When Betty’s Bay resident Pete Oxford was a little boy of four living in Singapore, his father, an enthusiastic amateur naturalist, presented him with a snake, and he was bitten. Happily, not by the snake, but by a fascination with all things wild and wonderful in the natural world. Indeed, his entire life since then has been driven by a desire to experience and share the beauty of this often unseen world with others, especially children. 

No creature too small to care for. Pete and Renée have built a wall at their Betty’s Bay home to provide sanctuary for insects of all kinds in a diversity of habitats.
Photo: Renée Bish

By the time he had finished his schooling in the UK, there were two things he knew he didn’t want to do – remain in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a small island with too many people, and be forced to do a job he wouldn’t enjoy. The answer was to travel, to discover the world and its wild places and meet people of very different cultures from his own. Before too long he washed up on an even smaller island, or group of islands, the Galapagos, famed for the unique diversity of their wildlife, as Darwin had noted many years before. 

During the three years he spent there as a guide, photography was a natural progression. His father had already taught him the virtue of patience, how to watch animals, and what to look for. At a time when still relatively few photographs had been taken of these animals from a conservation perspective, Pete produced four books on the subject.

One of the species for which the Islands are famous, the Galapagos Giant Tortoise (Geochelone elephantopus), takes all Pete’s strength to move for DNA testing on Isabela Island. Photo: Pete Oxford©

Establishing a base for himself in Ecuador, he travelled widely throughout South America both as a guide and a wildlife photographer, covering the length and breadth of the environmentally-sensitive Amazon, which spans seven countries. This, indeed, was where he met South African, Renée Bish, who was to become his wife. Even this was not an extensive enough canvass for him, though, and after he joined a global eco-tourism company he was able to travel to remote destinations all over the world traversing every continent and every ocean, including the Arctic and Antarctic.

However, for him it was never just ‘been there, seen that’, it was using photography as a tool for conservation. Which was why he felt very proud to be invited to become one of 40 founder members of the International League for Conservation Photographers which was launched in Anchorage, Alaska in 2005. “It was the first time that recognition had been given to the type of specialist photography we were doing,” he says, “and it meant that we could become a sort of pressure group for conservation, capable of gaining the attention of an influential audience. Soon after the League was formed, for example, we were invited to hold an exhibition at the White House.” (Obviously before the Trump occupancy.)

The endangered, seldom-seen carnivore, the Madagascan fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox). Pete was the first professional photographer to capture one on film. Photo: Pete Oxford©

Pete can look back with pride on a number of ‘firsts’ in his field.  Ever heard of the Iberian lynx in Spain, or the fossa of Madagascar? It’s probably safe to assume most people wouldn’t have, but he was the first person ever to photograph either of them. At the time that he snapped the Iberian lynx in the mountains of Spain, there were only 233 individuals left in the world, none in Portugal where they had once been present. Similar in size to our caracal, the species was on the point of extinction. His photographs were able to highlight their plight and money was raised to create a sanctuary and breeding programme for them and to reintroduce some to Portugal.

In a land of strange animals, the Madagacan fossa is found nowhere else in the world. A bit like a large mongoose, it is both arboreal and terrestrial and preys chiefly on lemurs. With the decimation of its habitat, the Madagascan rain forests, it too is endangered. 

Although Pete and Renée have produced 14 books featuring his award-winning photographs, sadly, in a world where almost everyone with a smartphone camera considers him or herself a photographer, the career of the professional photographer is also now endangered. So, long before the pandemic turned the world upside down, Pete and Renée, who now live in Betty’s Bay, were forced to find a way around the problem, whilst remaining true to their passion. 

Portrait of a traditional Apatani woman with nose plugs and facial tattoos in the Himalayan foothills of India. Photo: Pete Oxford©

“Instead of publishing photographs of people and animals living in remote corners of the planet we decided to take small groups of eco-tourists to the places themselves,” he explains. “I had the background and the contacts; I knew where to go, and how and when to do it. For example, I have taken many trips to Machu Picchu in Peru, but with hundreds of tourists swarming all over the ruins, you really don’t get the true feel of the place. If you are there very early in the morning, or at sunset, though, that’s when the magic happens.

“So many people have lost their connection with the intricate web of life everywhere around us; they go around bulldozing fynbos, clearing rain forests, poaching abalone, tangling up the oceans. We need to open their eyes to the fact that there are sentient beings out there and we are killing them, as well as ourselves ultimately. We want to tell people, and especially children, the conservation story, because they will become influencers in the next generation.” 

Pete tells just one story of the many that have changed his life. “About six years ago, Renée and I took a sabbatical. We went to live in Marakele National Park in the Waterberg, north of Thabazimbi, and the idea was to habituate some of the secretive leopards living in the mountains that are hardly ever seen by tourists or even rangers. It took me weeks before I saw one. It became like an obsession. I would go out in my game-viewing vehicle every day, following animal and bird alarm calls. I would just park there, waiting it out, talking softly to myself, crackling crisp packets, getting them used to the sounds that humans make.

Photo: Pete Oxford©

“Then, suddenly, one day, out of the bush came a young female leopard. I could barely breathe. I kept going back; she kept appearing. I called her Lightning because of the arrangement of spots on her face. It was like a secret love affair. Then one day, we had been out and when we returned to our place, there she was stretched out on a low wall waiting for us. On another occasion, she brought her impala catch and hung it in a tree in front of the tent at eye level. She had totally accepted me.”

Gradually Pete introduced other vehicles, other people to Lightning and talked her down if she became agitated. Then one day she arrived with her mother – Pete called her Storm – and then Storm brought her new cub, Gale.  “Just over two years later,” continues Pete, “we felt we had done what we had come to do and were ready to leave. But Lightning had not finished with us yet. One morning when we woke up, we found that she had given birth to her first litter of cubs – under our tent.”

After experiences like this, small wonder Pete and Renée are so passionate about the protection of the baboons in their area and, indeed, the sanctity of the Kogelberg Biosphere. During lockdown, Pete has not been idle. Apart from his baboon mediation activities, he has created a chain of ponds on the property to attract frogs, written another book chronicling some of his wildlife adventures and planned a new series of global eco-tours for 2021, starting in January, Covid-permitting. Each lasts about 14 days and can accommodate a maximum of 14 people (some are already fully booked). For further information visit his website https://peteoxford.photoshelter.com or e-mail him on pete@peteoxford.com.

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