Assignment: Portraiture, Harsh Light and f/2.8

Every so often I like to give myself projects or assignments. I love to do portraits in the studio where I can have perfect lighting and control all the conditions. Normally I shoot at f/8 or f/11 to assure excellent sharpness and depth of field. For this assignment I decided it was time to move out of my comfort zone and venture into the real world. I decided that I wanted to shoot a series of portraits at f/2.8, to obtain a soft appearance. I also decided to shoot outdoors during the mid-day hours when the sun is at its most intense to see how I could handle those conditions.

My equipment for this shoot consisted of a Nikon D800 with a 70-200mm, f/2.8 zoom lens and SB910 flash. For some shots I also used my 24-70mm, f/2.8 lens. An incident light meter was used to read the ambient light levels. And of course the most important part of the shoot, my friend Sharon, who served as my model.

The idea was to shoot in a variety of locations and under varying conditions. I had already decided that for this shoot I was going to operate the camera in manual mode. All photos were taken at f/2.8. Using the light meter I would determine what shutter speed to use to correctly expose the background. I could lighten or darken the background by altering the shutter speed and let the flash compensate to maintain correct exposure for my model.

We started shooting in my back yard at about 9:30 in the morning. The sun brightly illuminated the shrubbery on the hillside while the patio and Sharon remained in shade. I used a focal length of about 150 mm to assure that only the brightly illuminated hillside was included in the background. I then slowed the shutter speed to 1/125 sec. to create the bright high-key effect that you see below. In most of the photos I set the flash compensation to -1, although in some cases I used no compensation.  Unfortunately, I thought the EXIF data would record the flash compensation value but it doesn’t so I don’t know which flash setting was used with each picture.

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I next decided to try to darken the background. I changed the shutter speed to 1/2000 sec. and obtained the following image.

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The resulting photo was pretty much what I wanted but the flash was a bit too strong giving the scene an artificial feel. However, it did show that I could control the background independently of the subject.

For the next shot I decided to move Sharon out into the bright sunlight. I positioned Sharon with her back to the sun, and the camera slightly off-axis to the sun. The background was mostly in shadow. The effect was to produce a halo of light around Sharon with a nice soft focus. Again the fill flash did a great job of filling the shadows and giving the photo extra punch.

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It was time to move out of the back yard and into other environments. The trees lining the street next to our house were covered with white flowers. I thought this would offer a great background for a high-key portrait. In order to fill the frame with Sharon while simultaneously having the trees fill the background it was necessary to use the 200 mm lens to obtain a sufficient narrow angle of view. Once again I metered the ambient light with the incident light meter and then slowed the shutter speed by one stop to provide an even stronger high-key effect.

In this case the flash provided the perfect fill light to produce a stunning portrait.

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The street was flanked by a block retaining wall. The rough gray blocks were a perfect counterpart to Sharon’s black dress. She leaned up against the wall to produce the following photos. In this case the shallow depth of field produced by the f/2.8 aperture and 200 mm focal length gave a wonderfully soft background.

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For our next venue we got into the car and drove to an empty field that was covered with yellow flowering mustard. By now it was almost noon, with the sun directly overhead. Certainly not great light for portraiture. Once again I positioned Sharon with her back to the sun so that no direct sunlight spilled onto her face. I set the camera’s exposure to 1/1000 sec. and f/2.8. In this case I had a huge field of yellow flowers I could use as a background so I switched to the 24-70mm lens. With the focal length at 52 mm I was able to fill the frame with Sharon and a background of brilliant mustard. Once again the flash did its job of filling the shadows and making Sharon “pop” against the background.

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The next idea came from Sharon. She got down behind some of the mustard plants and started looking through and around the stems. This allowed me to move in close and obtain the following intimate portrait with great foreground interest and soft background.

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Our final shooting venue was a row of eucalyptus trees in the middle of a housing development. I noticed, however, at the right angle, the frame could be filled with the trees and shrubs, avoiding the houses, etc. It also provided a shady respite from the noon-time sun. I chose to use long focal lengths of 180-200mm, even for full length shots, in order to provide the narrow angle of view that would provide a clean background. In this situation the only trick was to shoot at just the right angle to prevent any highlights from shining through the trees and spoiling the tranquil mood.

