Everyday Extinction — Connecting audiences to a biodiversity crisis

Scientists recently described a “biological annihilation” of wildlife over the past 40 years, declaring that Earth’s sixth mass extinction event — the first in 65 million years — is underway. Sean Gallagher responded by creating Everyday Extinction, which launched October 1, to highlight the causes and effects of, and the potential solutions to, this global biodiversity crisis.

From left: 1) A fisherman holds up a shark fin in a market in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. According to the Guardian newspaper, “Indonesia catches on average 109,000 tonnes of shark per year, giving it the dubious distinction of being the world’s biggest shark fishery.” Unregulated trade in the fishing industry in this region of the world is pushing many species to the brink of extinction. Photo by Sean Gallagher, @sean_gallagher_photo 2) A group of Samburu warriors see a rhino for the first time in their lives at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in northern Kenya. It’s surprising to think that most people on the planet never get the opportunity to see the wildlife that exists literally in their own backyard. Much-needed attention has been focused on the plight of wildlife but very little has been said about the indigenous communities on the front lines of the poaching wars. They ultimately hold the key to saving what is left. Photo by Amy Vitale, @amivitale

Sean Gallagher is a British photographer and filmmaker who has lived in Beijing the past 11 years and focuses on environmental issues across Asia. He is represented by National Geographic Creative, has received seven travel grants from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and has had his work published by National Geographic News, the BBC, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, and others. I recently spoke with him about the importance of connecting an audience to stories and why he saw Everyday Extinction as a vital way to inform the public about the mass extinction crisis.

Austin Merrill: Considering the large reach of the outlets that publish your work, why did want to use the Everyday concept to draw more attention to these issues? What is it about The Everyday Projects that struck a chord?

Sean Gallagher: As a follower of Everyday Africa, I really liked the idea of trying to inform people that maybe they’ve been seeing a place or an issue in a way that doesn’t reflect what’s actually going on, that isn’t perhaps accurate. It was enlightening to see different parts of this continent where there are huge misconceptions. And then I became a contributor to Everyday Climate Change, with its issue-based focus. By using photography and sometimes video, it was a way to transport people around the world to help them understand how climate change is affecting people. Social media is just an incredible part of the way we reach our audience now — it’s an integral part of how we share our work, especially with young people. It’s really an exciting way to get people to pay attention to these issues, especially unreported issues. And I think global biodiversity losses is one of those big under-reported issues.

This was Hope, a 4-year-old South African female white rhino who was attacked by poachers in 2015. She’d been darted with tranquilizing drugs and her horn was hacked off. She was then left for dead. Against all odds, she survived. Through the efforts of @SavingTheSurvivors, Hope began to recover. She inspired conservationists and people from across the globe with her enduring spirit. Unfortunately, since then, despite all the efforts taken to ensure Hope was able to live a normal life, she succumbed to a bacterial infection in her small intestine in late 2016 after enduring several grueling operations. Hope’s story may have ended, but her legacy lives on, and she has given new energy to those fighting to save this beautiful species. White rhinos are listed as near threatened on the IUCN Red List. Photo by Adrian Steirn, @AdrianSteirn

AM: How did you select your contributing photographers?

SG: We have roughly 25 contributors at the moment, and we’re aiming to post one to two images per day. I think that’s a good amount to keep people’s attention without overflowing their feeds.

My aim was to not just focus on all the problems that biodiversity is facing. It’s about documenting the causes, effects, and solutions. It’s important to help our audience understand all the different parts of the problems, such as habitat destruction, one of the largest drivers of loss of species across the world, as well as poaching, deforestation, these types of things. And then also the solutions, some of the work that scientists are doing in conservation, for example. So I thought, how can I select contributors that are going to represent all of that. First, I looked for a mix of established and up-and-coming photojournalists. So we have that nice healthy mix of established practitioners and also ones just starting out doing really exciting work but whose work might not be getting any attention.

As I mentioned, we have some very established photographers like Ami Vitale of National Geographic, who is a World Press Photo award-winning photographer. She’s been working on these issues for decades and works closely with non-profit organizations and charities. She has great access and connections to the community.

