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Write On! Features: Explorers Against Extinction & Sketch For Survival by Michelle Sutton

By Michelle Sutton

Making A Stand Against Extinction

Last year, I was lucky enough to have my art piece Asian Small Clawed Otters chosen as a finalist for ‘Explorers Against Extinction’s’ annual exhibition, ‘Sketch For Survival’. It was exhibited at the gallery@oxo, London, in November 2021, amongst other finalists and artwork from invited artists and celebrities, before being auctioned off to raise money for conservation.

This was the second year I’d entered but my first time being selected and, as I write this, I’m currently working on my entry for this year’s competition.

Asian Small Clawed Otters © Michelle Sutton, 2021

Besides running annual art and photography competitions, who are Explorers Against Extinction, and what do they do?

“Only 15% of land and 7% of ocean are protected, and over 37,400 species are threatened with extinction. Join us and make a stand against extinction.”

Co-founded by Sara White and Robert Ferguson (also trustees), Explorers Against Extinction is a registered UK conservation charity whose mission is: “To save species, safeguard biodiversity and empower local communities,” and, as stated on their website they are: “Making a stand against extinction.” Through their ‘Partnerships To Protect The Wild’ they’ve successfully helped to safeguard a wide range of endangered species and at-risk wild spaces in more than 20 countries, including the UK.

Originally starting life in 2000 as a small independent safari specialist, ‘Real Africa,’ the focus was on responsible wildlife travel, using local guides and services. Increasingly becoming aware of the growing impact on illegal wildlife trade and climate change, they were moved to set up a small charitable trust, ‘The Real Africa Trust’ in 2007. The Trust’s projects focused on education and the relationship between ecotourism, wildlife, and local communities.

Ten years later, Explorers Against Extinction replaced the Real Africa Trust, with the desire to contribute to projects around the world.

We wanted Explorers Against Extinction to be a community – a movement – where people from all walks of life, from everyday explorers like us to extraordinary explorers like our patrons, collaborate for a wilder planet. Stakeholders range from corporate and celebrity supporters to school children, artists, and photographers. They are all committed to protecting the natural world.”

Patrons include Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Pip Stewart, Levison Wood, and artist Gary Hodges. Supporters include Dame Judi Dench, Stephen Fry, Richard E Grant, and Joanna Lumley, as well as a very long list of artists – all contributing to the annual exhibitions to raise as much money for conservation as possible.

This brings me to those exhibitions and competitions.

On their website, Explorers Against Extinction explains the story behind Sketch For Survival and how it came to be:

“On average, an African elephant is poached for its ivory at a rate of one every 26 minutes.

The plan was to ask professional artists and celebrities to spend just 26 minutes on a sketch of an endangered species for an exhibition and auction off artwork to help raise awareness about global species extinction while also helping to raise significant funds for conservation.

Our team (of two) launched into action, writing letters and emails. It all went very quiet…

You can imagine the excitement levels at Explorer HQ when suddenly a Stephen Fry sketch and a Dame Judi watercolour arrived, followed by artwork from all corners of the globe. In 2017, our collection comprised 161 artworks. In 2018, we received over 400! Today, we have a number of different collections, including a competition.”

What is Sketch For Survival?

Sketch for Survival is an annual exhibition and sale of wildlife art in aid of conservation. In the last five years, it’s raised over £300,000 for frontline conservation. Sketch For Survival comprises original artworks, illustrations, street art, and cartoons, all depicting endangered wildlife and at-risk landscapes from around the world and donated by the professional art community as well as by celebrities. At the heart of the initiative is a shocking statistic: one elephant is poached for its ivory every 26 minutes. Exhibiting the collection helps to raise awareness about species extinction, as well as raising funds to safeguard wildlife and empower communities to fight wildlife crime.

In 2021, the collection featured 250 artworks from artists in 26 countries. Celebrities included explorers Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Levison Wood, actors Bill Nighy and Stephen Fry, and the singer Joni Mitchell. The collection sold in total, via online auction and gallery, for £90,000. This year, the Sketch For Survival collection will be displayed at the Dundas Gallery in Edinburgh from 20th-23rd October and at gallery@oxo in London from 16th – 20th November.

Levinson Wood Artwork


Joni Mitchell Artwork

The Joni Mitchell Artwork sold for £17,000 at auction.

Why should I contribute?

Funds raised from the sale of artwork support selected frontline conservation projects. Results are tangible; money raised goes to projects with immediate need and is spent on pre-determined requirements. The money does not sit around in bank accounts, or get swallowed up in general funds. Sketch For Survival is all about the power of art and the good it can do.

The competition element of Sketch For Survival was launched in 2019; the first year I entered. Open worldwide to anyone over 17, no matter their ability, this competition gives up-and-coming artists the chance to win a place at the annual exhibition and auction, showcased alongside established artists and celebrities. Only 100 are selected and last year the competition had nearly 1000 entries! Selected runner-ups are also included on the website and offered for sale in the aid of conservation projects.

A Junior category was introduced in 2020 for artists under 16 – the youngest contributor to date was just two years old. This year, acclaimed illustrator Axel Scheffler has joined the selection panel for the Junior competition.

