Tripods in the Sky, Yucatan: An Interview With Klaus Nigge

LightHawk and iLCP are excited to launch a new initiative called Tripods in the Sky (TIS). When you combine the power of the aerial perspective with the talent and creativity of the world’s best photographers, you can achieve a high-impact record of our planet’s most serious threats. Together we are empowering our conservation partners with the tools they need to achieve concrete conservation outcomes.

Having just completed our first TIS in Yucatan, Mexico and caught up with iLCP’s Klaus Nigge and asked him a few questions about the initiative and his trip…

Q: Why the Yucatan? What is there to photograph?

Klaus: When I photograph, I usually like to have a big bird somewhere, a charismatic big bird in a big landscape. Something that stands for a whole ecosystem. I’m always looking for something like this. I found the flamingos in the Yucatan in 2009 on the iLCP Yucatan RAVE. After spending a short time there and meeting the people, I found out that the flamingo for the Yucatan is “the bird” in very many respects. For example, all of the tourists that come to Mexico, to the Yucatan, whenever they think about nature — they think of the pink flamingo.

So the flamingo is instrumental in getting people involved and interested in nature. It is the flagship species of nature in the Yucatan, and this perfectly fits into my photographic themes, what I am looking for.

Q: What are the threats to the flamingos and their habitat?

Klaus: The Yucatan flamingos are Caribbean flamingos. They only live in Haiti, Cuba and on the north coast of the Yucatan. They have a very small range. Right now, they are not actually threatened, but this coast is being quickly developed for tourism and this development has to be done very carefully. Cancun no longer has any flamingos because it no longer has the flamingo habitat. They now live along the coast in two or three main estuaries where they can feed. Even here, there is a lot of competition between the fisherman, the tourist industry and the flamingos for resources.

The good thing here in the Yucatan is that it seems that the people very much know that the flamingos are worth a lot of money, in addition to their biological value.

Eduardo Galicia, who works with Ninas y Crias and Pronatura was flying with me. He helped me when I photographed on the Yucatan RAVE in 2009 as well. He is a biologist and he works with flamingos both in regards to conservation and tourism. He taught the people in the villages that are adjacent to the flamingo feeding grounds how to deal with the flamingos — how to approach them with tourists, but not disturb them. It seems like it works perfectly. But you have to keep the right balance. If we lure the people into nature — we lure them to the flamingos, and one day it can be too much — then we made a mistake. But, with Eduardo, it is in good hands.

Q: Why is aerial photography important for the project?

Klaus: Let me first say what the project is. There is not really a project so far. Eduardo, he is the flamingo man, after meeting me on the Yucatan RAVE, and after he learned that we have some common energy, he decided to work on flamingos again. So he stepped in, and we decided to do this together. He as the scientist and I am the photographer. Whatever comes out, we can use effectively both for tourism and for conservation. Eduardo is well connected in the conservation community and knows the head of Pronature, Joanne Andrews. She is 81 years old and very charismatic, and supports the project. We don’t know yet what the outcome of this project will be — maybe a traveling exhibition in Mexico, maybe a magazine story, maybe a book… We don’t know yet, this is the phase where we are focused on getting the best images possible.

Q: So why aerial photography?

Klaus: With flamingos and especially all of the lowland situations, the birds always look better from the air because you see something that you can’t see from the ground. When you’re in a boat, or you’re walking, you’re never higher than 5 meters above the ground, so you really cannot get a feeling, a sense of the landscape, of the habitat. Especially here with the flamingos it looks just great having all of these orange dots in the water. In the time of the year that we flew, we saw flocks of more than 10,000 flamingos, so that’s really awesome from the air. Without getting into a plane, no one gets to see that perspective of the flamingos.

David Cole of Lighthawk was our pilot, and he was absolutely perfect. Never before have I worked with a pilot for aerial photography like him. I did not have to tell him how he should maneuver the plane. He just did it as if he could read my mind. Unbelievable! A wonderful experience.

Q: Did anything unusual happen on this Tripods in the Sky expedition?

Klaus: Nothing really crazy happened, but there was something really weird. You see when I left home, here in winter time and we had -15C. It was freezing, as much snow as never before, I was so worried of getting shocked being in the tropics. When I arrived, the pilot told us that in Cancun it was only 12C. That’s 54F — in the tropics! It was very cold all the time. The day I left, the pupils didn’t go to school because it was too cold — the children don’t have the right clothes to dress in when it is so cold. So most of the time I was outside, I was dressed just the same as I dress in spring in Alaska. Fleece jacket and long trousers — one day in the morning I even had gloves on. Really weird, funny, but not really funny.

It didn’t rain the entire time, except once when I was waiting for flamingos in their sleeping ground at night. I prepared myself on the ground and waited for the flamingos to come. And then right in that moment when they arrived, so did the rain. I had no chance to leave, so I was completely covered with mud after 10 minutes. That’s not funny either. But that’s a typical day in the field.