The Least Among Us
One photographer hopes that his portraits of imperiled species could help sharpen the public’s focus on populations struggling to survive.
In a makeshift studio, a flower-loving fly with enormous green eyes and hairy orange legs lay on a table, anesthetized by carbon dioxide. A federally permitted fly handler stood over the insect—one of only a few hundred of its kind left in the world, all in California, and the first fly ever listed under the Endangered Species Act—while a photographer, clutching his camera, prepared to shoot. After waiting four months for the government permit he needed to take pictures of the species, Joel Sartore wasn’t about to waste this opportunity—and he had only a minute or so before his subject would awake.
Sartore did get the photo he envisioned, and thousands of others during his yearlong endeavor to preserve for posterity wildlife heading toward extinction. A self-proclaimed endangered species addict, Sartore has been photographing them on and off for 15 years as a frequent contributor to Audubon and National Geographic. “I’ve always been interested in endangered species and in ways to save them,” he says. “Using photography is a good way to get people to pay attention to what’s at stake.”
An image in a Time-Life book of one of the last passenger pigeons hooked Sartore when he was nine. He simply couldn’t fathom how humans could drive a bird whose population once numbered in the billions out of existence.
It often seems as if a few so-called charismatic creatures, like the whooping crane, the grizzly bear, or the California condor, symbolize all the threatened ones to the general public, he says, but there are many others that deserve attention. For this project, Sartore “tried to find species great and small that each have a story to tell.” The variety of images, approximately 10,000 in all, aims to raise awareness of just how much endangered wildlife is out there.
While most of Sartore’s subjects are captive, their wild relatives face countless threats, whether they’re on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species list or not. Some, like the shoals spider lily, which lives in only South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, have local advocates pushing for the species to be listed and thus receive federal protection.
Meanwhile, listed species, like the black-footed ferret, must rely on last-ditch captive-breeding programs for survival. Since 1987 conservation efforts have increased the ferret’s numbers in the wild from zero to 400. Yet they remain in critical condition because they depend on robust habitat and lots of prairie dogs, which, because of disease, habitat loss, and control efforts by humans, are dwindling and under consideration for listing.
Sartore’s ultimate goal is to spark people’s interest and involvement in conservation, even though there may be no financial gain from his venture. “It’s become apparent to me: Endangered species belong to all of us,” he says. “At the heart of the story is this, Do we as a society treat the least among us with dignity and respect?”
Habitat: Heavily vegetated areas, including forests, shrublands, and coastal prairies and marshes
Location: Historically ranged throughout the southeastern United States, but now populations remain only in North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, and Tennessee
Threats: Trapping and hunting by humans, habitat loss, and hybridization with the coyote
Status: Listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1967
Number: 100 to 250
||Choctawhatchee Beach Mouse
Peromyscus polionotus allophrys
Habitat: Sandy dunes above the high-tide line
Threats: Construction of homes and other buildings on beaches; cats
Status: Listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1985
Number: Up to 1,000
Habitat: Large, cloudy rivers, where they troll the bottom in search of aquatic insects, crustaceans, mollusks, annelids, fish eggs, and, on occasion, other fish
Location: Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Tennessee
Threats: Dams and decline of suitable aquatic habitat
Status: Listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1990
Number: 2,500 to 100,000
||Delhi Sands Flower-Loving Fly
Rhaphiomidas terminatus abdominalis
Habitat: Fine, sandy soil known as Delhi series sand that’s found in the inland California dunes where the flowers that are the fly’s sole food source grow
Location: Southern California
Threats: Development and conversion of land for agricultural purposes
Status: Listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1993
Number: Fewer than 1,000
Habitat: Savanna and forest on Pacific islands
Location: Guam and Rota
Threats: Feral dog and cats; rats, monitor lizards, and brown tree snakes; and typhoons
Status: Listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1984
Habitat: Coastal mangrove swamps, brackish creeks and saltwater bays, lagoons, marshes, tidal rivers, inland lakes, and rivers
Location: The Caribbean coast from southern Florida to northern South America, and the Pacific coast from southern Mexico to Ecuador
Threats: Poaching, habitat loss or degradation, humans near nest sites, and natural disasters
Status: Listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975 and vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature
Number: 1,000 to 2,500
||Shoals Spider Lily or Cahaba Lily
Habitat: Aquatic environments where the plant’s bulbs can lodge between rocks and grow until they bloom—for just one day
Location: Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina
Threats: Dams and increasing levels of sediment that create unsuitable habitat
Status: Not currently federally listed but designated as a threatened species in Georgia; under consideration for federal protection
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