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So in a period of 3 ½ hours we managed to shoot in 6 different locations with 3 changes of wardrobe under very challenging conditions. I loved the wonderfully soft effect that I obtained by shooting at f/2.8. By careful selection of location and control of lighting direction we were able to obtain beautiful portraits under what would normally be considered “bad” light, even without the use of scrims or other light modifiers. The use of on-camera flash to provide balanced fill light helped considerably in giving proper lighting for the model.

I’d have to say that this turned out to be a very successful assignment. I now have much greater confidence in shooting in direct sunlight. So don’t be afraid of the sun. Get out there and shoot.

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What is White Balance and How Does it Work?

Most photographers understand the basics of White Balance. We understand that light can have different color temperatures that can affect how our photographs appear. Many people, myself included, always leave their camera’s white balance setting on AUTO. We can adjust the image’s color later in Lightroom or Photoshop. Some people, including many wedding photographers, prefer to set a custom white balance on their camera so that the image has the correct balance at the time the photo is taken.

While toying around with my camera recently I began to question HOW the camera achieves the correct white balance in AUTO mode. So I undertook a few short experiments to find out. But first just a few bits of science.

Most of us understand that if you mix Red, Green and Blue light in equal proportions you obtain white light. In fact, you can create any color in the visible spectrum by mixing these three colors in different proportions.

As a digital photographer you should also know that the camera’s sensor has filters that break down the incoming visible light into its Red, Green and Blue components which are then recorded to create the digital image.

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We typically describe the color of light by its temperature in degrees Kelvin. This comes from the world of physics. According to physics, when you heat a ideal black-body (a theoretical object that does not exist in the real world – however, think of a chunk of iron) it will begin to radiate light. At low temperatures the black-body will emit infrared light that is invisible to the human eye. As the temperature increases the light emitted will be more energetic and have shorter wavelengths. Thus at about 5000 degrees Kelvin the black body will begin to glow red. At 6000 degrees K the light emitted is centered on yellow but contains a mixture of all the visible colors and thus we perceive it as white. As the black-body gets even hotter the light emitted is in the ultraviolet region and once again invisible to the human eye.

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Different types of light have different color temperatures. This is why we have to adjust the white balance in the camera. Incandescent light, for example, is much more reddish than sunlight. The spectra from an incandescent bulb most closely matches a black-body temerature of 3000 degrees K.  (Note, that most of the “light” that an incandescent bulb emits is in the infrared region and is thus invisible to us. This is why incandescent bulbs are considered to be very energy inefficient and are being phased out.) Sunlight peaks at about 6000 degrees K. Quite a difference.

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To figure out what was going one inside my camera I set up a piece of white cardboard on a stand and outfitted my Nikon D610 with an SB910 flash. I chose to do my experiments with flash because it represents an easy to control, consistent light source. My camera settings were 1/60 second at f5.6.

With the White Balance (WB) control  set to AUTO I took a photo of the white cardboard. I then took successive photos with the WB control set to Incandescent, Fluorescent, Direct Sunlight, Flash, Cloudy and Shade.

Each of these photos were loaded into Photoshop which was used to measure the RGB histogram for each image and record the intensity of each of the three primary colors. The results are presented below.

Click on image to enlarge

White Balance

When the camera was set to Auto WB the photo was a uniform grey of about 50% and the RGB histograms lined up perfectly. When the camera was set to Incandescent WB a completely different result was obtained. At this setting the camera was expecting to “see” light of about 2900 degrees K but in fact the color temperature of the flash is about 5500 degrees K. Thus the light source is much bluer than light with a temperature of 2900 K. You can also see that the RGB histograms have very little overlap. Similar results were obtained using the Fluorescent and Shady WB settings. The Direct Sunlight, Flash and Cloudy settings resulted in relatively good balance. This was expected because the color temperature for those settings are quite close to the actual color temperature of light from the Flash.

The result of this experiment is very clear. When in Auto WB mode our digital cameras attempt to achieve the correct White Balance by adjusting the Red, Green and Blue histograms to achieve the maximum degree of overlap. The overlap of Red, Green and Blue creates white (or at least grey).

