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"I can´t wait for Finland to have it´s own anti-poaching unit"

An interview with Finnish photographer/conservationist Jere Hietala
"I can´t wait for Finland to have it´s own anti-poaching unit"

Kuva: Aino Kyynäräinen

Alongside a commercially successful career working with celebrities such as 50 Cent, Cheek and even the president of Finland, the awarded photographer, entrepreneur and conservationist Jere Hietala is committed to raising awareness about the poaching crisis in South Africa. 

His deep respect for wild animals has led him to financially support different nature conservation projects and produce the upcoming documentary “If a Rhino Falls”; an account of the dangerous work that anti-poaching units (APUs) are doing in places like South Africa´s Kruger National Park, one of Africa’s largest wildlife reserves. 

The Wolf Action Group met with with Jere to talk about his views about the possible solutions available to solve the wolf conflict in Finland. 

The roots of poaching

Due to habitat loss, wolves have been the classic example of human-wildlife coexistence conflict for cases of livestock depredation, competition for game with hunters and the culture of fear. In poor countries like South Africa people generally turn to poaching for economic reasons but according to Jere, in a rich country like Finland where poaching is the main cause of death for wolves it obeys different motives: “People in the countryside still think of wolves as dangerous animals, but if you think logically, it´s more likely to get killed by a lightning than a wolf.”

While nowadays there are many non-lethal alternatives available to protect livestock and domestic animals from being attacked by wild animals, shooting “problematic” predators is still socially accepted. “The reason why people kill wild animals in Finland is simply because they can. Poachers know that the authorities will not do enough to stop them” he says. The Finnish government claims to be trying to solve the wolf conflict by giving financial compensations to farmers who lose livestock and by providing materials for setting up protective electric fences, but for the authorities the costs involved seem to have become a problem. Jere thinks that the real problem in Finland has nothing to do with economic costs but with socio-political issues, like the irrational hate that people have towards wolves and how it actually benefits the politicians. “The problem is that the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MMM) doesn´t really want this to be solved. Allowing hunters to legally kill wolves will never stop poaching. It doesn´t work like that. I can´t wait for Finland to have its own APU.”

 

Scientific research shows that when governments authorize the killing of a protected species, the perceived value of each individual of that species declines1. For this reason, Jere advocates for the creation of a special anti-poaching and environmental protection unit to deal exclusively with these issues. “Creating an APU could solve so many problems; it would spread knowledge about the wolf´s biology, provide help with building electric fences and assist with relocating “problematic” animals. Most importantly they would finally do something about tackling poaching.”

Fear of the wild

Wolves roaming around residential areas is the main reason why people in Finland request shooting permits from Finnish authorities2. In the applications for these permits the words "fear" or "worry over safety" are almost always mentioned. Jere thinks that fear is an understandable emotion but not a legitimate reason to kill an animal. "Fear of wolves is generally based on superstitions and old folk stories that aren´t relevant anymore in today´s culture. Using fear as a justification for shooting a wolf is simply not fair. On top of that, the way people in the countryside deal with the presence of wolves doesn´t make much sense, they actually make it easy for wolves to attack their dogs by letting them free and unprotected in their yards. I have a dog and I would never do that. Even in Africa people protect their animals with fences, why not in Finland?” 

While domestic animals can nowadays be easily protected, Finnish hunters remain hostile to wolves as they claim to lose their hunting dogs while chasing their prey. To this he responds: “If someone wants to be a good hunter then they should learn how to track the animals themselves and not have their dogs doing it for them. Hunting is not supposed to be easy.”

Subsistence or sport hunting?

Hunting was for Jere's grandparents a way of feeding a large family, it was never done as a pastime. “Killing an animal shouldn´t be considered a hobby, there is no need to kill an elk every weekend. You don´t need hundreds of kilos of meat in the freezer.” For Jere sport hunting is cruel and out of touch with modern society´s values. “Finding pleasure in killing an animal tells me that something is not right with that person, something is missing from their lives.” When referring to animals Jere doesn´t use the pronoun “it”, to him animals are like humans and they should have the same rights to live their lives free of unnecessary suffering. “Wolves were in this land before us so we don´t have to justify their right to be here.”

 

Working in South Africa has shown to Jere first-hand the benefits that wild animals can bring to a country. “We need to realize that saving wolves is far more valuable than killing them. They benefit their ecosystem in ways we cannot understand, not to mention the possibilities they offer to the economy in the form of eco-tourism. We should figure out incentives, tax deductions or financial mechanisms to reduce poaching.” Finland is considered a country that respects nature. A popular saying is that “Finns are nature people”, but to Jere this is just a myth. “Swamps have been drained out, old-growth forests have been hacked down and all we have now in Finland is monoculture tree plantations” he says.

Lapland´s harsh reality

Our conversation inevitably takes us to the topic of Lapland, which Jere immediately refers to as “The Reindeer Mafia.” In his view, a situation where a few people control 30% of a country´s territory with an economic activity that doesn´t benefit either the environment or society can be described as a mafia. “This so-called reindeer industry employs only a very small amount of people and demands a huge amount of resources in the form of subsidies and economic compensations from the state. There are many truly environmentally sustainable economic activities that we could do in Lapland, but instead we keep supporting this outdated and unsustainable way of living.”

Jere has seen with his own eyes how protecting nature can be a positive way of creating income in a responsible way. “People would flock from all over the world to walk in the forests, photograph the wild animals and breathe the clean air. Finland´s brand has always been about innovative thinking, I am sure we could find a way to solve this problem with political will and technical innovation.”

A legacy for the future

Even if protecting nature certainly would bring economic benefits, Jere feels that deep down it´s not about economics, but about ethics. “Protecting nature is something we owe to the planet. We don´t own the earth, everything is on loan to us.” 

He firmly believes that one of the main rules in life is that you get what you give, and just as nature gives to us free of charge we should all find ways to give in return. “Everyone should give back to society, find out what it is you can give and do it. If you end up in a position of power, use it for doing good.” When asked about what he would like his legacy to be Jere replies, “Nature and animals will get all my attention.”

 

All pictures courtesy of Jere Hietala Photography

References:

1 ”Blood does not buy goodwill. Allowing culling increases poaching of a large carnivore”. Guillaume Chapron, Adrian Treves. 2016.

2 “Keeping the Wolf from the Door” Analysis of derogation-based wolf hunting permits in Finland. Laaksonen Mervi, Luonto-Liiton susiryhmä. 2018.

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