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WHITE-BELLIED PANGOLIN: This scaly mammal native to tropical regions of Africa is hunted for food and for traditional medicines. Pangolins are sold illegally more than any other mammal in the world.

TIM FLACH

STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: LS4.D

CCSS: Writing: 3

TEKS: 7.10A, 8.11B, B.12E, E.9E

Creature Close-Ups

A photographer takes captivating images of endangered species to help save them

ESSENTIAL QUESTION:  What types of threats have led some animals to become endangered?

Tim Flach dug a shallow hole in the grasslands of Russia and slowly lowered himself into it. He wore camouflage to blend in with his surroundings. It was incredibly hot, and he constantly swatted away flies. Flach lay in the dirt for hours, staying as quiet as he could with his camera ready.

Flach is an animal photographer who spent two years taking pictures of some of the most endangered animals on the planet. That day in the hole, he was trying to photograph a rare antelope called a saiga. The species has existed for thousands of years, since woolly mammoths and saber-toothed cats roamed the planet. But disease and hunting have devastated the saiga population. The animals once numbered in the millions, but today only about 160,000 remain. They are timid and bolt at the slightest sound.

Tim Flach dug a shallow hole in grasslands in Russia. Then he lowered himself in. He wore camouflage to blend in with his surroundings. It was very hot, and he kept slapping away flies. Flach lay in the dirt for hours. He stayed as quiet as possible with his camera ready.

Flach is an animal photographer. For two years, he took pictures of some of the most endangered animals on the planet. That day in the hole, he was trying to photograph a rare antelope called a saiga. The species has existed for thousands of years. It was around back when woolly mammoths and saber-toothed cats lived. But disease and hunting have shrunk the saiga population. There used to be millions. Today only about 160,000 remain. The animals are shy and run at the smallest sound.

TIM FLACH

WESTERN LOWLAND GORILLA: This iconic central African great ape faces threats that include poaching for meat, infectious diseases, and habitat destruction (left).

 

PHILIPPINE EAGLE: Only a few hundred individuals of this critically endangered species native to the Philippines remain in the wild. Habitat loss and hunting continue to threaten the population (right).

Flach’s persistence paid off. He managed to capture the elusive antelope on camera. But the photos turned out blurry, probably because of the extreme heat. Flach didn’t give up. He returned to the grassland the following winter. This time, luck was on his side. After three days lying on the ground in freezing temperatures, he got the shot he’d hoped for: a close-up of a male saiga gazing directly at the camera. It captures the animal’s unique features in detail, including its big, gentle eyes and the ridged horns that make male saigas a target for hunters.

Flach’s hard work paid off. He caught the antelope on camera. But the photos turned out blurry, probably because of the heat. Flach was disappointed, but he didn’t give up. He returned to the grassland the next winter. This time, he was lucky. For three days, he lay on the ground in freezing temperatures. Finally, he got the shot he wanted. It was a close-up of a male saiga looking directly at the camera. It shows the animal’s unusual features in detail, including its big, gentle eyes and ridged horns. Those horns make male saigas a target for hunters. 

EYE TO EYE

Flach photographs many of his subjects in the wild. But the animals, not the setting, are his main focus. His intimate portraits often resemble studio headshots of people. Flach chose this style because scientists have found that people have a stronger reaction to animals when their characteristics seem more humanlike.

Flach photographs many of his subjects in the wild. But his main focus is the animals, not the setting. His close-ups often look like portraits of people. Flach chose this style because of something scientists have learned: People have a stronger reaction to animals when their traits seem more human.

TIM FLACH

PLOUGHSHARE TORTOISE: Only a few tiny populations remain on the island of Madagascar. Illegal capture of the tortoises as pets is a major threat (right).

 

IBERIAN LYNX: Only a few hundred of these wildcats remain in the forests of Spain, though with conservation efforts their numbers are growing (left).

“Traditional wildlife images capture animals in their environment,” says Flach. “They show a distant, nonhuman world. I focused on capturing the animals’ personality. I wanted to connect them to our world.” Flach hopes that will lead people to care more about the creatures he photographs. The more that people relate to animals, the more they may want to protect them.

Flach recently traveled the world to snap images of polar bears, snow leopards, western lowland gorillas, and other threatened species for his book Endangered. He even visited a 700-acre protected enclosure in Kenya to photograph the world’s last male northern white rhino, which died in March 2018. To create a heroic look, Flach lay on the ground and took a photo aimed upward. The rhino was one of his easier subjects, because it was used to people. “He’d been photographed many times,” says Flach. “You become a bit of a celebrity when you’re the very last of a species.”

“Traditional wildlife images capture animals in their environment,” says Flach. “They show a distant, nonhuman world. I focused on capturing the animals’ personality. I wanted to connect them to our world.” Flach hopes that will make people care more about the animals he photographs. If people connect more to the animals, they may want to protect them.

Recently, Flach traveled the world to snap images for his book Endangered. He photographed polar bears, snow leopards, western lowland gorillas, and other threatened species. He even visited a 700-acre protected area in Kenya. In this enclosed space, he photographed the world’s last male northern white rhino. Flach wanted to make the rhino look like a hero. So Flach lay on the ground and took a photo aimed upward. The rhino was one of his easier subjects because it was used to people. “He’d been photographed many times,” says Flach. “You become a bit of a celebrity when you’re the very last of a species.” The rhino died in March 2018.

