"As a photographer, you are seduced by the beauty of the places you are photographing. Before you know it, you become an advocate for their protection."
Nature Conservancy Hawai'i Trustee
People come to conservation in different ways. For Nature Conservancy trustee Rikki Cooke, his way was through the lens of a camera.
Cooke worked for 22 years as a National Geographic photographer. His career took him to India, the Canadian wilderness and America’s ancient cities. But it all started with an assignment to photograph Molokaʻi, the island where he now lives and has deep roots.
As Cooke tells it, his love for Molokaʻi inspired his photography and his photography led him into conservation.
“It kind of sneaks up on you,” he says. “As a photographer, you are seduced by the beauty of the places you are photographing. After a while, you become attached to these places. Before you know it, you become an advocate for their protection. And your greatest tool as an advocate is the photographs you create, because they communicate what’s at stake.”
Growing Up On a Ranch
Cooke’s formal name is Richard A. Cooke III. For 80 years, 1908-1988, his family owned and operated Molokaʻi Ranch, then the island’s largest landowner and employer. Rikki grew up in Honolulu but spent his childhood vacations on the ranch, where he learned to hunt and developed a deep appreciation for the outdoors.
“For the Cooke family, owning the ranch was a passion,” he says. “I grew up with that passion. As a child, I could never be there enough.”
His interest in photography was ignited in high school. At the time, he was still an avid hunter, but instead of shooting deer, he began to photograph them. “Photographing animals was far more challenging, and far more rewarding, because you had to get much closer to them," he says.
Cooke has a fine arts degree in design from UCLA and a graduate degree in architecture from the University of Oregon. But he never practiced architecture. Photography was his passion, and following graduation and a trip around the world, he began publishing his photos in major national magazines and selling them as fine art.
A Career with National Geographic
In 1979, he was a working as artist-in-residence on Molokaʻi for the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts and the State Department of Education. He was teaching an environmental awareness program in the schools called “Seeing Molokai” when a friend introduced him to an editor at National Geographic.
A proposal to photograph Molokaʻi was accepted and in 1981 became his first published assignment; it led to the release three years later of his book, Molokaʻi: An Island in Time. Other book assignments for National Geographic followed.
Cooke made Molokaʻi his permanent home in 1992. Today, he is the only member of his family still living there. As president of the Molokaʻi Land Trust and a member of the Conservancy’s Hawaiʻi board, he is following in the footsteps of his cousin Sam Cooke, who served as the Conservancy’s first Hawai'i board chair in the 1980s when it acquired all three of its Molokaʻi preserves—Kamakou, Moʻomomi and Pelekunu—from Molokaʻi Ranch.
At his home in the hills above the town of Kualapu’u, Rikki and his wife, Bronwyn, run a non-profit educational center called Hui Ho’olana. There, in addition to teaching photography and doing carpentry, he has cleared a forest of invasive eucalyptus trees and reintroduced koa and other native flora. It is the largest native plant reforestation project on the island.
Cooke’s life at the Hui seems almost ideal, combining his passion for Molokaʻi, photography and conservation.
“I feel incredibly blessed to live here,” he says. “I guess the caveat that goes with that is that if we are blessed with so much, then for me personally, I want to take care of it. And that’s what conservation is.”