Four years ago, a stretch of arid plain outside Thika, Kenya, was home to many zebras. By 2014, when photographer Nick Brandt visited, it was a busy construction site, and the zebras were gone.
In Kenya–one of the fastest-growing economies in the world–the pace of development is one of several reasons that wildlife are disappearing. In Inherit the Dust, a photo series and book, Brandt takes giant life-sized images of African wildlife and puts them back in the landscapes where they used to live.
“Having been traveling to East Africa for the last 15 years and seeing what’s becoming of the natural world there, what’s completely shocked and disturbed me is the rapid escalation of devastation to the environment in the last few years,” Brandt says.
Brandt spent a few months visiting factories, dumps, and highway overpasses in Africa, at times working with as many as 23 people to set up his massive photographs and align the horizon so the animals looked like part of the scene.
People there tended to ignore the installations. “Most people had way, way more important stuff to be thinking about on a daily basis than some crazy white guy putting a life-sized panel of an elephant on a dump site,” he says. “We’re talking about people who are struggling to survive.”
For the photographs, that was the effect he wanted. The animals look like ghosts in the modern landscape, and the people walking by aren’t thinking about them. That’s also one of the challenges of conservation: If people have more important things to worry about–and in some cases, may have recently lost their own homes in rural areas–why should they fight for wildlife conservation?
Brandt says there’s an economic argument for it, at least in places with an infrastructure for nature tourism. “In the areas where those animals still are, it’s pretty much arid, semi-desert, with very few opportunities for industrial development,” he says. “Pragmatically speaking, the economic benefit of preserving those animals and those ecosystems is massive.”
If a poacher and trader can make $20,000 killing an elephant, the local economy could make an estimated $1.6 million in tourism money over the course of the elephant’s life.
“As more and more areas of Africa are annihilated environmentally, more and more animal populations are destroyed,” Brandt says. “Those that remain will become ever more precious and highly valued, and so the world will come see them. In terms of long-term economic benefit, they have something quite unique and quite extraordinary.”
Brandt now runs a nonprofit organization that protects 2 million acres of land in Africa, and the photos are intended as a call to action. “Where I am right now in California, there used to be woolly mammoths and saber-tooth tigers and American cheetahs . . . and now they’re gone, wiped out by humans thousands of years ago,” he says. “In Africa, the equivalent extraordinary animals do still exist. It’s not too late.”
All Photos: Nick Brandt