|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.
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.