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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Most Wanted

Going beyond the usual suspects, wildlife photographer Kevin Schafer is working to tell the stories of animals no one knows

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A nesting pair of black-footed albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) with their chick, Midway Atoll in the Hawaiian Islands.

With bushy white fur, a long white tail and haunting eyes, the silky sifakas are known in their native Madagascar as “ghosts of the forest” for their elusiveness. As they leap from tree to tree, sometimes as far as 10 yards, they look as though they’re flying. If the name sounds unfamiliar, that’s for good reason. Scientists say the silkies are among the most rare mammals on Earth. They’re listed by Conservation International as one of the world’s 25 most endangered primates, with fewer than 1,000 still alive—maybe only 100. They live within a few protected areas in the mountainous rain forest of northeastern Madagascar, which is exactly where celebrated wildlife photographer Kevin Schafer spent several weeks last year following these threatened primates.

The project represents a change in direction for Schafer, who has used photography to work for conservation throughout his career, though gone are the days when bears, lions, elephants and other frequently photographed animals occupied his lens. He’s now dedicated to capturing animals that few people have ever heard of because their stories are rarely, if ever, told. The project is called “Empty Ark,” and the mission is to tell the stories of animals no one knows through photography. In each case, he provides much-needed images to local conservation groups to help bolster their efforts and publish stories, which spread the word worldwide.

“I’ve always done animals,” says Schafer. “Wildlife photographers have a tendency to do the same thing over and over. The world doesn’t need more pictures of elephants and grizzlies. Instead, my goal is to try and cover rare and endangered species whose stories simply aren’t being told.”

When Schafer was working on his award-winning book Penguin Planet, he photographed all 17 species of penguins living in the wild, including the yellow-eyed penguin, which is among the most rare, and really triggered his interest in little-known wildlife. While the big, strong predators may remain the center of attention, what now grabs Schafer’s attention are species like the southern cassowary, a flightless bird that can run at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour, or a Darwin’s fox, which may have a population that’s down to just 250. His groundbreaking work documenting the mysterious Amazon River dolphins for National Geographic last year (also see “Chasing Dolphins Down The Amazon,” OP, September 2009) and the positive feedback he received from it only strengthened his commitment to finding these unique kinds of conservation stories.

A silky sifaka (Propithecus candidus), one of the 25 most endangered primates, Marojejy National Park, Madagascar.
Trained as a seabird biologist, Schafer began his photographic career as the assistant to the late OP columnist and Geographic photographer Galen Rowell. Since then, he has specialized in documenting threatened ecosystems and endangered species in places such as Madagascar, the Andes and the Bering Sea, focusing especially on the tropical rain forest and polar regions. Committed to aiding conservation, Schafer has worked for several years with the World Wildlife Fund, as well as with conservation NGOs across three continents, and he’s a founding fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). He was involved in helping to establish the iLCP’s Rapid Assessment Visual Expeditions (RAVE), where teams of photographers, writers, researchers and others go to a threatened area, document what’s happening through imagery and use that material to support other conservation groups and their efforts.

To document the silky sifakas, Schafer partnered with researcher Erik Patel, a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University who has spent years studying the animals. Patel had habituated the animals, making it possible for Schafer to get near them and take good-quality pictures. When he returned, the images were published in Smithsonian magazine, which was significant not only for the exposure, but also for fundraising. To help protect the silkies, Schafer and Patel have teamed to create the Simpona Fund, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting the primates’ habitat, raising money and educating the community. Already there has been some success with Madagascar’s government reinstating a ban on logging and the export of rosewood in late March. The illegal destruction of valuable rosewood trees has threatened to destroy the silkies’ forest habitat.


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