Sketch For Survival is split into two categories: Wildlife and Wild Spaces, and the guidelines are pretty simple: create an original piece of art (all mediums, techniques, and styles welcome) either A4 or A3 in size (some variation allowed, see website for details) but it must be of a species or landscape/seascape that is considered at risk. This means it is either listed as Vulnerable (VU), Endangered (EN), Critically Endangered (CR), or Extinct in the Wild (EW) on the ICUN Red List. Other red lists, such as RSPB or Britain’s Mammals Red Lists are allowed, so long as context is given.

From experience, it’s pretty heartbreaking to scroll through the thousands of entries on the list (even when you whittle it down to just mammals and birds) and realise that so many beautiful creatures are at risk of disappearing from our planet if we don’t act. You’ll also be surprised by some you find on there. Only last week, while researching what to draw for this year’s entry, I found out that rooks are now classed as vulnerable in Europe (as well as being on the Amber list for the UK).

When I attended the exhibition at gallery@oxo last year, I was amazed by not only the diversity of subject matter but also by the range of mediums and styles. No two artists were the same, even when their work was of the same species. There are paintings in acrylics, watercolour, and oil, drawings in pencil, pen and ink, collages and other mixed media, as well as digital art pieces. Some artists had done quick sketches, others full studio-style paintings. A few had even used other flat surfaces, such as wood or metal instead of paper or canvas.

Sketch For Survival gallery@OXO Panoramic

gallery@oxo entrance and sign

You can find out more about Sketch For Survival here: and browse the archives from previous years.

As well as Sketch For Survival, Explorers Against Extinction also host ‘Focus For Survival,’ a photography exhibition and competition that runs alongside its art counterpart. To be eligible, your entry must be an original photograph featuring some aspect of the natural world with some relevance to the topic ‘nature conservation.’ Unlike Sketch For Survival, photographers are allowed up to three entries.

Last year, they also ran a travel writing competition, ‘Stories For Survival.’ Unfortunately, they don’t appear to be running it this year, but it will be interesting to see if it returns in the future!

Explorers Against Extinction have other initiatives to help raise money for their projects. These include:

  • Carbon For Conservation – a scheme that relies on supporters offsetting their carbon footprint generated from flights with donations (100% of payments go to selected projects) using the online carbon calculator on the website.
  • Virtual Forest – a simple way to support reforestation and to highlight the importance of trees. It’s free to take part: just submit a photo of yourself with a tree or in a wood/forest. For every photo, a tree is planted or seed balls scattered at one of their worldwide project sites. All images will be featured in a mosaic which will be displayed at exhibitions and events.
  • Young Explorer Programme – open to explorers aged 18-24 who can apply for a grant to support them for a trip (which should have an element of adventure/exploration and/or conservation to it), as well as offering practical planning assistance and advice.

*For full details on these initiatives, visit the Explorers Against Extinction website.

Last year, Explorers Against Extinction attended COP26, where they exhibited pieces from Sketch For Survival and Focus For Survival. Five artworks were displayed in the Leaders’ Lounge with a further 20 displayed elsewhere in the Blue Zone (for people registered with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)).

COP26 Leaders Lounge with SFS. Angela Merkel ex-German Chancellor with Dr Nigel Clarke Jamaican MP (C) Dr Clarke

You can get involved and support Explorers Against Extinction’s projects in a number of ways: whether by donating directly, entering a competition, taking part in fundraiser events, or even buying a piece of art or merchandise at an exhibition or from their online shop.

If conservation is a passion of yours, I recommend checking out Explorers Against Extinction yourself and finding out more about what they do, and if you are a wildlife artist or photographer looking to help endangered species, do consider entering the competitions. Deadlines for both Sketch For Survival and Focus For Survival are 30 June and are free to enter. Who knows, maybe your piece will be exhibited alongside Stephen Fry’s one year?!

As I mentioned in my previous feature on ‘The Evolution Of Wildlife Art’, several wildlife artists were the reason I became interested in conservation in the first place, and being able to have my own art now raising awareness and funds for endangered wildlife is a real privilege and not something I fully believed could actually happen. Now, I need to hurry up and decide what I’m drawing for Sketch For Survival 2022… I just wish there weren’t so many species to choose from!


You can find out more about Explorers Against Extinction through their website:

Details for Sketch For Survival and Focus For Survival can be found here:

Connect with Explorers Against Extinction on Instagram: @explorersagainstextinction, Twitter: @realafrica and Facebook: ExplorersAgainstExtinction.


Michelle is a wildlife and rock artist from Barking. Largely self-taught, she works in a variety of mediums and surfaces, liking to experiment with mixing mediums. She was a finalist in Explorers Against Extinction’s Sketch For Survival competition in 2021, where her piece, Asian Small Clawed Otters, was sold at auction to raise money for conservation.

You can connect with Michelle on Instagram: @msuttonartwork, Twitter: @MSuttonArt and Facebook: MichelleSuttonArtwork.


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Who knows, maybe your piece will be exhibited alongside Stephen Fry’s one year?!