Jasper Doest from the Netherlands wins the Fritz Pölking Prize 2023 with a photo story of the endangered African forest elephants in central Gabon..

The >>> Fritz Pölking Junior Prize 2023 <<< was awarded to Mateusz Piesiak for his portfolio about a Sunflower paradise for overwintering birds in his native country Poland.

Winner: Jasper Doest - Netherlands

Dutch photographer Jasper Doest creates visual stories that explore the relationship between humans and nature. Having studied ecology, Doest knows that human life depends on all of our planet's resources. At the same time, he recognizes how inherently unsustainable the current human patterns of consumption are.

As a true believer in the power of photography to initiate change, Doest is a senior fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers and an ambassador for the World Wildlife Fund. Jasper Doest is a contributing photographer to National Geographic. His accolades include four World Press Photo Awards and being named European Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2020 by the GDT.

Jasper Doest

Project: A fragile refuge for forest elephants

The rainforest of Lopé National Park in central Gabon is one of thelast safe havens for the critically endangered African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). Unfortunately, scientists have found that climate change is negatively affecting fruit production in many rainforest tree species. Fruits are one of the most important food sources for forest elephants and many other large mammal species. Research has shown that the physical condition of forest elephants has deteriorated significantly due to a staggering 81% decline in fruit production in Lopé's forests during the last 30 years.

A fruit famine in one of the last strongholds of the African forest elephant raises concerns about the ability of this species and other fruit-dependent megafauna to survive in the long term -with potentially dire consequences for ecosystem functioning and the biosphere as a whole. This story is a reminder that even when direct human impact is minimal, plant and animal communities are not immune to the insidious consequences of the Anthropocene.

A forest elephant peers through lush foliage in the rainforest of Gabon’s Lopé National Park. Gabon’s forests are home to about 70% of Africa’s remaining forest elephants, making Gabon the last stablestronghold for this species. Although the forest and its megafauna are well protected, climate change is putting the entire ecosystem at risk.
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An African forest elephant reaches out with its trunk to forage on fruits of a Detarium macrocarpumtree. While forest elephants depend on fruit to survive, many fruit-bearing plant species depend on the forest’s megafauna for seed dispersal. Detarium macrocarpumseeds can only germinate after passing through an animal’s digestive tract. Of all the animals in theAfrican rainforest, forest elephants are the largest and most important agents of seed dispersal. While the fruit pulp is an essential component of the elephant's diet, the seeds pass through the animal's digestive system undamaged.
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Fruit is a keystoneresource for many members of the African megafauna. However, after analysing one of the most comprehensive forest data sets in the world, scientists from University of Stirling (Scotland) and Gabon’s national parks agency (ANPN) published an alarming paper in the renowned journal Sciencereporting a staggering 81% decline in fruit production in Lopé National Park during the last 30 years.
On a cloudy day well before sunrise, an emaciated female forest elephant grazes on the open savanna. After analysingover 2,500 photos taken between 1997 and 2018, scientists from University of Stirling detected long-term declines in the body condition of elephants in Lopé National Park. Because this decline is correlated with regional decreases in fruit production, it is indicative of system-wide changes and is expected to a have disproportionately large impact on ecosystem functioning and metabolism.
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High above the forest floor, the fruits of the Omphalocarpum procerum treeare borne directly on the trunk and large branches. Forest elephants are the only animals capable of eating these hard-shelled fruits and dispersing their seeds, making Omphalocarpumentirely depended on forest elephants. In regions of Africa where poaching has eliminated elephants, Omphalocarpumfruits lie rotting on the ground but seedlings are not able to establish.
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Edmond Dimoto and Lisa-Laure Ndindiwe Malata study the forest canopy during their monthly phenology survey in Lopé National Park. Lopé is home to the longest continuous study of tropical tree phenology in Africa. Researchers have quantified changes in encounter probabilities for flowers, unripe fruits, and ripe fruits for 73 species over a 32-year period (1986–2018). They found that the probability of encountering flowers and fruits has declined significantly over time, meaning trees in Lopé reproduce less now than in the past. Climate change is likely to have contributed to this shift in reproduction.
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Captured on an infrared converted DSLR, an African forest elephant is seen guiding its calf through the forest along an ancient elephant path while chewing on a Detarium macrocarpumfruit. Forest elephants have an extraordinarily low birth rate. If their body condition worsens due to decreases in fruit production, the reproductive rate of the population will decline even with wildlife conservation measures in place.
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A research assistant at the Station d'Etudes des Gorilles et Chimpanzés (SEGC) measures fresh elephant dung in the forest. The research team washes the seeds out of the individually collected stool samples to analyse the elephants’ diet. The study is designed to determine whether there has been a shift in forest elephant diet as a result of decreases in fruit production in Lopé National Park.
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An injured and enraged elephant attempts to defend itself after being hit by a train while following its traditional pathway within Lopé National Park. Elephants are known to freeze on the tracks when trains approach. Park officials decided the elephant was too severely wounded to be saved. After the animal was killed, the park director distributed the meat to local inhabitants. As the forest loses its ability to sustain a megafauna, the frequency of conflicts between wildlife and humans increases.
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Head of the anti-poaching unit in Lopé National Park, Landry Babenangoye, carries the tusks of 12 elephants hit by trains in 2021. The unit managed to secure the ivory in most cases, as poaching for 'white gold' is the most immediate threat for African forest elephants. However, evenin places where there is minimal human impact and poaching is well under control, wildlife cannot escape the indirect consequences of human activities –climate change now threatens the survival of several keystone species in tropical forests. As a resultof the continued downward trend in its population size, the African forest elephant was officially recognised as a species and declared Critically Endangered by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) in 2021.