Jan 31

A typical work day for many of us includes 8 hours toiling away in front of a computer screen seated in a cushioned chair shuffling through emails, reports and meeting notes. However, a typical work day for wildlife and conservation photographer Stefano Unterthiner couldn’t be more different.

Wandering albatross pair being photographed by Stefano Unterthiner

ngm_jan_2014_cvr 2

Capturing images of spectacular wildlife across the globe in all weather conditions imaginable is a typical day-in-the-life for Stefano and most recently, Stefano was lugging his camera equipment across various Indonesian islands in 90⁰F steamy heat following the footsteps of the closest thing we have on Earth to real dragons … the Komodo dragon.  Photographing this strong, lethal but vulnerable species was the challenge for Stefano while on assignment for National Geographic capturing amazing photographs for Once Upon a Dragon, an article in this month’s issue of the magazine focusing on the history and future of these prehistoric-looking reptiles.

Komodo dragon image ©Stefano Unterthiner/National Geographic

Saliva dangling, a dragon shows off its wide strut on Rinca at low tide. The lizard’s spit is venomous, but prey usually die from being torn apart—or, if they are bitten but manage to escape, from infection of their wounds. ©Stefano Unterthiner/National Geographic

In a rare opportunity to get a behind-the-lens glimpse of life as a wildlife & conservation photographer, we worked with National Geographic to interview Stefano about his experience in the field for the article. Before the interview, we invited you, our amazing followers, to ask your questions about wildlife & conservation photography, the behind-the-scenes stories about Stefano’s work for the article, and his thoughts on the power of wildlife photography in raising awareness of threatened species. We think you’re going to love his answers!

“I was pretty happy when I got the shot.” 

Mike asked, “Can you tell us a story behind one or more of your images in the article?” 

Stefano shared that one of the pictures he particularly liked didn’t actually appear in the magazine but it’s an image of a Komodo dragon lying in the middle of vegetation just before dusk (it’s the twelfth picture on the page). It was very difficult to actually find the dragons, even with the help of the ranger, but also to figure out the right lighting and angles since it was so close to dusk. He said, “from a technical point of view, it was probably the most challenging photograph I ever took since I needed to find the dragon in the right position while it was nearly dark and then also position the light correctly. My wife was actually holding the light over the dragon for me. But after it was done, I was pretty happy when I got the shot”.

“I feel in danger all of the time.” 

Dave asked, “Was there ever a time when you felt like you were in danger?”

Stefano shared that actually,”I feel in danger all the time. You have to otherwise you take too much risk”. He went on to say that this assignment was probably one of the most difficult jobs in his life. “You can never forget that the animal is so deadly. In the very beginning, I started working with the animals just learning about them. I started taking photographs with the polecam (a camera attached to a long handle) but you can’t really control the composition, focus, light, etc., so I started working with the hand camera always with a ranger behind me.” He recalled one occasion when he was photographing a dragon from a tree to get a different perspective. The ranger told him when it was OK for him to jump down. “I didn’t realize that when I jumped down, the dragon could feel the vibration on the ground exactly where I jumped. Luckily, I moved a millimeter away from where I landed and the dragon just missed me with its mouth. It was my fault because I wasn’t as aware of the animal as I should have been .”

Komodo Dragon photo

A female dragon tastes the air on Rinca Island, part of Komodo National Park. Each tine of the forked tongue picks up molecules from prey or carrion to carry to a sensory organ in the mouth. A high concentration guides the way. ©Stefano Unterthiner/National Geographic

“The local people aren’t actually a threat to the species. They have respect for the dragons.”

Mattia asked, “How do you think your recent work could help to change the perception of Komodo dragons through local people and policy makers? Do you believe your images could be a useful tool against harmful behavior to this species (invasive tourism, poaching, etc.)?”

Stefano answered that, “for the Komodo dragon, the local people aren’t actually a threat to the species. They have a respect for the dragons.” In the Once Upon a Dragon article, it was shared that islanders historically would leave some of the spoils from their successful deer hunts out for their reptilian neighbors. Stefano stressed that, “the opportunity to help the species is with the policymakers who can make decisions like creating new habitat space for the dragons on other islands, especially where there are larger deer populations [the dragon’s preferred prey]. I hope policymakers will see my images and encourage more support for the dragons.”

“I just follow what I love.”

Lisa asked, “What first inspired you on the wildlife & conservation photographer path?”

