A photo of a wolf walking across a mountain at night

Wolf Mountain was Highly Commended in the 2020 Animals in Their Environment category ©Lorenzo Shoubridge

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year: the fight to save the Apuan Alps

As a pack of wolves treads its usual route across the Apuan Alps in Italy, Wildlife Photographer Lorenzo Shoubridge shines a light on the region's marble industry.

Lorenzo tells two stories with his photo from the fifty-sixth Wildlife Photographer of the Year. On the one hand, he expresses hope for a recovering species, while on the other he immortalises a mountain facing steady destruction.

'I wanted to try this shot because the wolf is an iconic species that is naturally recolonising these mountains,' he says, 'And also because the mountain behind them is Mount Corchia which today is one of the mountains defaced and polluted by the insane extraction of marble.'

The primary focus of Lorenzo's image is a pack of wolves. Across Italy, as with much of Europe, wolf populations are slowly beginning to rise, following decades of persecution and decline.

Widely considered a threat to livestock, and therefore livelihoods, wolves were hunted to near extinction as human settlement and farming expanded across Europe.

A photo of a mountain silhouetted against a sunset

Image © Lorenzo Shoubridge

Wolf populations rely on having ample room to roam, but the wild spaces and prey species they rely on have steadily disappeared.

Now, the wolf is protected by EU law and is enjoying a come-back in most regions, encouraged by re-wildling and conservation organisations.

Apex predators

Wolves form a crucial part of their ecosystem. As the predator at the top of the food chain, they keep their environment in balance. When the top predator is removed from a region, like the wolf was from Europe, the ecosystem becomes less balanced and less biodiverse.

In Italy and across the world, the reintroduction of wolves by conservation initiatives has gone hand-in-hand with a boost in biodiversity.

Famously, the dwindling biodiversity of Yellowstone National Park in the USA saw a marked recovery following the reintroduction of the park's top carnivore. Scientists are still unravelling the ongoing impact that the presence of wolves has had, but it had been hailed as 'A rewilding triumph'.

In the absence of predatory wolves, elk populations experienced a boom, causing willows, which they feed on, to become over-grazed. Beavers rely on willows for food in the winter and so their numbers suffered in light of a growing elk population. Without beavers to damn the rivers, and willows to shade the water, temperatures in the rivers rose threatening the survival of some fish.

Conversely, once wolves were reintroduced in the park the predatory pressure on the elk encouraged them to move around more, leaving willows for the beavers, who's colonies rose from one to nine.

Lorenzo notes that in Italy, 'Since the establishment of the regional park of the Apuan Alps, the increase in biodiversity has been remarkable, especially the presence of ungulates and potential prey for wolves and other predators.'

A photo of a misty mountain top with a flock of birds circling its peak

Image © Lorenzo Shoubridge

Importantly, when a region has ample natural prey for a wolf population, and is therefore biodiverse, wolves are far less likely to feed on local livestock, benefiting human-wolf relations.

'Obviously, the presence of the wolf affects the number of prey animals,' Lorenzo says, 'But the wolf is of fundamental importance. It is a regulator which ensures everything works better.'

A scar on the land

While the reintroduction of wolves has brought about benefits to the local ecosystem, the extraction of marble is having the opposite effect.

Lorenzo is concerned that the marble industry is having a negative impact on the wildlife and environment of his local area. 'In my opinion, the extraction of marble affects the life of animals such as wolves and eagles, but also it affects the landscape in an irreversible way.'

The white marble mountains of the Apuan Alps formed over 200 million years, and while the quarries have been in use since Roman times, recent developments in extraction processes have turned the region into an industrial mine where irreplaceable marble is extracted at an unprecedented rate.

A photo of a marble quarry in Italy

Image courtesy of sandro bisotti via flickr

Local areas have become polluted by marble dust in the air and water and the destruction of the mountains has caused hydrogeological instability and floods in the area.

Lorenzo explains how the industry 'irreparably compromises the natural aquifers whilst releasing processing residues into rivers and streams causing them to become sterile.'

Nearby residents, who have historically profited from the mines, are now fighting for their closure.

Most of the mines have been bought by big multinational organisations who no longer employ local people to process the marble. Instead, it is extracted and exported before the area can profit.

Community led campaigns like Save the Apuan Alps are advocating for the introduction of alternative and sustainable forms of economic activity on the mountains which would relocate the profits to the local towns while halting the industrial-scale extraction of this precious rock.

Part of the solution

As a wildlife photographer, Lorenzo uses his work to demonstrate the beautiful biodiversity and wildlife of his local area. He highlights the importance of each species, big and small, to the local region and draws attention to the harmful effects of industry.

His highly commended image from the fifty-sixth Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition was the result of over six months work in the field.

'The initial work was very important, during which I identified this path used by one of the wolf packs present in the park and spent a lot of time on the settings and maintenance of the camera itself,' he says.

'Essentially the biggest challenge was that everything worked at the top, and in reality, it took me a long time to find the right settings.'

A photo of a moth taken at night

Migrant Megamoths was Highly Commended in the 2019 Behaviour: Invertebrates category © Lorenzo Shoubridge

Lorenzo faced many of the usual obstacles experienced by photographers in the field, as well as the added issue of human intruders; 'The greatest difficulties were the distance and the isolation of the place but also the frequency of hikers intrigued by the equipment.'

His image is part of a wider project in the area called Apuane terre selvage which explores the rich wildlife of the Apuan Alps, a region which still hides pockets of wilderness alongside it's quarries and caves.

Lorenzo hopes that his work will encourage people to recognise the threats that biodiversity is facing in his local area and encourage them to support the cause of nature.

He says, 'Being a nature photographer today is a great responsibility, but we also have the privilege of using our art to sensitise the public to a change, in terms sustainability, which cannot be postponed.'

To amateur wildlife photographers he says, 'I recommend studying not only the art of photography, but also the nature we work with, in order to work in the best way and with a sustainable ethics.'