And then there’s Anton Sorokin, a biologist doing a lot of incredible photography of amphibians, which have been badly affected by the biodiversity extinction but don’t get that much attention. He’s primarily a scientist, but happens to do great photography. Why not try to incorporate more scientists and conservationists and get them in the mix with the professional photographers? Scientists like Anton can provide us with a real boots-on-the-ground view. There are quite a few scientists out there who are really handy with the camera.

This is a selection of fish larvae collected for a scientific study on how the changing climate affects fish spawning time and larval travel and abundance in the Atlantic Ocean. It is important to conduct studies in order to understand how species respond to a changing world. The floating fish larvae are part of ichthyoplankton, which in addition to the larvae contains fish eggs. Ichthyoplankton sampling provides us with information of what is present in the environment and can be used to determine the state and health of the ecosystem. It is typically easier and more effective to sample changes in fish stocks in larvae than in adults which are harder to accurately sample. The newly collected data will be compared to historical data so that scientists can see any changes in number, timing, and species compositions. Unfortunately in the grand scheme of things we still know very little about how the changing climate will affect most species, some may vanish while others increase in abundance. Photo by Anton Sorokin, @AntonSrkn

Another is Andrea Marshall, a conservation biologist who’s working with manta rays and is known as Queen of Mantas. She’s really good with a camera and underwater photography. I really wanted to focus on as many different groups of species as possible, that’s why I reached out to different photojournalists and conservationists who are working with species large and small — the problems and challenges they’re facing as well the solutions people are trying to find.

AM: Is there any one particular species or issue that is most important to you?

SG: No. In our media narrative the only species that really get attention are the iconic animals. Pandas, tigers, elephants, rhinos. And, of course, the challenges that they’re facing are really important. And the fact that they are such charismatic animals is the reason that they get attention, which is great because it brings global attention to the plight that many of these animals are facing. However, there are thousands if not millions of equally important species that are often not as charismatic, not as glamorous, as those species. And so they don’t get the attention.

I’m encouraging contributors to really show what’s happening to all species, without having favorites. Of course we’re going to have a smattering of images showing the challenges facing those iconic animals, but then we can lead them on to all these other species that get zero attention. And help people understand the challenges that they’re facing as well. And remind people that it’s all biodiversity. It’s all these animal and plant species that are under threat. Not just the iconic animals.

Shao Jian Feng, 26, holds a saltwater crocodile in his home in the outskirts of Beijing. This juvenile is only two and half years old, but when fully grown can reach up to six meters, making it the largest reptile in the world. It’s just one of five crocodilians he owns, along with two other large snakes. “There are 23 crocodilian species in the world. We hope to collect all of them,” he boasts. A saltwater crocodile can retail for up to US$1500. In the wild, they can be found mainly in South East Asia and Northern Australia. China is seeing a dramatic rise in the ownership of exotic pets. The trade in these animals has been directly linked to species loss in some of the world’s most threatened ecosystems as animals are taken from the wild for direct sales, or used for breeding. The global illegal wildlife trade is estimated to generate hundreds of millions of dollars annually, of which the trade in exotic pets plays a significant role. Photo by Sean Gallagher, @sean_gallagher_photo

AM: How do you convince people that these are real issues, and then motivate them to do something?

SG: I think you have to connect people first and foremost to the issues. Everyday Extinction was born out of a project I was doing this summer with National Geographic and the Pulitzer Center looking at the rise of exotic pets in China. The exotic pet trade is part of the global wildlife trade, which is this multibillion dollar industry, half of which is estimated to be illegal. These pets are being sold largely to the West — the biggest market for them is the US, Europe, and China.

Exotic pet ownership in China is booming. The country is seeing a sharp increase in the number of non-traditional pets, and one young collector is looking to profit from the demand. However, the lines between legal and illegal trade of wildlife are blurred. Video by Sean Gallagher, @sean_gallagher_photo

And so I thought maybe I can connect this issue to people’s daily lives by making portraits of people in China with these exotic pets. I found these people in Beijing who had collected all these strange pets like crocodiles and threatened species of frogs and snakes and spiders and sharks, even. I made a short film about what people in China are doing to protect these species, and I made a portrait series.