Stefano answered this question simply and poetically by stating it wasn’t a single event or even a particular person that inspired him on the wildlife & conservation photographer path. He said, “Nature is my inspiration.” The natural world gives him all the motivation to follow his path and what seems to keep him on the path is his desire to help conserve it. He simply stated, “I just follow what I love”, fantastic advice for just about any situation in life!

Stefano follows his love for nature to all corners of the world including Sulawesi where he captured this award-winning portrait of a crested-black macaque

“There is no magic solution; it’s a lot of hard work.”

Ceres asked, “What do you think is one of the greatest difficulties for someone trying to get into the field of wildlife and conservation photography?”

Stefano shared that in his opinion, the best thing a person with aspirations to become a wildlife & conservation photographer can do is to, “be yourself, take photos from your own perspective, and pick species that are interesting to you. There is no magic solution; it’s a lot of hard work. There are lots of photographers out there and the key is to do something new to help you stand out from the pack.”

“The hardest shots are the ones I never got.”

Kristin asked, “What’s the hardest shot you ever took? What made it so hard to get?”

Stefano shared, “Honestly, the hardest shots are the ones I never got.” He went on to describe that there are often times images in his head and he tries in vain to capture them in nature but sometimes, it just never works out. “But one picture I am thinking of in my head is when I was on my first assignment for National Geographic to photograph king penguins. It was the last day of shooting and I wanted to capture an image of the penguins and orca in the same shot together. I had hiked 4 miles to the coast and while there, it started pouring down rain. The whales were swimming in the surf and then the king penguins entered the ocean.  It was lot of time and work to get to the place where I took the shot but for a few minutes when I finally got [the shot], it was perfect.” You can see the penguin and orca image on his website; it’s the 15th image on the page.

“If you want to really make a change, you need partners. ARKive and National Geographic are those partners.”

I asked Stefano if he had any parting thoughts on his komodo dragon assignment or wildlife & conservation photography in general.

“My idea of conservation photography is that everybody wants to think they are going to help change the world but there’s more to it. I’m lucky to work with organizations like ARKive and National Geographic because, if  I’m doing my job as a conservation photographer, I need to partner with others to spread the word further. Conservation photography isn’t just about the photograph. It is being able to work with people and organizations with the same aim as yourself. I believe this is very important especially for the young people starting out in wildlife & conservation photography. If you want to really make a change, you need partners. ARKive and National Geographic are those partners.”

What an incredible note to end the interview! Now that you’ve heard his stories, take a moment to read the wonderful article, Once Upon a Dragon, in National Geographic magazine on news stands now.

Stefano Unterthiner is an avid supporter and contributor to ARKive and we’re very fortunate to be able to share his stunning imagery with students, teachers, conservationists and more around the world. Have a look at our Stefano Unterthiner MyARKive Scrapbook to browse all of his stunning images on ARKive.

Liana Vitali, ARKive Education & Outreach Manager, Wildscreen USA

Jan 30

A 27-year study has shown that the negative effects of climate change are increasing the mortality rates of Magellanic penguin chicks in Argentina.

Magellanic penguin image

Caption: The Magellanic penguin is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List

The Earth’s changing climate has increased the frequency of extreme weather events around the world, such as droughts, storms, abnormally high or low temperatures and wildfires, which have led to the decline of many flora and fauna species, including the Magellanic penguin.

A recent study, published in the online journal PLOSone, followed 3,496 Magellanic penguin chicks in Punta Tombo, Argentina, between 1983 and 2010. In this area, there has been an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events, which were found to be increasing the mortality rate of young Magellanic penguins. Professor Dee Boersma, who led the research, said, “It’s the first long-term study to show climate change having a major impact on chick survival and reproductive success.”

Magellanic penguin image

Caption: Extreme weather means adult Magellanic penguins are less able to hunt and therefore cannot feed their chicks

Extreme weather patterns can cause mortality, as the chicks can contract hypothermia. When Magellanic penguins are young their down is not waterproof, and if it gets wet an individual cannot control its body temperature. At times when temperatures are much higher than usual, some chicks may contract hyperthermia, which is also fatal. Indirectly, climate change is increasing chick mortality through starvation, as altered fish behaviour decreases hunting success for the adult penguins, which are then unable to feed their chicks.

It is estimated that the negative effects of global warming were responsible for around 7% of Magellanic penguin chick mortalities over the period of the study, while 40% were due to starvation. The authors of the report, Professors Dee Boersma and Ginger Rebstock said, “Climate variability in the form of increased rainfall and temperature extremes, however, has increased in the last 50 years and kills many chicks in some years.”

