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World Press 2014: The Plight of the Fennec Fox

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An adult fennec fox peeks from behind a sand dune in the Tunisian Sahara desert. Fennecs have both the smallest size and the largest ears among the world’s canids. Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Each year, an international panel of visual luminaries gathers at World Press Photo in Amsterdam to judge tens of thousands of images submitted by photojournalists from around the world.  The results of this year’s contest were announced on February 14, with six awards going to photographers on assignment for National Geographic magazine. A seventh award went to Bruno D’Amicis, whose photograph of a captive fennec fox won 1st prize for a single photograph in the Nature category. With the support of National Geographic magazine and Senior Editor for Natural History Kathy Moran, D’Amicis was able to continue his personal project documenting the fennec fox, resulting in this image. Here, Moran and D’Amicis share their thoughts on the plight of this sought-after desert animal.

Kathy Moran, Senior Editor, Natural History

Bruno D’Amicis’ photograph of the fennec fox is all about passion, the drive to keep going after a story until you feel you’ve covered every angle.   When Bruno first shared his fox photographs with me, he had a lovely set of images that showed fennecs in their desert environment.   Camera trap photographs of foxes by moonlight, females with cubs, young animals at play gave no hint of the conservation issues impacting the species. Bruno had spent weeks tracking the foxes.  When his resources were exhausted, he had to return home.   He sent me the photographs in hope of securing funding to go back to Tunisia for additional work.  When I asked him what more he hoped to photograph he said would not be satisfied until he had documented animals that had been captured for the pet trade.  National Geographic supported Bruno’s return trip to the Sahara.  It wasn’t easy to access animals in captivity but he finally found this small fox that had been captured by nomads and given to a young boy as a pet.  His determination to expose the plight of wild animals captured because they rate high on the cute scale is worthy of recognition.

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Photograph by Bruno D’Amicis, 1st Place Singles, Nature

We don’t really know much about the biology of the fennec fox, although it gets promptly recognized by everyone for its cuteness and its incredibly large ears that help it locate food among the sand dunes and radiate its body heat. The fennec is the quintessential desert animal, whose range covers almost the entire North of Africa and the whole Sahara. It can survive without water by getting fluids from its prey. Its furry pugs can walk on the hottest sand and it is able to dig within seconds a burrow to escape predators and desert heat. Desert nomads tell countless tales praising the fennec’s intelligence, while no extensive scientific research has ever been carried out to describe the life of the smallest canid in the world.

In the image, you can see an adult fennec, about a year old, caught in the wild as a pup by some desert nomads and then given to a kid, who kept it illegally as a pet in a sheep pen located in the outskirts of a village in the Tunisian Sahara. The fennec was tied with a short leash to a wheel rim and barely had any room to move around. It often tried to burrow into the sand floor, both to escape people and the animals sharing the pen with it. Although the young owner truly loved his pet, the animal was kept in miserable conditions and was very stressed and underfed.

Picture of fennec fox digging in desert
A camera-trap setup reveals a fennec digging for beetles among the roots of a Retam broom shrub.

I photographed this fennec on two separate occasions and only for very brief periods of time, so as to not to add more stress to its situation. Although I had been asked, I resolutely refused to pay a fee to take these pictures and thereby support this practice. I asked around if the animal could be released, but I was told it had spent too much time in captivity to survive back in the wild. I then spoke at length with the owner about the cruelty of keeping the fennec as a pet.  I asked him to reflect upon this, to use a longer leash and take the animal out for walks. I heard later he released this fennec.  Nobody has seen it since. I hope it made it back to its natural habitat, but I am aware this is a remote possibility.

The practice of catching fennec pups in the wild is widespread in North African countries. Because of their cuteness, local people aim to sell or use them as a tourist attraction. Everyone, both the villagers and the tourists who naively support this by paying money for pictures or even purchasing such animals—which is illegal—has to be considered somehow guilty. The destruction of the fragile desert habitat, the ongoing massacre of wildlife, and the lack of general conservation regulations are posing a serious threat to this and other unique desert species. The situation has gotten much worse since the “Arab spring” revolts and resulting difficult socio-economic conditions.

Picture of a fennec fox tail on rear view mirror
The tail of an adult fennec hangs from a Tunisian car’s rear view mirror as a lucky charm.

For me, photojournalism is above all about documenting reality and raising awareness. I wish I never had to witness such sad situations and was instead left to treasure the precious moments I had watching this amazing species free in its habitat made of silence and ephemeral dunes, but I firmly believe this is one of those stories worth telling in their entirety.  So, as harsh and disturbing it might be, I hope this image will make more people aware of the ongoing crisis affecting Saharan wildlife and reflect upon what are we doing to the natural world with even our simplest actions.

Bruno D’Amicis worked extensively in southern Tunisia over 2012 and 2013 on a personal project aimed at documenting both the natural history and the issue of the trade and exploitation of the fennec fox (Vulpes zerda) in a typical North African country.

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