Have you reached #pandemic saturation point yet? The only respite I seem to get from…
In case you missed it, on 13 August, Canberra got a new hero. His name Is Ken Behrens.
The situation unfolded like this. Despite being more than 18 months into the global COVID-19 pandemic, the ACT had so far escaped relatively unscarred. But last week we were forced into a snap lockdown as cases started to emerge in the community.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr hit the media airwaves to thank Canberrans for doing the right thing. Except the machine learning technology used to generate the closed captions for the TV translated it as “Ken Behrens.”
But with my curious journo hat on, I wondered…Who this Ken Behrens that the AI technology actually recognised by name?
Well, I found him. In Madagascar. And he’s amazing.
Ken, it must have been odd to find yourself suddenly thrown into the spotlight over the other side of the world due to an AI mistake. (And as well as going viral, there are now there are Ken Behrens T-shirts and Facebook photo frames). What has this experience been like at your end?
It’s certainly out of the blue! Actually, in multiple weird ways, it’s the pandemic that has brought me and my “namesake city” together. Because of the pandemic, I had lots of extra time with which I created a personal website and started a podcast. It seems that this resulted in AI algorithms picking up my name, and producing the now-viral mistranscription!
In working as a natural history guide, I have had quite a few guests who were Australian, and without exception, they have had a great sense of humor. So I can easily imagine how funny this whole thing has become in Canberra, and I’m glad it’s providing some fun during a tough time.
How is Covid impacting things in Madagascar and your own work as a wildlife photographer?
Prior to the pandemic, my main job was guiding natural history tours. That line of work evaporated instantly. Thankfully I have been able to do consulting and some other things to make a living. Many of the local guides, drivers, and other folks who subsist on tourism here in Madagascar have not been so lucky.
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In a couple of sentences, tell us a little about the real Ken Behrens.
I’m a passionate photographer, field naturalist, world traveller, and biologist. I work as a guide for Tropical Birding, and as a consultant for Pitta Environmental Consulting and Promised Land Ventures. I have co-authored several natural history books, including a guide to the wildlife of Madagascar, the Indian Ocean island that is my adopted home.
I’m also the co-host of a podcast called Naturally Adventurous, about wildlife, travel, adventure, and lots of related topics. I think we need to do an episode soon about Canberra!
How did you become a wildlife photographer? What draws you to it?
My passion for nature started as a young kid, when I was obsessed with various things including coyotes, snakes, mountains, flowers, and pretty much everything wild. At around 11 years old I really started to focus on birds.
At the beginning, I was just observing them, as film photography was too expensive for a kid. In the mid-2000s, I started writing a book called Seawatching: Eastern Waterbirds in Flight about how to identify eastern North American waterbirds on the wing. Esoteric topic I know! Creating this book required a bunch of images that simply didn’t exist, which drove me to take up photography. Since then, it has become a huge part of how I travel and interact with the natural world.
During this stressful period in world history (the pandemic, encroaching climate catastrophe, the Taliban in Afghanistan) I started looking at the photos on your website and became completely and delightfully distracted and enchanted.
How do you find the image you are looking for (and how do you know when you’ve snapped the perfect one)?
I’m not a true professional photographer, in the sense of being someone who spends weeks trying to get a single image that they envisioned long in advance. I’m more opportunistic, taking photos as I guide other people, or in conjunction with hiking or birding, where the focus is more on observation than on capturing photos.
When I do single-mindedly pursue one photograph, it tends to be of a creature that nobody or only a few people have ever photographed before. I also do a lot of recording of natural sounds, many of which are poorly known or completely undescribed.
One quick example on which I’m currently focused is the calls of the more than 100 species of lemurs that are restricted to Madagascar.
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You’re also an ecologist, so I wonder what message you are trying to give the public through your stunning work?
Not everybody needs to be a photographer or a hardcore outdoors person, but connecting with the natural world in some way will be life-affirming and healthy for anyone. So I hope that seeing my photos inspires people to seek out wild creatures and places for themselves. Once you’re experienced this stuff, it’s also natural to work to conserve it for future generations.
I hope that through guiding people, photography, and various other things, I can make some contribution to conserving the natural world. Actually, my family and I have recently taken a direct step towards conserving Madagascar’s threatened forests. We bought a tract of land, and started a reforestation project, planting thousands of indigenous trees.
As an ecologist, how worried are you about the latest IPCC report issuing a “code red” for humanity?
I’m afraid that we may be reaching a tipping point in terms of our impact on the globe. Whether this point is reached in 5, 50, or 500 years, that’s a blink of the eye in biological time. We have to change course. This is ultimately a human question. And it’s not about protecting nature reserves just so people like me can go pursue their hobbies. It’s about keeping this globe habitable for ourselves, our kids, and future generations. If humans manage to drive themselves extinct, many other creatures will survive, and the “natural world” will carry on without us. So as I say, in my view, any concern about the environment is ultimately a human concern.
One thing that I’ve come to see while living in Madagascar is that improving humans’ relationship with the environment requires alleviating poverty. It’s hard to worry about the natural world if you’re on the edge of survival. But the vast majority of people are happy to preserve natural environments once they reach a reasonable level of prosperity.
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Have you got a favourite photo or a moment out in the field that’s most memorable to you?
One of my favourite moments and photos was in Etosha National Park, in the African country of Namibia. I drove up to a waterhole and noticed a lioness that was almost concealed in a clump of grass. When a herd of antelope approached, she completely hid herself. A young oryx came the closest, and when it was within a few meters, the lioness sprung from cover.
She still had to chase the oryx for several agonizing and exhilarating seconds, during which I managed to snap this photo. Once the hapless antelope was down, an entire pride of a dozen lions emerged from the surrounding vegetation and feasted. They had been completely hidden before! Most folks tend to empathize with prey animals, which is natural, but we also have to remember that life is quite tough for these big predators. Every time they want to eat they face the daunting task of catching another animal, and they’re also under huge pressure from humans.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to Canberrans about becoming an accidental overnight sensation here (and the current crisis)?
In response to Chief Minister Andrew Barr’s kind words, I’d like to say “You’re welcome” ;p. Though please don’t tell him that I’m not actually at home right now!
Feature image: Ken Behrens at Mandrare River Camp, Madagascar. Credit: Bill Klipp