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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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An endangered African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) returning to the sea, Cape Peninsula, South Africa.
There’s an obvious sense of urgency in any kind of work involving endangered species, but it’s particularly acute in Schafer’s case because the animals he’s tracking down don’t have the notoriety of mountain gorillas or polar bears. With species extinction now occurring at a faster rate, many of these creatures could die out without there ever having been any kind of effort to build awareness and potentially avoid extermination. In a 2008 article in the journal Nature, leading ecologists at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of California, Davis, warned that endangered species might become extinct 100 times faster than previously believed because of flaws in the mathematical models used to predict extinction risks. According to the Red List of Threatened Species compiled annually by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, there are 17,000 species at risk of extinction. At the same time, Schafer has to be selective by choosing animals that are of critical value to an ecosystem and where he can form partnerships within local communities that know the wildlife and have access to them.

“I don’t want to spend six months finding some obscure beetle that no one has seen in 25 years,” he says, “so I have to identify what animals are important and find places where I have a reasonable chance of getting good pictures.”

One of the resources he relies on is ARKive, a centralized digital library containing photographs, film and audio recordings of endangered species that counts more than 3,500 of the world’s leading filmmakers and photographers as contributors. Launched in 2003 and backed by UK-based natural history television presenter Sir David Attenborough, ARKive’s mission is to create complete audiovisual profiles of all the species on the Red List. In some cases, the images are the only visual record of certain rare or extinct animals. Schafer has been a supporter since it began, providing the organization with pictures and encouraging his colleagues to do so as well. While the names and locations of all these creatures are known, in some cases, no one knows what they look like. There aren’t any pictures, and that makes raising their public profile nearly impossible.

A Darwin’s fox (Pseudalopex fulvipes), Chile Island, Chile. There may be as few as 250 of these animals left.
Take, for example, the endemic predatory shrimp that live in just two small rock pools on Ascension Island in the Atlantic Ocean. Before Schafer photographed them in 2003, there were no known pictures. Now, these shrimp aren’t very cute and probably won’t make anyone coo the way a bear cub would, but the picture gave Schafer considerable satisfaction—he was the only photographer to have snapped that picture, and it will serve as a vital tool for conservationists trying to protect this vanishing species.

Schafer’s work with rare primate species continues. He spent a couple of weeks in the evergreen forests of Eastern India earlier this year to photograph the endangered hoolock gibbons and macaques. Seven species of primates can be found on the wildlife reserve he traveled to that he says is the size of a “postage stamp.” In October, he’ll photograph the yellow-tailed woolly monkey in Peru. During the early part of his career, Schafer photographed all of the usual suspects, too. But now he’s encouraging photographers, especially those who are up and coming, to go beyond photographing the same handful of popular animals and look for untold stories. His ultimate goal is to produce a book based on the “Empty Ark” project.

“Like many photographers, I went to Churchill early on and photographed polar bears, but I never felt like I was doing something original,” says Schafer. “We’ve all seen thousands of polar bear pictures, and although their story is important, it’s already been pretty well told. As a photographer, I don’t want to simply copy other people’s work. This is also my advice to young photographers: If you want to get noticed, shoot something no one has ever seen before.”

Kevin Schafer is a Founding Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers and the author of six photography books. To see more of his photography, visit his website at www.kevinschafer.com; you can follow his blog at www.imageandissues.blogspot.com.


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