children and teach them about nature or better yet, check out a book and sit in nature and learn together.
3. Stop with the traditional medicine excuse, most of that stuff has no medicinal value at all and it’s killing the wildlife kingdom at an alarming rate and wreaking havoc on our environment. If you live in Asia (where this is more prevalent) have a discussion with your parents who might take rhino horn and tiger bones. I know that can be a daunting task, but just try to have a dialog about it.
4. Remember the rangers and caretakers out there with families just like yours risking their lives to protect these animals from deadly poachers and criminals, remember their faces.
5. Write to your government representatives and research which politicians are in favor of strict animal welfare laws and stronger enforcement of these policies.
6. Talk about these issues with your children. Teach them how to respect wildlife and the people who protect them.
7. Encourage your schools to have a conservation expert as a guest speaker and advocate for wildlife education programs and extra-curricular actives. Children are inheriting this world that we’ve made worse, help them make it better starting from an early age.
8. Report illegal activity to local authorities.
9. Donate what you can or volunteer at a local animal shelter.
10. If you see friends posting pictures visiting these places I mentioned earlier, have a discussion. You don’t need to be preachy or do it publicly, just have an honest discussion with them about it and share what you know.
For more ways to help, I’m going to rely on and invite the prodigious and well-informed animal welfare and conservation community to join in the dialog and add their ideas to the comments section.
I’m sure I’ll receive nasty comments and ignorant responses but I hope the good outweighs the bad and I’m optimistic some of you can find it in your heart to care and more importantly act to help our wildlife family.
My hopes are that the Tiger King doesn’t become a tiger fling with the discussion fizzling out and ending up with all of us remembering it as just a comical documentary about crazy tiger people. This is a rare opportunity to turn this viral craze into concrete actions and a thoughtful dialog and to shed a blinding spotlight on this horrendous industry that all countries contribute to, even the USA. Try to remember this during your next Tiger King conversation.
I’d like to thank my dear friend Marc for engaging me in a conversation about this topic thus inspiring me to write this article.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
About the author: Justin Mott is an award-winning editorial, travel, and commercial photographer and director based in Vietnam for over a decade. Mott has shot over 100 assignments throughout Vietnam and Southeast Asia for the New York Times covering tragedy, travel, features, business, and historical moments. You can find more of his work on his website, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram. This article was also published here.