To drive the point home I color corrected the Incandescent image in Lightroom using the WB eyedropper tool in the Develop Module. The result is shown below. The formerly blue image is now a uniform grey and the three RGB histograms line up perfectly.

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Of course these experiments represent an ideal laboratory setup. The colors present in the real world are very different and very complex. Yet the camera operates in the same fashion. However, a little human adjustment may still be necessary to obtain the most visually pleasing result.

South Africa Safari – Cape Town

We were all a bit sad to leave the bush behind and return to urban reality. We had seen so many beautiful animals; had so many great experiences; had so much fun! But truth be told, I was tired. Twelve days of bumping around rutted paths in a land rover had taken their toll.

We landed at Cape Town International Airport at about 8 pm and were met by Wayne Donaldson, who would be our host for the next 3 days. Wayne drove us from the airport to our hotel in downtown Cape Town, the Cape Royal. As we drove through Cape Town I was astonished at what a beautiful city it was. It was the complete antithesis of Johannesburg. It practically sparkled it was so clean and pretty. I admit that I knew virtually nothing about Cape Town prior to arriving and was stunned to find this jewel of Africa.

At our hotel we were met by doormen in tails and top hats. The word opulent is insufficient to describe the lobby. One of the door men asked me the name of our group, which I gave to him. Seconds later I was startled by the sound of a loud gong. The door man announced “Ladies and gentlemen, may I present Natural Exposures Photo Tours“, whereupon the entire staff in the lobby broke out in applause. Oh yeah, I knew I was going to like this place.

Click on any image to enlarge it. Hover over an image to view the caption (if any).

Tom Dietrich posing with the doormen at Cape Royale.

Tom Dietrich posing with the doormen at Cape Royale.

We were escorted to our rooms. They were clean, elegant and equipped with everything we could need. Our suite had two bedrooms and even a kitchen. And best of all, Tanya had arranged for a fruit and cheese plate to be delivered to everyone’s room. We devoured it.

Cape Town was originally established in 1652 by the Dutch East India Company. The Dutch used it as a replenishing stop on their way to the far east. Cape Town was the largest city in South Africa until the Witwatersrand Gold Rush of 1886 which resulted in the development of Johannesburg as the largest and most powerful city. Today Cape Town has a population of about 3.74 million people and is the most popular international tourist destination in all of Africa. Its popularity is due to the beautiful weather, spectacular beaches and other natural wonders such as Table Mountain National Park. Our hotel was just across the street from the Cape Town Stadium that was built for the 2010 FIFA Cup Football (soccer) Championships.

Table Mountain creates a bowl that Cape Town rests in and a majestic backdrop to the city. It now boasts the accolade of being one of the “New” 7 Wonders of Nature. The mountain top can be reached by aerial tramway or by hiking and provides spectacular views of the area as well as being host to numerous endangered or protected species of animals and plants.

On our first day in Cape Town we took a drive along the spectacular Chapman’s Peak Drive and saw some of the most incredible coast line imaginable. The water from the Atlantic was crystal blue. We approached the small town of Simon’s Town and the home of the African penguin at Boulders Beach. These funny little guys, also know as jackass penguins, are only about 2 ft tall and weigh 5 to 8 pounds. They arrived at Boulder beach in 1982 and since then the colony has increased to about 3000 individuals. What is amazing is that Boulder Beach is in the middle of a residential area! It was great fun to watch these little creatures waddle about and play in the water.

From Boulder Beach we made the drive down to the Cape of Good Hope. The Cape is not actually the southernmost point on the African continent but it is the most south western point. Cape Point a few miles away is actually the southern most point of land.

, Cape of Good Hope, Mark, Cathy, Cape TownIt was extremely windy but we arrived just in time to see wave after wave of cormorants fly by. Their sleek black bodies standing out strongly against the crashing white surf. We also got close up and personal with the Rock Hyrax. These 9 lb. creatures most closely resemble the guinea pig but aren’t related. In fact, their closest living relative is the African elephant! They were running around everywhere. You had to be careful not to step on one.

As we were about to leave the Cape area Wayne spotted a Bontebok. The Bontebok is an endangered antelope that lives in the area. They were once considered to be a pest and slaughtered until the wild population was reduced to about 17 animals. Fortunately, with their protected status, their population has rebounded.

