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Photography as a Conservation Tool

Photography as an art is fairly straightforward: you take an image, you edit it or print it or post it, and others can interpret it or it can be just for yourself. People who pursue photography as a career often center on a common theme or passion of theirs and then extrapolate on that particular focus through their work. People who pursue wildlife photography as a career follow this same vein, and those who pursue it to a more advanced degree, beyond taking photos of the animal life they enjoy or come across, may eventually turn to “conservation photography”, the art of using photographic images to tell a story of a rare or endangered species in need of conservation measures in order to keep it from further moving towards extinction.

The key phrase in that definition is “tell a story”—an image or two of the animal might get some people interested, but conservation photography is also heavily dependent on the habitat where the species is found, what makes the species unique, and what threats they may face to their existence, whether that is poaching, deforestation, wildlife trafficking, pollution, disease, etc. In short, conservation photographers are masters of the “visual essay”, a gallery of work tailored to a particular species (or group of species) that tells you the where, why, and what. Famous examples of such projects include documenting ivory and rhino horn poaching in Africa, pangolin smuggling in Asia, or deforestation in South America.

As I compose this blog, I am sitting in the shade of a stand of pines along the shore of a small lake in the Sandhills region of southern North Carolina, where one of the largest remaining tracts of longleaf pine forest left on earth remains. These pines, which together with other plants and trees here constitute an ecosystem colorfully referred to as “Longleaf Pine-Turkey Oak-Wiregrass savanna”, are the only type of tree used for nesting by the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Dryobates borealis), which bore deep, vertical cavities into the trunks in which to raise their young, using their stout, chisel-like bills. As I began writing this post, a pair of them squeaked in the trees across the road to my back, and I have been privileged to keep their company all weekend long. They are lovely birds; not much bigger than a robin, on the smaller end of the scale as woodpeckers go, and the only other color on them aside from coal black and crisp white is a minuscule patch of garnet red on the male’s temple, his “cockade”, which is practically impossible to see unless you are within feet of him, itself a near impossibility as these birds spend much of their time moving through the tops of the pines in small family groups, prying off the bark in small pieces to snap up the insect larvae hiding below.

a Red-cockaded Woodpecker forages up the side of a longleaf pine as the sunset catches the treetops

But there are only so many pines left to glean through. Next to the loss of our native grasslands and prairies, longleaf pine forest is one of the most endangered habitats left in North America, a heavily fragmented husk of a former glory that once stretched in unbroken swaths from Virginia to Texas, covering upwards of 90 million acres, which today has been whittled down to a scant 5 million (per the Nature Conservancy), due in large part to longleaf pine being an excellent source of lumber for ship-building and production of tar.

These forests support a variety of other unique wildlife as well: Southern Hognoses, stout little snakes with large teeth and upturned scales on their snouts, tunnel through the sandy soil, searching for toads to swallow. Pine Snakes, non-venomous but at times more than 6 feet long and with a temper to match, patrol the more remote areas of the forest floor for rodents and moles. The song of the rare and declining Bachman’s Sparrow rings through these woods all summer long, and the sandy wiregrass clearings and meadows are riddled with the footprints of fox, bobcat, and bobwhite quail. There are stands of cane grass large and deep enough for a whitetail buck to completely disappear into, and shallow lakes and ponds bear witness to a ballet of bats, swallows, and nighthawks on early fall evenings.

This is the story of the longleaf pine, and the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, and all the other organisms that coexist with them both, and can be protected in turn thanks to the woodpecker’s presence on the Endangered Species list. It is a story I hope I will be able to better tell with the more visits I make here, the more sunsets I see sink into the pines, and the more joyful cackles of the woodpeckers I hear ringing from behind every trunk. Now you, the reader, have a taste of it, too, and I encourage you to come down for a visit, take a photo or two, and tell your friends about the rare wonders we have in our own backyards.


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