There’s a really great series by Tristan Spinski documenting confiscated items at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife repository in Denver — items customs had seized. There’s an image on the feed of this stool made of an elephant’s foot, with a zebra covering. So, again, I chose that project specifically because you can show the audience clearly that yes, these are African species — elephant and zebra — but someone in the US is buying and or selling that type of product. And it’s part of the global wildlife trade. So it’s about getting people to connect to these issues.

Photographer Adrian Steirn shows how a group of men in Africa are looking after pangolins, one of the most threatened mammals in the world. One way to get people to care about a species on the other side of the world is to show how ordinary people in these communities are trying to protect them.

From left: 1) An African elephant foot stool with zebra skin cushion photographed in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Repository in Denver, Colorado. In the spring of 2017, I was commissioned by The New York Times to photograph the National Wildlife Property Repository, a warehouse on the outskirts of Denver packed with illegal animal parts and products. These are objects of want and desire. Many are made of threatened or endangered species. The spectrum of non-perishable products can be divided into three primary categories: trophies, medicinal products and fashion accessories. Most is contraband, seized at major ports of entry around the United States. Collectively, the facility and the 1.3 million products within its walls represent an evidence vault. One that testifies to an economy serving the human appetite for other species. Photo by Tristan Spinski, @tspinski for @nytimes 2) There hasn’t been a more dangerous time to be a pangolin. The species has become the most trafficked mammal in the world. They are illegally traded for their scales, as bush meat or for medicinal purposes. But the threat of their extinction rarely makes news. An organization in Zimbabwe aims to change this by educating the public about an animal many may not know even exists. Enabled by the @TikkiHywoodTrust, a group of men dedicate their lives to rehabilitating captured pangolins. They are entrusted with caring for animals that have endured major stress, often having been transported many kilometers bound in a sack, starved and dehydrated. Eight species of pangolin exist, four Asian and four African, all appear on the IUCN Red List, ranging from endangered, to critically endangered and vulnerable, all eight of the species’ populations are decreasing. With the depletion of the Asian populations, poachers have redirected their efforts to Africa. Photo by Adrian Steirn, @adriansteirn

Yes, animals have been going extinct a long time. And yes, an asteroid can hit the earth and wipe out a majority of the species, but life will continue. However this mass extinction — it’s only the 6th time it’s happened in global history. The last time was when the dinosaurs went extinct because of the asteroid that hit the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago. But this time the main cause is humans and how we’re changing the world. So that includes climate change, habitat destruction, pollution, urbanization. All these types of things. We’re the causes of it. But we’re also the finders of solutions. That’s why it’s important that we’re not just highlighting all the problems and making people feel bad about the situation. Because we’re the only ones that can improve it.

There was a report by the World Wildlife Fund a few years ago — they estimate that 50 percent of the world’s wildlife has disappeared in the past 40 years. If you stop and think about it, it’s just astounding. I think the global extinction crisis is kind of in the same position, in terms of media coverage, that climate change was 10 years ago, when there was a very vague understanding of this issue called climate change and how it affected us. In the media you might have seen an occasional article about it, but it certainly wasn’t in the public consciousness. I really think the global biodiversity crisis is in that same point now. You do see the odd article about it, but if you just ask the regular person the street about it, I don’t think anybody has any idea that it’s so serious.

So hopefully this feed can play a little part in changing that.

A handcuffed poacher is photographed with a notice bearing details of his name, age, and the nature and date of his crime. While operating as part of a poaching team in Bokor National Park he was brought for questioning by members of the National Cambodian Forestry Security service. According to the organization Wildlife Alliance, “a recurring problem in Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia is unsustainable levels of illegal hunting that contributes to biodiversity loss. Illegal hunting is common throughout Cambodia despite the laws and regulations against it.” Photo by Patrick Brown, @patrickbrownphoto

Austin Merrill is a journalist and cofounder of Everyday Africa and The Everyday Projects. He lives in Brooklyn.

Like what you read? Give Austin Merrill a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.