On our second day in Cape Town we headed for Gansbaai for a morning of whale watching. Gansbaai is noted for its population of Southern Right Whales. It is also the home of shark cage diving! While we were not going to go shark cage diving we were told that we would probably see one of the groups lowering their guests into the bay while the staff of the boat chums the water to attract sharks. But I digress…

The whale watching started off fine. We spotted several Southern Right Whales right away. However, the water was rough with some pretty big swells. That combined with the fact that we were in a pretty small boat made photography difficult as we rocked back and forth. The Southern Right Whale is a kind of gnarly looking whale. Most of the time I couldn’t tell what I was looking at. There were several breeches but Cathy and I observed only one.

Our captain spotted one of the shark diving operations and took us by for a look-see. There in a stainless steel cage, suspended from the side of the ship, were 5 people outfitted with wetsuits and masks. The people would submerge under water  while the staff tried to attract sharks to the cage with lures and chum. And they were definitely succeeding as sharks came swimming right up to the divers.

From shark diving we headed off to an island populated with massive numbers of Cape Fur Seals. There were thousands of them everywhere. It made me think of what it must have been like when settlers first came to America and discovered the seemingly inexhaustible populations of wildlife. Unfortunately, as we have learned (or have we) time and time again, wildlife populations are not inexhaustible.

Wednesday, October 9th was to be our final day in South Africa. We started out with a tour of Table Mountain and then we headed out for a day of wine tasting. In the past 20 years South Africa has made quite a reputation for producing quality wines, and Wayne had lined up visits to two of the best. Our first stop was  Druk My Niet where we toured the wine making facilities and then settled in to try a series of excellent wines. I was especially enamored with the Cabernet Franc.

Our second visit was to Kanonkop, described by those in the know as being the South African equivalent of a Premier Cru. Again we were served a stellar line up of wines while enjoying the relaxed atmosphere.

Our final stop for the day would be at Jordan’s for a late lunch. Jordan Wine Estate and Restaurant in Stellenbosch is renowned for its 6 course lunch and fabulous food. We only had time for two courses (and a visit to the cheese room) but it was superb. Situated on a large estate with a beautiful lake this was a perfect end to our adventures.

We made our way back to Cape Town to pick up our bags and then set off for the airport to catch our flight to London and then back to San Francisco. As we basked in the radiance of the past few days we were jarred back into reality on the drive to the airport. Despite all the progress that has been made in South Africa over the past 20 years, true equality is still an elusive goal, as the shanties on the outskirts of Cape Town demonstrate.

Our visit to South Africa was over but we brought home memories and photos to last a life time. To all of our old and new friends we say thank you for a magnificent expedition.

Daniel Cox, Tom Dietrich, Tanya Cox, Mark & Cathy, Ray & Carole Tinnin, Jim & Lynne Edwards, JoAnn Ziegler, Pat & Ed Nahin

Daniel Cox, Tom Dietrich, Tanya Cox, Mark & Cathy, Ray & Carole Tinnin, Jim & Lynne Edwards, JoAnn Ziegler, Pat & Ed Nahin

South Africa Safari – Day 12

Humble apologies to my gentle readers. Due to travel to the Midwest, Christmas and a nasty cold I have fallen behind in my postings. However, I’m back with the final day of our South African Safari.

We awoke on this, the 12th, and last day of our safari with both a sense of sorrow and relief. Sorrow because we did not want the experience to end. We had seen so many incredible sights and animals in the past 2 weeks and yet it was time to go home. Home to our own bed and our own wildlife (our 3 cats, Casper, Jasmine and Bosco).

It was an absolutely beautiful morning with golden light. The animals seemed to be energized, everything was moving. We almost immediately passed some rhinos grazing in the field. As always, they were accompanied by oxpeckers. With their bright bill and eyes I never tire of looking at them.

Our ranger headed the land rover toward the river to see if the overstuffed lions we observed the previous day were still there. He was driving at a pretty good clip as we passed a watering hole with a grey heron in it. The light on the pond was incredible. The water looked like liquid gold. We were yelling at our driver to stop but he kept going. We finally got him to stop and back up so that we could get the shot. It was worth it.

