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Photographers, conservationists and wildlife lovers around the world have created an alternative 'Big 5' of wildlife photography, rather than hunting.

The 'Big 5' is an old hunting term, referring to the five most prized – and dangerous – animals in Africa, shot at and killed by colonial-era hunters.

Elephant, rhino, leopard, Cape buffalo and lion. Unfortunately, even today these magnificent animals – many of which are declining or endangered – are still considered hunting trophies by some people.

The New Big 5 project offers an alternative idea: to celebrate the remarkable animals we share the planet with by photographing them.

This international initiative, which launched in April 2020, sets out to create a new 'Big 5' of wildlife photography – rather than hunting, this is about shooting with a camera, not a gun.

A diverse group of more than 250 international photographers, conservationists and global wildlife charities have come together to support the project, for which people around the world were invited to vote for their five favourite animals to photograph or to see in photos.

The New Big 5

“The aim of the project is to use the New Big 5 idea to get people thinking and talking about wildlife, and the threats they face,” said photographer and New Big 5 project's founder Graeme Green.

“The world's wildlife is in crisis. I wanted to use this project and the website we created to raise awareness on issues like habitat loss, the illegal wildlife trade and climate change.”

The five animals chosen by the public vote are elephants, lions, gorillas, polar bears and tigers. Five iconic species – but each facing severe challenges, despite their huge popularity.

Elephants are the world's largest land mammal – and are enduringly popular with photographers and wildlife lovers.

Tiger cub
Polar bear
Polar bear standing on Arctic ice

“I'm thrilled elephants are one of the New Big 5 of Wildlife Photography,” said Dr Paula Kahumbu, CEO and founder of Wildlife Direct.

“Elephants are among the most important species in Africa and Asia for maintaining incredible habitats and environments. And what great ambassadors they are for wildlife the world over. But elephants are in distress. They're poached for their ivory, hunted for their meat, their habitats are disappearing, and they're being killed as a result of human-wildlife conflict. To save elephants, we all have to step up to protect them.”

Lions are also in serious trouble, with only around 20,000 left in Africa.

Dr Shivani Bhalla, Founder and Executive Director of Ewaso Lions, said: “Lions are icons of what it means to be wild. It would be a tragedy to lose lions across our continent. But I hope that by coming together, we can address these threats and ensure lions are free to roam across Africa's spectacular landscapes. We can't let them disappear.”

While elephants and lions were among the original 'Big 5', gorillas, tigers and polar bears weren't. But these remarkable animals are just as deserving of their place on the new list.

Gorillas share more than 98% of their DNA with humans, and are intelligent, caring animals. But their numbers have plummeted in the past 25 years – primarily a result of poaching.

Three lion cubs sitting on a branch

© Carole Deschuymere

Elephant with baby

© Priyanshi Bachhawat Nahata

Baby gorilla climbing a tree

© Vladimir Cech Jr

“I'm absolutely delighted gorillas are part of the New Big 5,” said Dr Tara Stoinski, CEO of Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

“Unfortunately, both species of gorillas – eastern gorilla and western gorilla – are Critically Endangered, the last step before extinction in the wild. Luckily, mountain gorilla numbers are increasing, showing conservation can succeed when we work together.

“Gorillas are the gardeners of Africa's immense rainforests, which are essential for the thousands of other species that live there, from chimpanzees to forest elephants. We also need these forests to remain healthy and biodiverse because our own survival depends on them.”

Unlike the old 'Big 5', which was limited to Africa, the New Big 5 includes species from elsewhere, including polar bears – the world's largest carnivore.

© Dave Sandford

“Polar bears are keenly intelligent and endlessly fascinating to photograph and watch,” Krista Wright, Executive Director of Polar Bears International points out.

“They're also a powerful symbol of sea ice loss from global climate warming, and a poignant messenger on the urgent need to act. To protect polar bears, we need to protect the sea ice they depend upon. By taking action on climate change, we'll not only ensure the polar bear's future – but help people too. A future that supports polar bears will be a future that is better for all of us.”

Rounding off the New Big 5 are tigers, the national animal of India – and a species also found in Indonesia, Russia and elsewhere. It's estimated there are less than 3,900 tigers left in the wild globally.

© Suzi Eszterhas

“Tigers are such fascinating, incredible animals,” said Vivek Menon, Founder of the Wildlife Trust of India.

“They are also a flagship species for the conservation of their habitats and all other life that exists there. The loss of tigers would also impact the entire ecosystems in which they live. In India, tigers are threatened by habitat loss and poaching. The Sumatran tigers are even more critically endangered. I'm so happy they've been given the importance they deserve.”

The New Big 5 initiative has worked to highlight the threats to all the world's wildlife.

The project has received support from world-renowned conservationist Dr Jane Goodall.

“These five animals – elephants, polar bears, gorillas, tigers and lions – are such beautiful and remarkable species, and are wonderful ambassadors for the world's wildlife, from iconic species to little-known frogs, lizards, fish and birds,” Dr Goodall said.

“So many animals face threats to their survival from issues such as poaching, habitat loss and climate change. If we work together, we can stop this happening. There is always hope. Change is possible if we each play our part.”

All five animals are keystone species – which means they are essential to biodiversity and the balance of nature in their habitats.

© Marco Gaiotti

Elephants are 'ecosystem engineers' that spread seeds and modify landscapes. Lions and tigers maintain a balance between predator and prey – reducing the overgrazing of vegetation by herbivores. Gorillas control plant growth and distribute seeds. Polar bears are an indicator of an ecosystem's health.

Each species is vital to the health of the planet, from clean air and water to forests needed to combat climate change, and to our future.

The New Big 5 offers a new 'bucket list' for travellers, wildlife lovers and photographers to see and photograph in their lifetimes.


© Gael Ruboneka Vande Weghe

Tourism funds many of the world's conservation projects. The five animals in the New Big 5 can be found in a wide range of countries across Africa, as well as Asia, Europe and the Americas, and the initiative encourages travellers to visit the countries where the animals live and in turn help support conservation efforts while boosting local economies.

The ultimate message of the New Big 5 project is that all wildlife deserves to exist, and every single species needs to be protected. Action is needed urgently. And change is possible.

For more on the New Big 5, or for podcasts, interviews, articles, photo galleries and a free educational Fun Pack for young people, visit Follow the New Big 5 project on Instagram @newbig5project.


The NEW Big 5

© Gurcharan Roopra

Green Adventures June 2021