Wildlife photographers turn their cameras toward conservation

February 20, 2012

Steve Winter has followed snow leopards through the Himalayas, been trapped in quicksand in the world’s largest tiger reserve, in Burma, and been stalked by jaguars in Brazil. As a National Geographic photographer, that’s all just part of his job.

But he also serves as media director for Panthera, a nonprofit group that works on behalf of big cats in the wild. He will soon have dinner with the Honduran president and some of the group’s scientists to discuss creating a wildlife corridor for jaguars between the United States and Central America.

“The world needs no more pictures of pretty animals,” Winter said. “What the world needs is the story behind these animals and their struggle of being around humans.”

Michael “Nick” Nichols, a National Geographic editor at large, has been worrying about the decline of the world’s lion population for more than a decade and spent years devising equipment to chronicle the animals on the Serengeti. Because they’re active at night, Nichols is using infrared lights and sensors. He’s employing a miniature German-built helicopter to capture how lions live. “The technology is in place to look at lions in a new way,” he said.

Nichols and Winter belong to a new breed of environmental photographers who not only record wild animals and the stunning worlds they inhabit, but also push to preserve them.

Prominent wildlife photographers, including Ansel Adams, have spoken out for conservation in the past. But today’s photographers have taken the mission to new heights by changing how they craft their images and by lobbying policymakers in Washington and abroad.

Winter, who speaks about the threats to big cats in National Geographic lectures, has met with government officials in Burma, Costa Rica, Cuba and India to discuss species he has photographed. Brian Skerry, an underwater photographer with National Geographic, sent his new book, “Ocean Soul,” to every member of the Senate Ocean Caucus along with a personal note thanking them for their conservation efforts.

Nature photographer Amy Gulick published a book, “Salmon in the Trees,” that documents the links among wild salmon, grizzly bears and old-growth trees in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. A copy of it sits on the desk of Harris Sherman, the Agriculture Department’s undersecretary for natural resources and environment. He says it “connects the critical dots between healthy forests and rivers with sustainable salmon fisheries,” and describes it as “a must-read” for understanding ecosystems such as the Tongass.

Once they’ve captured the images, many of these photographers hit the road to advocate for conservation. Alan Rabinowitz and Howard Quigley, scientists who are spearheading the effort to create a wildlife corridor for jaguars, invited Winter to dine with Honduran President Porfirio Lobo so he can show him some of the images of jaguars he has taken in the field. A group from the International League of Conservation Photographers joined with the Sierra Club in 2009 to campaign successfully against mountaintop removal mining in British Columbia’s Flathead River Valley.

“Politicians are afraid of these images,” said Cristina Mittermeier , a marine biologist and photographer.

Documenting peril

In 2005 Mittermeier published an article in the International Journal of Wilderness arguing for the development of “conservation photography” — as opposed to wildlife photography — on the grounds that it would encourage changes in government policy. She recruited photographers to attend the World Wilderness Congress in Anchorage, where she helped start the International League of Conservation Photographers, a group that now boasts 104 fellows in 25 countries. Its goal: to document ecosystems in peril.

Technology has allowed these photographers to get closer to their subjects than ever before. They use devices such as infrared sensors and submersibles that can plunge to the ocean’s depths. And they take risks, flying on helicopters without doors, camping on freezing mountaintops, chatting up poachers and exposing themselves to an array of diseases.

“You do have to put yourself in harm’s way,” explained Skerry, who has begun a five-year project to chronicle New England’s ocean to press for more protective measures. “Many of us are invested in telling stories about the environment. But at the end of the day, we love the rush and love getting the pictures.”

Over his 35-year career, Skerry has experienced plenty of close calls. He has gotten momentarily lost under Arctic pack ice in water that was 28.5 degrees Fahrenheit. He has been grabbed by a Humboldt squid, an animal with 24,000 teeth on its arms, and chased by a sperm whale. His scariest moment came when a nine-foot saltwater crocodile came within three feet of him at the edge of a mangrove forest in Mexico, even as his assistant tried to fend off the animal with a PVC pipe.

“I knew I was being stalked and hunted,” Skerry says. “If he attacked, there wouldn’t be a way to get out quickly.” He extricated himself by backing up carefully so as not to disturb the silt in the water.

But Skerry, whose new book features a close-up of a tiger shark’s toothy jaws, said his photos underscore the fact that these animals “let us into their world. The message of that picture is he could have eaten me, but he didn’t.”

Skerry speaks publicly about the need to protect dwindling shark populations; he just won the Peter Benchley Ocean Award for Excellence in Media for his outreach efforts. His TED talk on “The Glory and Horror in the Sea” has attracted close to half a million views online.

Watching ice melt

Shrinking habitat, Mittermeier said, has forced photographers “to go to the furthermost reaches” of the planet to capture wilderness on film.

In 2006, James Balog, a scientist and nature photographer, came up with the idea of an Extreme Ice Survey that would capture the melting of glaciers across the Earth with time-lapse photography. He borrowed a neighbor’s eight-foot folding table to start building cameras that could function in sub-zero temperatures and withstand 150 mph winds for a year. He promised to return the table in two weeks; months later, he still had it.

“It turned out to be immensely more difficult than I had thought,” he said.

Balog consulted with scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as well as the Universities of Colorado and Wyoming. But all this research didn’t ensure that the cameras’ timers would work reliably, and Balog discovered what was wrong while standing with a NASA electronic engineer atop a 2,000-foot-tall cliff in Greenland.

As it turned out, the circuit boards he had ordered used Scotch tape to hold together a central component for the timers, so the men had to work furiously to fix them.

“I was terribly conscious of the specter of defeat hanging over it,” he said.

It came together in the end. Balog’s survey, which was featured in National Geographic and is the basis for a new documentary, “Chasing Ice,” continues to capture photos on 26 solar-powered cameras even as he has embarked on a project showing how climate change is transforming forests in the American West. Balog has given three presentations on his work to members of Congress and one to the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, and he represented NASA at the U.S. Pavilion during the 2009 U.N. climate negotiations in Copenhagen.

“By 2009, I thought, ‘I guess this is going on indefinitely, because this is a major part of history,’ ” he said. “The longer it can be recorded, the more visually and emotionally powerful it is.”

Telling stories

Gulick, who lobbied on Capitol Hill to protect the Tongass and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, said digital photography provides an “immediacy in which we can share those images and get them out to other media.”

Still, she added, the power lies in the picture, no matter how it’s shot or transmitted. “Those terms of storytelling haven’t changed, regardless of what technology is available to us.”

As Balog observed, photographers are still motivated by aesthetics. “It’s the beauty, the art and the architecture of these landscapes,” he said. “This isn’t all pounding the table and making polemic statements.”

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