Leaving the heron behind we found a spotted hyena, sculking through the tall grass, that clearly had the scent of something. We continued on to the river and sure enough, the lions were still there. Still looking over stuffed and lethargic. It was clear that we would see no action out of this group today so we moved on.

Click on any image to enlarge it. Hover over an image to reveal the caption.

When we left the lions it was still early, about 6:40 am. We sighted a small herd of impala and then some steenbok. Steenboks are really cute but hard to photograph. They are very shy and hide when approached. However today we were lucky. The steenboks chose to hide in the tall golden grasses that lined the road. With the beautiful lighting that we had that morning we got some wonderful shots of steenboks backlit by the morning light and surrounded by the dry golden grass.

We heard via the radio that there were leopards in the area and headed off in the direction of where the reports were coming from. It took about an hour to get there and find the leopards. There were 3 of them, 2 males and 1 female. According to our ranger the female also had one or more cubs although they were hidden. We got there just after the female and one of the males had a fight. Apparently the male was interested in mating and the female was most definitely not interested. In this case the male came out on the loosing end.

The bloodied and beaten male attends to his wounds.

We continued to track and watch the leopards for almost an hour. The other male was also interested in mating but the female continued to show that there would be no fooling around today. It was fascinating to watch the interplay between the male and female and how the female controlled the situation even though she was much smaller than the male suitor.

And thus ended our 12 day safari. We had to head back to camp so that we could catch our flight to Johannesburg. However, our adventure was not quite over yet. From Johannesburg we would fly to Cape Town for a 3 day visit to this jewel of the African coast. During our visit there we would see penguins, fur seals, whales, sharks as well as visit incredible wineries and some of the most beautiful coastline I’ve ever seen. Stay tuned.

Entry to Kings Camp

Entry to Kings Camp

South Africa Safari – Day 11

As we roll out of bed this morning we realize that this is our last full day on safari. Hopefully it will bring lots of exciting new discoveries.

We headed down to the river. Our ranger had heard there were lions there that had made a kill the night before. What a sight. I have never seen a group of lions with such extended bellies in my life. They could barely lie on their stomachs. Most lay on their backs with their feet extended in the air. Needles to say they weren’t very active. Comical but not active. We hung around for about 30 minutes photographing these lethargic beasts before moving on.

Driving around we spot a few zebras. Zebras are among the most beautiful of Africa’s animals. However, they photograph much better on the savanna of Masai Mara that the brush of the lowveld. It doesn’t help that this is the dry season and there is no green to contrast with their beautiful stripes. It does give an idea of how well the zebra’s stripes can serve as camouflage under the right conditions. We were also fortunate to spot a couple of endangered ground hornbills.

We headed over to a large water hole and spotted a hyena, and before we knew it there was a whole pack of them, including a couple of youngsters. We parked the land rover and watched these guys cavort in the water and chase each other for over 30 minutes. The main behavior of the pack seems to be checking out each others genitalia. The hyena is unique in that the female has a pseudo-penis. The female is also slightly larger than the male and they live in a female dominated pack. It was also astonishing the number of vocalizations that these animals made. It was downright noisy.

After the hyenas moved on we joined up with others from our group for our morning bush breakfast. These brief interludes each morning were highly civilized and gave us a chance to get to know our rangers and trackers better. And besides – they make great coffee!

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Ray, Pat, Ed, Tom and Colbert

As we wound our way back to camp we saw a crested francolin, a yellow billed hornbill, a warhog and a Nyala taking a rest in the shade. A pretty good morning overall.

Lunch was a special treat on this day. Our host at King’s Camp, Tristan, is the proud keeper of an African Wildcat. As this was our last lunch at King’s Camp he promised to bring the cat out for us to see. I wasn’t sure what an African Wildcat was but I was looking forward to seeing one. It turns out that the African Wildcat, to my eye, is indistinguishable from a common tabby. And for good reason. The house cat was probably domesticated from the African Wildcat about 9000 years ago in the fertile crescent of the Middle East. If you’d like to know more about what domestic cats have in common with the African Wildcat click here.

