Functionally extinct: the last northern white rhinos

Documenting a species that is on the verge of extinction proved a shoot like no other for Paolo Pellegrin. He reveals the story behind this project, discussing why less was more when creating images that pay tribute to the world's rarest animals.
Two northern white rhinos and a southern white rhino lie under a large bush at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, in a black and white photo taken on a Canon EOS R5 by Paolo Pellegrin.

Renowned photojournalist Paolo Pellegrin travelled to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya to photograph the world's last remaining northern white rhinos, Najin and Fatu. In some of the rhino photos, they are seen together with a southern white rhinoceros, a breed which, unlike the northern white rhinoceros, has a healthy population. "The mother and daughter came from a zoo and had to be reintroduced into the wild," explains Paolo. "This other rhino was their tutor." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 35mm, 1/400 sec, f/7.1 and ISO 125. © Paolo Pellegrin

Earlier this year, Paolo Pellegrin spent five days in Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya documenting the rhinos. "This story just seemed to encapsulate everything," he says. "They're wild animals, they're magnificent, the second largest [land] mammal in the world, and these are the last two of them." Looking at his images of Najin and Fatu, you're looking at a world that will soon cease to exist.

The pair of white rhinos are the only two remaining of their species on Earth, due to habitat loss and widespread historic and modern poaching for their horns. Following the death of the last male in 2014, a northern white rhino will never again be born naturally, although efforts are underway to preserve their DNA. In Paolo's minimalist, monochrome stills and moving images, you can sense the weight of their predicament and, at the same time, the strength, wonder and grace of working with these extraordinary 3,000kg creatures.

"In our day-to-day lives, we're not confronted by wild animals," says Paolo. "We might have a cat, but this is completely different." A Magnum member, Paolo is a renowned photojournalist and the winner of multiple awards for his images of conflicts and natural disasters across the globe. More recently, he has turned his attention to covering ecological stories, photographing glaciers melting, volcanoes, and seeing these geological phenomena as part of a living, breathing whole.

A ranger stands behind a northern white rhino. Only the ranger's silhouette and the rhino's back and stomach are visible against the sky in a black and white photo taken on a Canon EOS R5 by Paolo Pellegrin.

The relationship between the conservancy's rangers and the beasts was important not only logistically in helping the Italian photojournalist make a connection with the animals but also as a theme in his work. "We are there, trying to read them, but they do exactly the same with us," a ranger told Paolo. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 70mm, 1/5300 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 125. © Paolo Pellegrin

Building connection

In order to be able to make these images, Paolo had to earn the rhinos' trust. "Everything is very slow, very deliberate," he says. "You're lying on the ground, trying to get them used to your presence, gaining a little proximity every day, entering their mental space. As a photographer, you want to become invisible or to disappear in a situation but visibility is achieved through extreme visibility, through presence and connection."

Two rangers, who work closely with the animals and appear in some images, supported him in building that rapport. "They have established this quasi-spiritual bond," says Paolo. "It was wonderful to watch this unspoken communication, made of gestures and very slight, very calculated movements."

Paolo was also assisted by the silent shutter mode on his Canon EOS R5. "I was on the ground, essentially crawling inch by inch towards them," he remembers. In that perfect stillness which could easily be shattered by any distraction, "the silent shutter mode was crucial".

The EOS R5, Paolo's go-to camera, had other advantages too. "It's small and that makes a difference in terms of the weight but also in terms of the presence of the camera," he continues. "I also find the files extraordinary and the focus unreal. You can set the focus to lock and track both eyes for humans or animals and to switch between eyes. That feature is really quite something."

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A northern white rhino grazes on grass as a person's hand reaches towards the rhino's horn, in a black and white photo taken on a Canon EOS R5 by Paolo Pellegrin.

There is a strong contrast between light and dark throughout Paolo's images. "My main light source is a backlight," he says. "I shoot against the sun." The rhinos often appear as silhouettes, adding to the bold compositional approach Paolo uses. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 28mm, 1/500 sec, f/8 and ISO 160. © Paolo Pellegrin

A northern white rhino casts a shadow while lying on the ground, in a black and white photo taken on a Canon EOS R5 by Paolo Pellegrin.

Paolo's approach to composition in this series is stripped right back. "I was trying to connect with their inner silence so I didn't want any formal decision or artistry to interfere with that," he says. In some shots of their bodies, you could, at first, think you were looking at a mountain range. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 34mm, 1/500 sec, f/8 and ISO 200. © Paolo Pellegrin

Led by the subject

Paolo travelled to Kenya with a journalist who was writing up the story. Each morning, he'd be up early, conscious of the animals' schedule. It was baking hot so the rhinos would take long mud baths to cool themselves down, eating grass or napping. Paolo was fascinated by their slumbering forms.

