In the beginning
It all started in 2005 when my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Though she’s fully recovered now, at the time we knew we were in for a long haul—at least a year of chemo, followed by surgery and radiation. My high-flying days as a National Geographic photographer were over.
And that was OK. I was tired of being gone all the time. In our 20-year marriage, my work had kept me away for at least half of each year. That’s 10 full years of being gone. No wonder I was a kind but virtual stranger to my three kids.
And so I stayed home.
After a few months, when Kathy started feeling a bit better, I’d think to myself, “Well, now what?” I’d been taking pictures since I was 18 years old. I needed to shoot something.
So one day I went to the Lincoln Children’s Zoo in Lincoln, Neb. I met with John Chapo and Randy Scheer. I asked if we could try doing a few studio portraits of easily handled animals on black-and-white backgrounds. They agreed, and we started out with a pair of blue poison dart frogs and a naked mole rat.
Since that day, I’ve worked in dozens of zoos across the U.S. I’ve photographed nearly 1,500 species using this technique, among them some of the world’s most endangered plants and animals. This style of photography has led to two stories in National Geographic Magazine, one on amphibians and the second on the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It is from the ESA story that this book, “Rare,” was born.
In its pages are dozens of species that are on the ropes. The reasons vary for some, but their demise is usually due to the heavy hand of mankind. Habitat loss leads the charge. There are nearly seven billion humans on Earth now, and as we expand out, wildlife has no place to go. And since we show no signs of slowing our growth, things are not going to get any better. Indeed, try talking about human overpopulation around here and folks look at you as if you’d just bad-mouthed the Huskers.
Each person understandably wants a good life, which is most often measured by their standard of living: a house, a car, gasoline, plenty of heat, cooling, food, water, etc. All consume resources. All take away habitat for wildlife in one way or another.
And who am I to throw stones? I live in a big house and have three kids. I’m really a hypocrite. Sure we recycle, don’t water or use chemicals on the lawn and carpool the kids to school, but in the end that will not be enough. There truly needs to be a sea change in how humans look at the Earth. We must set aside vast tracts of wilderness, while there’s still time, if to do nothing else than to moderate our climate and filter our air and water. We also must figure out a way to keep from throwing so much carbon into the air that we eventually cook ourselves in a greenhouse of our own making. But as we’ve recently seen at Copenhagen, the world has adopted yet another “wait-and-see” attitude. To many of us in the environmental community, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that the best of times may very well be behind us.
One last chance
America has some of the best laws on the books when it comes to protecting our endangered wildlife, thanks to an environmental awakening of sorts the early 1970s. The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act all came along at about the same time. It’s the latter that intrigues me most.
The path to extinction first boils down to a few individuals of a certain species of plant or animal holding on in some forgotten swamp or prairie or captive breeding facility. Often but not always, these last few have been driven to the breaking point due to greed. We want those trees, so we cut ’em. We want those minerals, so we strip mine. We want that land for development, so we build on it.
The goal of the ESA is to come in and try to save species in places where local efforts have been ineffective. As I write this, of course I’m thinking about the Salt Creek tiger beetle. The size of a sunflower seed, this little creature is truly the least among us. It is also one of the rarest insects in the world, now numbering fewer than 200 adults during annual counts each summer.
The beetle is a classic case of habitat loss driving a species to the brink, but it didn’t happen overnight. Years ago, when the interstate exchange was put in on North 27th Street in Lincoln, Neb., this was a devastating blow, though few folks understood or appreciated it back then. The last of the interior saline wetlands needed by the beetle were located in that area. Today, car lots, retail chains and plenty of concrete are a matter of course there, and development shows little sign of slowing. Many folks are working on saving what marsh is left, but the beetle is an invertebrate with a very complicated lifestyle. It needs a certain amount of salinity to survive, and that salinity is altered slightly with every new burger joint and apartment complex that builds in the watershed.
Because of all this, the beetle was recently listed under the ESA. But don’t hold your breath that this will save it. This animal is now at such critically low numbers, it may be too late. That doesn’t mean we don’t try our best at every turn and be hopeful, but it’s not looking good at this point.
Having spent a lot of time thinking about the Salt Creek tiger beetle, I’ve come to these conclusions:
First, it’s much, much better to save species by protecting intact ecosystems and all the creatures within. As the tiger beetle reminds us, it’s really tough to save things once they become critically imperiled.
Second, it’s not fair for private landowners to have to shoulder all the burden should they find a rare species on their land. Isn’t the time finally here to create a fund, using a mixture of public and private money, to make financial restitution to those folks who are economically impacted by having rare species on their property? Surely that would help alleviate some of the friction that an ESA-listed species carries with it.
‘Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species’
This book is a culmination of a lifelong fascination with the species that may not be around much longer. To do the photos, I basically loaded up my Toyota Prius with a portable portrait studio (lights, backdrops, aquariums, cameras, computers, etc.) and drove from coast to coast a couple of times over the course of three years. The goal was to show as many different rare plants and animals as I could, first for the National Geographic story, then adding a few more for the book after the story came out in January 2009.
Besides the Salt Creek tiger beetle, there are several other species included
from Nebraska: a blowout penstemon being raised in Lincoln by Jim Stubbendieck, an American crocodile from Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and a peregrine falcon from Raptor Recovery Nebraska near Elmwood.
Whether the species was down to fewer than 100 heartbeats, on its way to recovery or somewhere in between, the goal was to show the huge variety of life that’s at risk. In many cases, the photos and notes that I took away from each shoot represent the only time anyone from a national publication has ever paid any attention to that kind of plant or animal. For example, ever hear of the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit? You’ll see it in this book, but that’s about it—the animal actually went extinct while the book was in production.
People ask if I’ll continue to do this kind of work now that the book is finally here. The answer is an emphatic “yes.” By showing all creatures great and small, elegantly lit on simple backgrounds, we can give as much weight and presence to an endangered frog as we can to a polar bear. It’s the small stuff that drives everything, from giving us food (think bees) and clean water (think mussels) to the air we breathe (think rainforests). So in the end, when we save species, we’re actually saving ourselves.
Finally, something to be cheery about.
Signed copies of “Rare, Portraits of America’s Endangered Species” are available directly through Joel Sartore Photography at (402) 474-1006 or http://www.joelsartore.com.