TIM FLACH

CHIMPANZEE: This species, one of humans’ closest relatives, is endangered because of poaching for meat and for the illegal pet trade (left).

 

LEMUR LEAF FROG: Populations of this Central American frog have been devastated by fungal disease. Conservationists are breeding the species in captivity (right).

FIGHT FOR SURVIVAL

Flach’s project comes at a crucial time for many animals. In a recent survey, the International Union for Conservation of Nature found that more than a quarter of species studied are threatened with extinction (see Under Threat). Conservationists are working to protect these plants and animals, but it’s a complicated problem.

One reason so many species are at risk is the loss of their habitat, says John Kanter, a senior wildlife biologist at the National Wildlife Federation in Washington, D.C. Orangutans on Borneo, for example, are rapidly losing their forest homes when people cut down trees to plant crops. In the U.S., millions of acres of prairie have been turned into farmland. Many populations of birds that nest in grasslands, such as the eastern meadowlark, are declining and face an uncertain future.

Flach’s project comes at an important time for many animals. Recently, the International Union for Conservation of Nature did a survey. It found that more than a quarter of species studied are threatened with extinction (see Under Threat). Conservationists are working to protect these plants and animals. But it’s a tough problem.

Why are so many species at risk? One reason is the loss of their habitat, says John Kanter. He’s a senior wildlife biologist at the National Wildlife Federation in Washington, D.C. For example, orangutans on Borneo are losing their forest homes quickly. That’s because people are cutting down trees to plant crops. In the U.S., millions of acres of grasslands have been turned into farmland. The eastern meadowlark and many other birds nest in grasslands. Their numbers are dropping, and their future is uncertain.

TIM FLACH

ON THE JOB: Photographer Tim Flach aims his camera at a panda.

Another major threat is climate change. It’s causing the average global temperature of Earth’s atmosphere to rise. A warmer environment makes it difficult for some animals to survive. Polar bears, for instance, are losing habitat as ice melts in the Arctic. They’re having trouble finding food, and their numbers are decreasing. While the polar bear is one of the best-known examples, many other creatures are feeling the effects of climate change. “More and more we’re hearing about species that can’t adapt to these rapid changes,” says Kanter.

Scientists are also concerned about diseases, which can quickly wipe out large numbers of animals. White-nose syndrome is a disease that has killed millions of bats in North America. It’s caused by a fungus that naturally occurs in caves in Europe and may have been brought to North America by cave explorers. Another fungal disease, chytrid, has wiped out huge populations of frogs and other amphibians Scientists are working to prevent the fungus from spreading further.

Another big threat is climate change. It’s causing Earth’s average global temperature to rise. A warmer environment makes it difficult for some animals to survive. For example, polar bears are losing habitat as ice melts in the Arctic. They’re having trouble finding food, and their numbers are dropping. The polar bear is one of the most familiar examples. But many other animals are affected by climate change. “More and more we’re hearing about species that can’t adapt to these rapid changes,” says Kanter.

Scientists also worry about the spread of new diseases. These can wipe out large numbers of animals quickly. White-nose syndrome has killed millions of bats in North America. This disease is caused by a fungus that’s normally found in caves in Europe. Cave explorers may have carried the fungus to North America. Chytrid is another disease caused by a fungus. It has wiped out huge groups of frogs and other amphibians. Scientists worldwide are working to stop the fungus from spreading more.

CLOSE TO HOME

The U.S. passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973 to protect threatened organisms and their habitats. Part of Kanter’s work is to help keep protective laws in place. But scientists aren’t the only ones helping threatened species. Kanter teamed up with students in New Hampshire to help the endangered Karner blue butterfly. They grew lupine, the only plant the butterfly’s larvae eat, providing valuable habitat. They also raised the butterflies in a lab and released them into the wild, where the insects are thriving. “If you want to help, look into what species are in trouble near you,” Kanter suggests.

Flach knew he had to help once his work brought him face-to-face with so many struggling species. “You meet an animal like the last male northern white rhino and wonder, how did we get to the point where there’s only one left?” he says. Recently, Flach has been working on a children’s book about endangered animals and their habitats, due out this spring. “It’s never been more important to connect people and nature. That’s what I’m going to keep doing.”

The U.S. passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973. It protects threatened animals and plants and their habitats. Part of Kanter’s work is to help keep such laws in place. But scientists aren’t the only ones helping threatened species. Kanter worked with students in New Hampshire to help the endangered Karner blue butterfly. They grew lupine, the only plant the butterfly’s larvae eat. That provided important habitat. They also raised the butterflies in a lab. Then they released them into the wild, and the insects are doing well. “If you want to help, look into what species are in trouble near you,” Kanter suggests.

Flach knew he had to help, because his work brought him close to so many threatened species. “You meet an animal like the last male northern white rhino and wonder, how did we get to the point where there’s only one left?” he says. Recently, Flach has been working on a children’s book about endangered animals and their habitats. It will be ready this spring. “It’s never been more important to connect people and nature. That’s what I’m going to keep doing.”

CORE QUESTION:  How does Tim Flach think his style of photography could help endangered animals? Cite evidence from the text to support why this might be true.

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