Photography jobs

Exploring the Deep Legacy of Bruce Kekule’s Wildlife Photography (Commentary)

  • The conservation world has lost a leading wildlife photographer, Lawrence “Bruce” Kekule, an American who had lived in Thailand since 1964.
  • In addition to documenting the rare creatures of his adopted land, Bruce also traveled abroad to favorite destinations like India: wherever he went, he raised awareness of the plight of endangered species through photography.
  • This post is a comment. The opinions expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

In June, the world lost one of its legendary wildlife photographers: Lawrence “Bruce” Kekule, an American who had lived in Thailand since 1964.

Born in 1945 in Sacramento, California, Bruce’s family moved to Hawaii and Hong Kong, where he graduated from King George V. School before settling permanently in Thailand with his father at age 19. year. He held various jobs, including on an oil rig where he lost a thumb in an accident off the southern coast of Taiwan, but wildlife photography was his great passion and he devoted the last decades of his life almost exclusively for this pursuit.

I first met Bruce in Bangkok in 2013, where we plotted a camera trapping project at Khlong Seang Wildlife Sanctuary in Surat Thani Province in southern Thailand, the results of which were covered by Mongabay. At the time, Bruce had already published several books on Thai wildlife and maintained his own website with regular updates of his finds in places like the vast Western Forest Complex, National Parks in the outside Chiang Mai, and also south to Khlong. Seang, where we worked together for a short time.

Bruce en route to Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary. Image courtesy of Greg McCann.

In 2014, we drove from Bangkok to Surat Thani, and along the way, he confided that he now spoke Thai better than English, and it was with great surprise that he carried a gun in his glove box, being one of the few foreign nationals to have an open carry permit for the weapon: he claimed he would shoot any armed poacher who stepped through one of his camouflaged camera blinds. He was so absorbed in his photography that he only discovered AC/DC in 2010, cut off from Western popular culture.

His efforts have borne tremendous results, with the common leopard now critically endangered (panthera pardus) and Indochinese tiger (panthera tigris tigris) walking straight to her shades, where he sweated as he gingerly walked away, capturing their magnificence, before they drifted away.

It was a good thing he carried the gun, because once a huge gaur confronted him on a forest path in the Huai Kai Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary – one of the last strongholds of the tiger and the Indochinese leopard – and he charged it. Bruce said he quickly remembered an excerpt from an old book, which stated that if charged by an angry gaur, you should drop to the ground and let him jump over you. With great acuity, he hit the ground and the massive animal leaped over him. However, the large bovine soon turned around and threatened another charge. Bruce quickly drew his handgun and fired it into the air, prompting the gaur to reconsider; he instead stormed the forest.

In Surat Thani we rented a boat, stocked up on food, a huge block of ice and some beer, and set off to one of the most remote corners of the Cheow Lan Reservoir, part of the border between Khao Sok National Park and Khlong Saeng. – by far the oldest rainforest on Earth. We set off into a world of limestone boulders that erupted from the serene lake, a dreamy, jungle-draped landscape teeming with rare and hidden creatures.

We were hoping to camera trap the common leopard at Khlong Saeng, but unfortunately it is either locally extinct there or reduced to such low numbers that we never found it. We did, however, capture Malayan tapir, clouded leopard, golden cat, marbled cat, gaur, Asian elephant (in one video a member of the herd stood behind our camera trap and used the liquid in his trunk to stick leaves on the lens to thwart our efforts to document them, see below), the great argus pheasant, and many other enigmatic species.

Bruce was passionate and sometimes fiery and stubborn in his ways. I clearly remember him scolding our Thai rangers for stopping to pick leeches off their feet: “It’s an Asian rainforest!” What did you expect to find here? You don’t stop every five minutes to remove them! Just let them suck your blood and let you down! They will fall on their own! You have nothing to do and you are wasting our time!!!”

But Bruce was also a good friend and very supportive and encouraged my own conservation initiatives in Virachey National Park in Cambodia.

India was also one of Bruce’s most beloved places. He has visited the country many times, dragging his heavy optics, returning with stunning photographic captures of the one-horned Indian rhinoceros, Bengal tiger and extremely rare Asiatic lion (panther lion lion), which once roamed large portions of the subcontinent, but is now found only in an isolated area of ​​western India.

No matter where he worked, Bruce did his best to raise awareness of the plight of endangered species and their habitats, and he did so lucidly with his photography. He is survived by his wife Noi and their daughter Marguerite. His work will live forever and continue to inspire conservationists.

Greg McCann is a biologist and assistant professor at Chang Gung University in Taiwan. He is also working with a team from the People Resources and Conservation Foundation that is documenting Sumatra’s biological wealth, in order to better conserve it.

Banner image: L. Bruce Kekule in his element in the rainforest of Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary in southern Thailand. Image courtesy of Greg McCann.

Related audio from the Mongabay podcast: Hear this writer discuss his wildlife work via Mongabay’s Sumatra podcast series, listen here:

Photo assistant Lek wrapping Bruce's cameras in rattan vine.  Image courtesy of Greg McCann.
Photo assistant Lek wrapping Bruce’s cameras in rattan vine. Image courtesy of Greg McCann.