Caption: Starvation was the main cause of chick mortality in the study

The study also found that adults start laying their eggs three days later than previously recorded, which decreases the amount of time the young have to develop before the main storm season begins in November. Professor Ginger Rebstock said, “We’re going to see years where almost no chicks survive if climate change makes storms bigger and more frequent during vulnerable times of the breeding season, as climatologists predict.”

Magellanic penguin image

Magellanic penguins are laying their eggs three days later than previously recorded

As well as climate change, it is also thought that several other factors have contributed to the decline of the Magellanic penguin, including oil spills, water pollution, reduced prey availability from overfishing, being caught as bycatch and disturbance from tourists.

The study also suggests that the negative effects of climate change in the region were affecting other Argentinean species. Populations of other penguin species around the world, such as the Adélie penguin, are also in decline due to decreasing sea-ice and other issues relating to altered weather patterns.

The Adélie penguin is also suffering from the negative effects of climate change

Read more about this story BBC News – Climate change is ‘killing Argentina’s Magellanic penguin chicks’

Read the journal at PLOSone – Climate Change Increases Reproductive Failure in Magellanic Penguins

View photos and videos of the Magellanic penguin on ARKive

Read more about the penguin conservation project at the Zoological Society of London

Hannah Mulvany, ARKive Content and Outreach Officer

Jan 29

Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, is an important traditional Chinese holiday, packed full of flamboyant family festivities, age-old traditions and cultural charm. In China, New Year celebrations begin on the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month, with each New Year being represented by a different animal in the Chinese zodiac or ‘Shēngxiào’. On the 31st January, we enter the Year of the Horse, the seventh sign in the Chinese zodiac, and to celebrate this occasion we have delved into the ARKive vault to bring you fabulous facts about all things equine!

Ass-ociations

Asiatic wild ass image

According to Chinese astrology, each sign of the zodiac can be associated with specific personality traits. People born in the Year of the Horse love to be in a crowd, enjoying social occasions such as concerts, theatre visits and sporting matches. and it seems these Asiatic wild asses are no different! Interestingly, the social structure of this species appears to differ across its range, with some populations forming harems and others adopting territory-based social groups.

Several species with stripes…

Plains zebra image

As well as being one of the most distinctive equids, the plains zebra is also the most widespread and abundant. But did you know that there are two other species of zebra, both of which are considered to be threatened? The mountain zebra can be distinguished from its relatives by the stripes on its neck and torso which are thin and relatively close together, while Grevy’s zebra is the largest of the equids and has a conspicuous black stripe running along its back. With their fashionable stripes and funky manes, zebras are true style icons for the image-conscious folk born under the sign of the Horse.

Hot-headed horses

Przewalski's horse image

Two of the more negative personality traits associated with those born in the Year of the Horse are impatience and hot-headedness, as demonstrated here in this aggressive encounter between to Przewalski’s horse stallions. In the wild, Przewalski’s horse occurs in family groups led by a dominant stallion which physically defends its herd should a male from a bachelor group try and take over.

Equine explorers

Kiang image

People born in the Year of the Horse love to travel, as does the kiang which roams the vast open terrain of China, India, Nepal and Pakistan. This species can be found in Alpine meadows, steppes and on plains, foraging for grasses and sedges, and occurs at impressive elevations of up to 5,430 metres.

Energetic equids

African wild ass image

Those born under the sign of the Horse tend to be active, energetic and athletic, and are always on the move, much like this African wild ass. Horse-folk tend to pick up new skills quickly, and the African wild ass has a special skill of its own – it is capable of surviving water loss of up to 30% of its body weight, and of drinking enough water to replace it in under 5 minutes. Impressive!

Ass-like attributes

Kiang image

Despite sometimes being considered arrogant and selfish, people born in the Year of the Horse are also creative, positive and open-minded, as well as being witty (although this kiang appears to find himself funnier than his herd-mates do!), so befriend a Horse, embrace their free-spiritedness, and celebrate Chinese New Year in style!

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Content and Outreach Officer

Jan 25
European mink (Mustela lutreola)

European mink (Mustela lutreola)

Species: European mink (Mustela lutreola)

Status: Critically Endangered (CR)

Interesting Fact: The European mink is one of Europe’s most endangered mammals.

More information:

Weighing up to a maximum of 1kg, the European mink is the smaller relative of the American mink (Neovison vison). A distinctive mark of white around the upper and lower lips of the European mink can help to distinguish between the two species.

