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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

On The Border

Photographers document the ecological impact of the barrier going up along the U.S.-Mexico border

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El Pinacate and Gran Desierto Biosphere Reserve, Mexico.
Many of the ecosystems found there are among the most rare in North America. The area is home to Arizona’s last free-flowing river, the San Pedro, some of the last undeveloped grasslands in North America along the New Mexico border, and the most diverse bird habitat in the U.S. along the lower Rio Grande River. This remote, wild land stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Since much of the landscape here remained isolated for so long, the ecosystems are relatively intact.

For this trip, the group started in San Diego and moved east along the border, staying in one location for three to five days on average. Those short lengths of time provided some challenges. Capturing images of animals proved to be a tough task despite spending hours in blinds and hiking deep into the desert. Schafer concentrated on wildlife, spending four days in blinds alongside water holes. The problem was that, in winter, animals don’t need as much water for survival as they do during the summer.

The Rio Grande marks the U.S.-Mexico border. There’s no fence or any sort of man-made barrier in this region yet.
“So I got almost nothing this way,” Schafer recalls. “I did come across a band of endangered pronghorn, but they ran away in terror because they’re still hunted illegally and are rightly terrified. Clearly, there are limits to the amount and quality of wildlife imagery you can capture on a short deadline.”

But the team had to keep moving if they were going to cover some 2,000 miles of travel in just a few weeks. Shattil spent her whole time working along the lower Rio Grande. She says one of the most remarkable aspects of the project was discovering how much local communities have done in the way of habitat reestablishment.

Ranchers and landowners in southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico and the northern parts of Chihuahua and Sonora, Mexico, are working independently and together to protect areas where animals can replenish their populations by re-creating corridors that would allow them to go from one habitat to another. This is land where, after decades, one of the last remaining jaguars in the U.S. was photographed. These efforts, though, are threatened by ongoing fence-related construction. For Shattil, the challenge was telling that story in pictures.

Some of the animal and plant life found here exist only in this part of the U.S., including many tropical bird and butterfly species like the green jay, plain chachalaca and malachite. More than 500 bird species can be found in what remains of this habitat type in the U.S., exceeding any other area in the country.
Open north-south migration corridors are essential for the long-term survival of the many wildlife species that live in the borderlands, including jaguars, Mexican gray wolves, ocelots and Sonoran pronghorn, which are the focus of restoration efforts on conservation properties in southcentral Texas and Mexico.

“With imagery, if you have one picture that tells the story without having to explain it to somebody, that’s way more effective,” says the accomplished wildlife photographer. “My biggest challenge was coming up with the image that explained the impact of the wall on these wildlife communities. I wanted that ideal shot of an ocelot standing up and looking at the wall.”

Shattil didn’t get that exact image, but she did photograph one of the endangered felines. Her biggest hope is that the project creates more awareness among the general public about what’s happening to this environment. The plan is that the images will be used to enhance the reach of a coalition of groups and people working on the borderlands issue. Back in April, the exhibit on Capitol Hill was supported by a lobbying group of more than 40 people from around the country. Over the course of three days, they visited with 120 legislators.

The fence remains a hot political issue with supporters arguing that it’s an effective way of deterring illegal border crossers and using data that shows steep drops in crossings at places like Yuma, Ariz., which once was popular among immigrants entering the U.S. But critics cite a 2008 Congressional report that found the new fencing just shifts illegal crossing to other, more remote, locations. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, about 601 miles of the project had been completed in January. In December, then President-elect Barack Obama said he wanted to evaluate border security operations before he considers whether to finish building the fence under his administration.

The Borderlands RAVE group now is working to raise money to move their exhibit around the country and perhaps overseas. “Hopefully, we can just keep adding momentum to a movement that’s been going on for a while, but people haven’t been paying attention,” Schlyer says. “We all need to be aware of what’s being sacrificed.”

To learn more about the Borderlands RAVE and the International League of Conservation Photographers, including a blog that was kept during the trip, go to www.ilcp.com/borderlands.


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