Image credit: Laurel Chor

From her work and energy, you can easily tell that National Geographic Young Explorer Laurel Chor has a passion for nature, wildlife and social causes. In fact, Chor loves the world so much that she doesn’t miss a chance to embark on journeys where she can work on under-reported stories, which have the power to change mentalities and inspire people to be more aware of their surroundings.

Perhaps this is why some of her most compelling assignments took her to Central African Republic, where she spent some time photographing gorillas. But there’s so much more Chor has achieved — inspired by the urgency of illegal wildlife trade, the passionate photographer has worked on a documentary on the ivory trade in the Democratic Republic of Congo and has covered the earthquake in Nepal, deforestation in Sumatra, Indonesia, and climate change in the Solomon Islands.

As important as these challenges are also the ones happening in the Southeast Asian context. Today, it’s almost impossible not to think of this region as one of the world’s “wildlife trade hotspots”, where unsustainable trade in wildlife poses an immense threat to biodiversity and species preservation. Chor points out that the “the root of many of these problems is ignorance”.

As an advocate of responsible travel, Chor says that her guiding principles are “doing research on each location or tour beforehand” to understand how things are run, where your money is going and how it will be spent. For example, if you’re going to an animal sanctuary, you ought to know if it is a respected, responsible one and whether the proceeds will be channelled back to conservation, the community or care of the animals.

Appart from being a photographer, Chor is also a conservationist and award-winning multimedia journalist from Hong Kong.  She was appointed by Jane Goodall to be an ambassador for her institute in Hong Kong. She is also the founder of the Hong Kong Explorers Initiative, which encourages people to explore the outdoors and to appreciate wildlife.

In a recent interview with Quotient, the dedicated conservationist shared her take on the wild side of Hong Kong, her home, and the power travellers have in protecting the world’s precious wildlife.

Central African Republic

Chor has spent some time documenting gorillas in Central African Republic. Image credit: Laurel Chor

Quotient: Hi Laurel. Tell us a little about your career as a photographer and conservationist. How did you become interested in photographing wildlife and what triggered your drive to be vocal about conservation issues?
Chor: I’ve always been a photographer and I’ve always loved animals, so it was a natural path to take! When you spend time with wildlife, you can’t help but be in awe and want to speak on their behalf, so that they can continue to exist in the wild and so that future generations can experience that same feeling of wonder and respect.

You live in Hong Kong, which is known as an extremely dense metropolis, but you are constantly showcasing another facet of this bustling city: its wildlife. Where can travellers explore Hong Kong’s wildlife?
Hong Kong’s land is 40% protected, and consists of 263 islands, so venture out and you’ll be sure to see wildlife in its natural habitat. But I recommend people to go dolphin watching!

Fei Ngo Shan, Hong Kong

Chor spends her weekends hiking Fei Ngo Shan in Hong Kong. Image credit: Laurel Chor

What are some of the misconceptions travellers have about wildlife and nature in Hong Kong?
People don’t realise there’s any greenery or wildlife at all, when Hong Kong is actually more of a literal jungle than a concrete jungle.

You are the founder of Hong Kong Explorers Initiative. Can you tell us a bit about how the project works?
The project encourages people to go outside and appreciate the city’s wild side through educational talks, exhibits and expeditions.

Laurel Chor photography

Animals graze peacefully in the African savannah. Image credit: Laurel Chor

From your travels and photography, it appears you have a heart for Africa. What are the biggest threats to wildlife in this continent?
Habitat loss, over-exploitation and illegal poaching.

What can travellers do to holiday more ethically and have a role in saving endangered animals or contributing to local communities?

Don’t buy local wildlife products, support community-run projects, and use our consumer power to show that you value animals in the wild where they belong.

There is a lot of wildlife and environmental controversy in Asia right now. We hear about a surge in Vietnamese demand for rhino horn and Indonesia is being deforested faster than any other country in the world. What are your views on these challenges? How can one create more awareness about these urgent issues?
The root of many of these problems is ignorance, which leads to demand for products that harm the environment and wildlife. Raising awareness at every level of society is necessary in order to change behaviours and policies.

I think individuals underestimate their own power and should remember this quote by L. N. Smith: “Every dollar you spend… or don’t spend… is a vote you cast for the world you want.” So spend your money wisely and think about what you want your dollars to fund, and what kind of message you want to send to not only corporations but also the people around you.

Rhino by Laurel Chor

A 3-month old rhino trots in a private reserve in Kenya while a line of buffaloes graze in the distance. Image credit: Laurel Chor

To what extent has photography or storytelling advocated social and mentality change in Hong Kong, and the rest of Asia? How does this compare with elsewhere in the world?
I think the media industry in Hong Kong and Asia at large are not held accountable to the messages they send to society at large, and that needs to change. A free, responsible media is essential and necessary for social progress, but it can sometimes do more harm than good by pandering to people’s fears or spreading harmful ideas and concepts. Of course, this is a global problem. Many point fingers at the American and British media for the success of Donald Trump and Brexit, respectively.

In terms of photography specifically, I think Hong Kong and Asia still need to catch up in terms of taking it seriously as a powerful storytelling medium that should be respected and paid for.

Laurel Chor bonobos

Chor gets playful with bonobos in Congo. Image credit: Laurel Chor

On a lighter note, what was the most heart-pounding wildlife experience you’ve ever had?
Watching wild chimpanzees as they stared back at me. They had likely never seen humans before. They were also walking on the ground, and not hanging from treetops as they’re most often seen, which made it all the more surreal. This was in a jungle in the Central African Republic.

What conservation project are  you currently working on?
I’m the managing editor of Coconuts Hong Kong, an online news company. I just finished a multimedia piece about Sumatran orangutans and deforestation caused by the palm oil industry, and now I’m working on a story about the effects of climate change on the Solomon Islands, where I was for two weeks.

What is your dream assignment?
Any story that’s under-reported and where I’m given the freedom to delve into the issue for months at a time!

Laurel Snorkelling in the Philippines

Chor snorkelling in Coron Bay, Philippines. Image credit: Laurel Chor

What is your favourite place to travel for leisure?
Anywhere with sun and beaches and where I can be active.

When you are in Hong Kong, what do you do for leisure?
I spend as much time outside as I can, so you can usually find me hiking on the weekends!