"It became key, especially with the moving image," he says. "They were never fully asleep. They're shortsighted but they have an exceptional sense of hearing so when they sleep, their ears are always active."

They slept side-by-side, giving them 360° coverage of any sounds that could alert them to danger. The moments of sleep represented their dependence on each other, an offering of vulnerability. "It was like a gift," says Paolo.

At night, a northern white rhino stands under a tree while another sits to its left, in a black and white photo taken on a Canon EOS R5 by Paolo Pellegrin.

Many of Paolo's images have a low perspective. This is a result of how he needed to behave around the animals – staying close to the ground so as not to startle them – but it also emphasises their size and charisma. "It is the subject that informs the photography," he says. "What I understand, what I experience, what I feel decides which way the photography will go." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 70mm, 1/50 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 6400. © Paolo Pellegrin

A different take

As night fell, the rhinos would move to another area of the conservancy. On the third or fourth day of the shoot, Paolo asked the rangers if he could move with the beasts. Taking pictures in this environment had a different atmosphere. "Maybe because of the darkness or because this was their space," he explains. "It felt intense, more wild."

While other photographers have photographed the rhinos, they have generally done so during the day. Paolo's night-time shots give a lesser-seen perspective. The impressive low-light capabilities of Paolo's Canon EOS R5 came into their own in this scenario.

Pared-back frames

"As photographers, we have this rectangle through which to see the world," says Paolo. "For years, I tried to fill the rectangle with as much information, as much life, as possible. My mentors all used articulate, complex compositions." Now, his approach is the opposite. "It's a more subtractive type of photography, closer in a sense to sculpture," he continues. "You have your block of marble, and you take away in order to reveal the essence."

Some images are shot in extreme close-up, revealing the surface of the rhinos' skin in intricate detail. "The image almost becomes a landscape," says Paolo, reminding us visually of the creatures' place within their environment.

The Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland erupting with lava flowing out of it and smoke filling the sky. This image was captured by Paolo Pellegrin on a Canon EOS R5.

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His kitbag was simple, too, containing one Canon EOS R5 and two lenses – the Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM and RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM. "I shot with the RF 28-70mm F2L USM 90% of the time, which is by far the best lens I've ever worked with," says Paolo. "It's incredibly fast and has real beauty and texture."

Using this setup, Paolo created a body of work that combines portraits of the rhinos with closer, almost abstract shots of their skin. He endeavoured to create "images which are both aesthetically pleasing but also go a little bit beyond that, and make the viewers feel something about these creatures".

A northern white rhino lies on the grass in Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, filmed on a Canon EOS R5 by Paolo Pellegrin.

Moving images

In recent years, Paolo has been increasingly experimenting with video (see above). "Photography is so limited," he says. "Some of its power comes from its limitations because it requires the viewer to actively engage. But in some situations such as war, for example, where the sound of shelling is so rattling, you can't render that through still composition."

This was one of those situations. "In the photographs of them sleeping, they look serene, but there's something interesting that happens with video," he continues. "You hear the buzzing of little insects, the wind that moves the grass and the leaves." The combination of both still and moving images allows Paolo to tell a richer story.

Canon's hybrid products lend themselves to this multi-layered, multimedia approach. "It started with having a camera that had these capabilities," says Paolo. "At first I didn't really know what to do with it. With every new generation, it becomes more accessible. You have to take advantage of the opportunities. Photography progresses alongside technology. Now we have these tools which offer great video and great photography, which is awesome, I have to say."

On the last of those five days, Paolo had earned the rhinos' trust to the point that he was able to reach out and put his hand on them. "That was the endpoint of a journey, sealed by this physical touch," he says.

A northern white rhino grazes on grass, photographed against the sun in a black and white taken low to the ground, on a Canon EOS R5 by Paolo Pellegrin.

"We live in the Anthropocene – the era in which humans are the direct cause of mass extinctions, globally," says Paolo. "But it is rare to witness the extinction of well-known, charismatic fauna, like the northern white rhinoceros. More common is the disappearance of insects or small animals, such as birds or rodents or fish. Here, we are watching it in real time." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 70mm, 1/640 sec, f/8 and ISO 250. © Paolo Pellegrin

Not all of us can get so close to these animals. But through these images, we can sense secondhand the awe they inspire. Conservation is about care. Species extinction can seem abstract and not be at the forefront of a person's mind as we don't see wild animals in our day-to-day lives, but the power of a photographer is capturing the story, the details and the power of wildlife to remind us to fight for the species that remains. Time has run out for the northern white rhinoceros but photography like Paolo's encourages us to fight for other endangered species, instead of watching them slip away forever.

Rachel Segal Hamilton

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