This species is mainly nocturnal, hunting and feeding at night on a variety of prey including water voles, birds, frogs, molluscs, crabs, fish and insects. It is able to hunt both on land and in water across large home ranges of up to 15km of river. Partly webbed feet and a thick, water-repellent undercoat mean that the European mink is well suited to its semi-aquatic lifestyle.

A century ago the European mink could be found throughout the European continent, but its population is thought to have since declined by over 90%.  In 2011, the IUCN upgraded the status of the European mink from Endangered (EN) to Critically Endangered (CR) due to ongoing population decline.

This severe decline is a result of various threats, including habitat loss, commercial trapping for fur, competition from the introduced American mink and accidental mortality through pest control, poisoning and vehicle collisions. The European mink is also susceptible to Aleutian disease, a highly contagious virus that causes an often lethal infection.

Captive breeding programmes are underway for this species in an attempt to successfully establish new European mink populations. Further research is being undertaken to assess the viability of captive breeding as a technique for the conservation of this species. In Spain and France, the populations of European mink seem to be suffering from inbreeding, a problem which could be addressed by the introduction of new, captive-bred individuals.

The European mink is legally protected in all the countries in which it occurs.

 

Find out more about the European mink at the IUCN Red List and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

See images of the European mink on ARKive.

Phoebe Shaw Stewart, ARKive Text Author

Jan 23

A shocking one quarter of all shark and ray species are threatened with extinction, according to the results of a new study.

Great white shark image

The great white shark is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List

Threat analysis

The paper, published this week in the open-access journal eLife, analysed the threat and conservation status of an impressive 1,041 species of chondrichthyans, a fascinating group of fish species including sharks, rays, skates and chimaeras whose skeletons are made of cartilage rather than bone. The results were rather alarming, revealing that this group is among the most threatened in the animal kingdom.

The paper is the result of collaboration between more than 300 experts from 64 countries, and reports that, while no species has yet been driven to global extinction, at least 28 populations of skates, sawfishes and angel sharks are now locally or regionally extinct. In addition, several shark species have not been seen for several decades.

Reef manta ray image

Reef manta ray parts are highly valued in traditional medicine, posing a threat to this majestic species

Threat hotspots

The study highlights two areas which are currently experiencing a higher than expected level of threat: the Red Sea and the Indo-Pacific Biodiversity Triangle. The latter is considered to be among the most biologically and culturally diverse regions on the planet, yet unfortunately it is also one of the least regulated.

The authors of the paper explain that, “The Indo-Pacific Biodiversity Triangle, particularly the Gulf of Thailand, and the islands of Sumatra, Java, Borneo, and Sulawesi, is a hotspot of greatest residual threat, especially for coastal sharks and rays with 76 threatened species.”

It is feared that, should no national or international action be taken, these species could rapidly become extinct.

Shark finning image

Finning was revealed to be a major threat to many shark species

Major threats

The results of the study revealed that the main threat to chondrichthyans is overexploitation through targeted fisheries and incidental catches. Of particular concern for the future of sharks, wedgefishes and sawfishes is the process of ‘finning’, which is driven by the huge market demand for shark fin soup, a highly sought-after delicacy in China.

The authors of the new research paper state that, “Fins, in particular, have become one of the most valuable seafood commodities. It is estimated that the fins of between 26 and 73 million individuals, worth US$400-550 million, are traded each year.”

Habitat loss is a further threat to chondrichthyans, with 22 species being threatened by the destruction of estuaries and river systems for the purposes of residential and commercial development, and 12 species being placed at risk due to the conversion of mangroves into shrimp farms. In addition, pollution and climate change have been identified as major threats to sharks, rays and their relatives.

Scalloped hammerhead shark image

The scalloped hammerhead shark is classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List

Additional factors

As well as providing a vital insight into the type and extent of threats to chondrichthyans, the paper also revealed other interesting factors which come into play. It was found that large body size and occurrence in shallow habitat are the biggest factors determining a species’ likelihood of being threatened. The results showed that with every 10-centimetre increase in a species’ maximum body length came a 1.2-percent increase in the probability that the species would be threatened. Dwellers of deep water appear to fare better than their shallow-water relatives, with a 10.3-percent decrease in the probability of being threatened for every 50-metre increase in the minimum depth limit of the species.

 

Read more on this story at Mongabay.com – One quarter of sharks and rays threatened with extinction.

View photos and videos of chondrichthyans on ARKive.

Read more about shark conservation and conservation in the Indo-Pacific Region.

 

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Content and Outreach Officer

 

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