What Will Make Us Care Enough to Save Endangered Species?

A photographer and a scientist hope that evocative photos will ignite a passion for protecting threatened animals.

Consider the shoebill, whose photo appears below. It’s a one-of-a-kind species on the verge of extinction—exactly the type targeted for protection by the Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered species program, aka EDGE of Existence. But when I started the EDGE initiative in 2007, the challenge was getting people who’d never heard of those animals to commit to protecting them.

Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex). The shoebill is found in East Africa from South Sudan to Zambia. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has assessed it as vulnerable, one of the nine categories it uses to describe a species’ conservation status.

PHOTOGRAPHED AT ZOOTAMPA AT LOWRY PARK, TAMPA, FLORIDA

Philippine eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi). The IUCN says this eagle is critically endangered in its range, which covers the Philippine islands of Leyte, Luzon, Mindanao, and Samar.
PHOTOGRAPHED AT PHILIPPINE EAGLE FOUNDATION, DAVAO CITY, PHILIPPINES

Ideally I could have gone to the leading marketing agency for nature and asked what to do to get people to emotionally connect with these weird and wonderful creatures. But no such agency exists—and we’ve only begun to develop both the art and science of making this vital connection.

Tim Flach photographed the birds in this article; all are in his book Endangered, to which I contributed. Flach has a unique ability to capture an animal’s essence and an affinity for unusual, obscure creatures. We saw the book as a great opportunity to explore which images of species and habitats would elicit an emotional response.

Military macaw (Ara militaris). The IUCN has assessed the military macaw as vulnerable. Its range extends from Mexico to Argentina. This captive bird was photographed at a private collection.

PHOTOGRAPH BY TIM FLACH

Passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). This North American bird was hunted to extinction; the last one died in 1914. This specimen is part of the collection of extinction expert Errol Fuller.

PHOTOGRAPH BY TIM FLACH

Were people connecting to species that were larger? More colorful? Or that had traits similar to human babies’, such as big eyes? Was it more powerful if species were pictured in portrait style or in their native habitat? Did the viewer connect through seemingly shared emotions or behaviors, such as maternal gestures, fear, and vulnerability?

 

Human actions are driving the decline of threatened bird species

Most of the forces threatening bird populations are at least in part generated by humans. Currently, expanding agriculture and aquaculture pose the greatest risks; in the future the leading risk factor for many birds may be climate change.

*INCLUDES BIRDS LISTED AS CRITICALLY ENDANGERED, ENDANGERED, OR VULNERABLE ON THE IUCN RED LIST; STATUS AS OF 2017 DAISY CHUNG, NGM STAFF. SOURCE: BIRDLIFE INTERNATIONAL.

Flach’s images have helped start the discussion. Now we at National Geographic, through our Making the Case for Nature grants program, are inviting experts to offer ideas about how to better connect humans with the natural world. It’s a critical question; our future depends on it.

Lead Image: Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus). This vulture’s range includes southern Europe, Africa, India, and Nepal. The IUCN has assessed the bird as endangered.

PHOTOGRAPHED AT INTERNATIONAL CENTRE FOR BIRDS OF PREY, NEWENT, ENGLAND

At the National Geographic Society, Jonathan Baillie is chief scientist and executive vice president of science and exploration.

THE YEAR OF THE BIRD

National Geographic is partnering with the National Audubon Society, BirdLife International, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to celebrate the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Watch for more stories, books, and events throughout the year.

 

 

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