The weather was stunning as we left for our afternoon drive. We observed giraffes, including a young giraffe, more zebra and saw how birds can protect their nests by building them inside of a very thorny Acacia tree.

The afternoon, however, belonged to the elephants. We followed a large herd through the trees, brush and river bed for close to an hour. Our ranger, Remember, and our tracker, Elvis, did a good job of keeping us positioned to get some great shots. I never tire of watching these incredible animals.

Once the elephants had finished with us we drove to the river where a large concrete dam had been built years ago to control the flow of the river. There lying on top of the concrete, basking in the golden glow of the setting sun was a beautiful leopard. He seemed completely unconcerned with anything other than having a comfortable nap. As the sun set we could see hippos swimming in the river and shore birds on the river bank. One last surprise awaited us as we exited the area. A scrub hare  was laying by the road, just waiting for us to take its photograph. A lovely way to end an exciting day!

Good News from the African Elephant Summit

It seems that all the conservation news is bad these days. Loss of habitat, climate change, poaching, etc. So occasionally when there is a bit of good news I like to celebrate it. After all, the subtitle for this blog is “Inform and Inspire.” Well we got some good news last week from the African Elephant Summit in Gaborone, Botswana. At the summit meeting governments of states where the illegal ivory trade occurs pledged to take “urgent measures” to try and stop the illegal trade and end poaching.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, “2011 saw the highest levels of poaching and illegal ivory trade in at least 16 years, with around 25,000 elephants killed on the continent, and it says 2012 showed no signs of abating.” Furthermore, “eighteen large scale seizures of more than 40 tons of ivory had been recorded so far this year, which represented the greatest quantity of ivory seized over the last 25 years.”

If not stopped, poaching will reduce elephant herds significantly in the next 10 years.

If not stopped, poaching will reduce elephant herds significantly in the next 10 years.

“Our window of opportunity to tackle the growing illegal ivory trade is closing and if we do not stem the tide, future generations will condemn our unwillingness to act,” Botswana President Ian Khama told the summit.

“Now is the time for Africa and Asia to join forces to protect this universally valued and much needed species,” he said.

The governments in attendance published a list of Urgent Measures to be taken in 2014. This list was agreed upon by key African elephant range states including Gabon, Kenya, Niger and Zambia, ivory transit states such as Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia, and ivory destination states, including China and Thailand, said the IUCN in a statement.

Probably the most urgent of the 14 measures classifies wildlife trafficking as a “serious crime.” According to the IUCN, this will unlock international law enforcement cooperation provided under the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, including mutual legal assistance, asset seizure and forfeiture, extradition and other tools to hold criminals accountable for wildlife crime. In other words, It won’t just be the Kenya Wildlife Service going up against international criminal cartels.

Will this action by the African Elephant Summit and IUCN put an end to poaching? Of course not. Poverty, greed and corruption, as well as increasing demand from Asia for ivory are strong motivators. But this action inspires hope that the number of needless deaths of elephants will decline. And that will be something to celebrate.

One of the victims of poaching are the baby elephants that are orphaned when their mothers are killed for their ivory. Without the protection of the mother the baby will die or be killed by predators.

One of the victims of poaching are the baby elephants that are orphaned when their mothers are killed for their ivory. Without the protection of the mother the baby will die or be killed by predators.

Side Note: When I was in South Africa in October I was reading an investigative article about the use of powdered rhino horn in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). In this story the investigator made undercover purchases of powdered ivory at traditional ethnic pharmacies and chemists shops in Asia. He then had all the samples tested by DNA sequencing. The result – not a single sample was authentic. Elephants and rhinos are being killed for their ivory and yet what people in Vietnam and China are buying is fake. It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so painful.

Sources:

  1. Urgent deal reached for African elephants, Key states commit to urgent measures to half illegal ivory trade; By Ray Faure, Associated Press – Wed, Dec 4, 2013 12:28 PM EST
  2. African Elephant Summit; Gaborone, Botswana; 2-4 December 2013; Urgent Measures 3 December 2013; https://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/african_elephant_summit_final_urgent_measures_3_dec_2013.pdf
  3. Zambia Assents to Secure Elephants; http://www.lusakatimes.com/2013/12/04/zambia-assents-secure-elephants/