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French photographer tells stories of Taiwan's wildlife in pictures

2019/03/02 16:08:10

Jimmy Beunardeau shows a picture of the Formosan black bear, an endangered species in Taiwan.

By Tzeng Yi-shiuan and Ko Lin, CNA staff writers

Many people use their talent to raise awareness of important issues in society, and the field of photography is no exception, because as the saying goes, "a picture is worth a thousand words."

Jimmy Beunardeau did just that.

His aim -- to help raise awareness about the plight of Taiwan's endangered wildlife, in particularly the Formosan black bear which is endemic to the island.

Based out of the French region of Normandy, the freelance photographer has always had a soft spot for nature and wildlife, even at a young age.

Raised in Orne, a department in the northwest of the country, Beunardeau described his hometown as surrounded by natural parks and forests, where wild animals can be easily observed.

"When I was younger, I always wanted to be a veterinarian," he told CNA during a recent interview at his home in Paris.

However, the 30-year old photographer joked that because he failed at math as a student, he did not end up in that profession.

However, that setback did not deter him from his goal.

Instead, Beunardeau said he first studied film, and later photography, as an alternative way to show his passion for animals, believing that the power of a compelling photograph can reach a mass audience.

The Normandy native said he took up freelance photography with a focus on nature and wildlife, which have since become the main focus of his work.

According to Beunardeau, his work constantly questions the relationship between humans and their environment, and therefore with nature and the animal world. Through his travels, the preservation of wild animals and their natural habitats is a theme that Beunardeau is committed to developing over the long term.

Coming to Taiwan

Having completed his education at a photography school just two years ago in 2016, Beunardeau said he wanted to travel the world taking pictures of nature and animals.

It was when he was looking for countries that have a reciprocal working holiday agreement with France that he learned about Taiwan, which had just signed a pact with the European country giving young adults the opportunity to experience the culture and lifestyles of both countries.

"I watched a lot of YouTube video about Taiwan and its wildlife. One particular issue that grabbed my attention was this woman talking about her fight for the Formosan black bear, and her passion was really catching so I wanted to contact her and eventually I found her on Facebook," Beunardeau said.

The woman in question was Hwang Mei-hsiu (黃美秀), an associate professor at National Pingtung University of Science and Technology's Institute of Wildlife Conservation, who also founded the Taiwan Black Bear Conservation Association (TBBCA).

Beunardeau recounted the time he saw pictures posted on Hwang's Facebook page showing bear paws being amputated because of animal traps.

"It was terrible and I wanted to help but didn't know how. Then we started to talk," he said.

The two eventually met in Taipei, which was when Beunardeau told Hwang he would like to help the foundation by using his photography to draw attention to black bear conservation.

"We talked about a project with the Pingtung Rescue Center for Endangered Wild Animals, and then began working together," he said.

Sanctuary for wildlife animals

The Formosan black bear, also known as the white-throated bear, is a subspecies of the Asiatic black bear. Because of severe exploitation and habitat degradation in recent decades, the population of the wild Formosan black bear has declined. In 1989, the species was listed as "endangered" under Taiwan's Wildlife Conservation Act. Their geographic distribution is restricted to remote, rugged areas at elevations of 1,000-3,500 meters.

According to the TBBCA, there are currently 200-600 Formosan black bears left in the wild.

With Hwang's help, Beunardeau was introduced to the Pingtung center and he was impressed with the number of animals rescued there.

"At the same time I felt sad about it. I met a lot of people working there, including keepers, vets, and students of wildlife, who did their best to help the animals," he said.

"If there is an animal that led me to Taiwan it is the Formosan black bear. I became aware of its endangered condition because of poaching and the destruction of its environment."

The French photographer views the animal as beautiful and unique, and hopes to boost awareness of related conservation work.

"We must raise collective awareness because if we don't act now, maybe our grandchildren will never see the Formosan black bear again. The animal is the spirit of Taiwan and protecting it is to protect the singularity of Taiwan," he said.

In addition to the Formosan black bear, Beunardeau also learned about other rescued animals at the sanctuary, including Taiwan's Formosan rock macaque and orangutans.

The most powerful and saddest moment was when he saw the orangutans, Beunardeau said, who views apes as one of his favorite animals.

"If you spend enough time with orangutans and get to know them I think you will have a special and unique feeling for them because their eyes can penetrate your soul."

"Just look in their eyes, they cannot speak our language but obviously we are brothers. We cannot let our brothers die because of chips, cookies or Nutella. I know it's difficult to avoid palm oil but if we try our best and if we are numerous I think we can do it," he lamented.

"The situation is very difficult there (at the rescue center), because as you know the center needs a lot of money to feed the animals, to cure them, to repair the cages, to build bigger ones, and obviously to pay the people who work hard there. So if the government doesn't give enough money we cannot provide a good situation for the animals," he explained.

Beunardeau said it saddens him to see the beautiful animals become endangered, and hopes the younger generation of Taiwanese become more aware of animal conservation, and hopefully they will not have to learn about animals such as the Formosan black bear only from textbooks and photos after they become extinct.

Taking action

Beunardeau was allowed to take pictures of all the rescued animals at the Pingtung center, an opportunity for which he said he was grateful because it was essential for him to spend time alone with the animals, to photograph them and sometimes just get to know more about them.

"My goal is to pay tribute to the beauty of the animals by taking beautiful pictures of them through aesthetic editing and trying to show a part of their personality. At the same time I wanted to show their difficult situation," he said, adding that every animal living at the center has a unique story, and each one is heart breaking.

"I wanted my photographs to be beautiful and sad at the same time because that was what I felt there. If people can imagine the conditions and minds of these sensitive and beautiful animals then my work is done," Beunardeau said.

His photographic work in Pingtung has been published in numerous French publications, including GEO Ado and GEO Collection.

On Feb. 23, a display of his work for the TBBCA was exhibited in Paris at International Save Bears Day (AVES France), with the aim of making the people of France pay more attention to Taiwan's endangered bear species.

According to Beunardeau, all the proceeds from the sale of his photographs that day were donated to the black bear conservation association.

His first stay in Taiwan in 2016 lasted six months, and since then the photographer has visited the country twice again.

He is due to visit the island again in March.

"I hope to visit Taiwan once every year because I love the country so much. There are so many projects that I would like to do there," he said, adding that he is fascinated with Taiwan, its people and culture.