Living with Animals Conference, Eastern Kentucky University, KY
Thank you Bob and Julia for organizing Living with Animals and for inviting me to speak. I am an artist, and today I am showing a few photographs I’ve taken of endangered amphibians and talking about captive breeding programs for endangered species.
This picture is of a greenhouse for Tortoises at the Behler Chelonian Conservation Center in Ojai California. This conservation site started out as a home and is privately funded by Eric Goode, a successful New York Hotel and Night club owner who had an illness as a child that kept him home for a year. During that time his parents gave him a Tortoise. He now uses his private resources to rescue and breed primarily endangered Asian tortoises.
These are Pancake tortoises shortly before mating at Eric Goode’s facility.
We continually hear extinction is inevitable for many species, without a sense of how to stop it. Extinction is an abstraction when we’ve never seen the species that ceased to exist but rather experience the unraveling occurring through over population, floods, fires, epidemics, oil spills and summer in winter. When a species dies off, few experience the palpable pain of extinction like the person recording the date, time of discovery, and location of death for the last known sample of the now extinct species. As Joe Mendelson, Curator of Herpetology at Zoo Atlanta wrote,
“Losing any species to extinction as a result of human activities is a devastating blow to the planet. It is perhaps the most egregious expression of human arrogance – that we deserve to live here and something else does not. I am still struggling to find words to describe how it feels to lose a species to extinction – especially those that I personally discovered and named. Though my career is built on my abilities to find things, I have not found the language to describe this loss.”
This image is of critically endangered Bowsprit Tortoises mating. I thought when I went to Ojai I would need to go many times to photograph a mating and in fact this was the first pair I photographed and it happened within four hours of being on the site. It was completely inspiring and changed the paradigm by which I viewed critically endangered species.. In this moment, exists the potential for new life; the inception of what may become more bowsprit, perhaps one day reversing their vulnerable state. With the making of this photograph I began to see the potential of saving species from extinction.
This in turn led to thinking about the complex circumstance of one man devalues the life of a species while another works to keep it alive. How did we reach this critical and pivotal point where one mating can mean so much?
These are Impressed tortoises mating.
With successful breeding, which Eric Goode’s facility is known for, where will all these Asian tortoises in Ojai California go? It does not make sense yet to put them back into the wild when the circumstances that cause their extinction still exist. For Asian tortoises the problem is often the black market and open air market.
I wanted to know what other programs making these same efforts looked like. What did other critically endangered species look like? What circumstances do the last of a species live in?
This is a photograph of Lonesome George, who passed away on June 24th 2012, about six months to the day after this photograph was taken. A Galapagos Islands conservation icon and tourist attraction visited by just about everyone who went to the Galapagos Islands, Lonesome George was found in 1971 and is thought to have been the last known Pinta Island Tortoise. Moved to the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, scientists were trying to mate him to a subspecies from Isabella Island in hopes of keeping his DNA alive. The eggs never produced offspring and a year before his death Lonesome George’s companions were removed and three female tortoises from Espanola Island whose DNA was closer to his replaced his long term companions. The Espanola Tortoises are a third the size of Lonesome George and they never mated. Tortoises are known to live as old as 200, and it had been thought Lonesome George was approximately 90, so my first personal experience of species extinction came as a surprise.
Jaguar Corridor Map
This is a map of the Jaguar Corridor, created by the NGO Panthera. I had read about the Jaguar Corridor in the New York Times before photographing my first critically endangered breeding site and thought it was fascinating. The Jaguar Corridor is being created so Jaguars can live in the wild forever. Jaguars travel vast distances to mate and are known to cross the Panama canal. Sequestering them to preserves has resulted in inbreeding and so a travel path from one preserve to another is needed. Panthera describes a jaguar corridor as “a cattle ranch, a citrus plantation, someone’s backyard – a place where jaguars can pass through safely and unharmed.” The Jaguar Corridor requires massive multi- national and individual cooperation and economic sacrifice raising safety and land use challenges.
When I was able to visit a section of the Jaguar Corridor in the Talamanca Mountains of Costa Rica, it became impossible to determine what kind of image would represent it. On the ground one is looking at land, either occupied or open, with all the usual human activity, cars, businesses, transient and permanent populations. There was no there, there. I kept looking for a satisfactory overview when the abstraction of a map is needed to understand the potential. Intangible to photograph, I began to wonder if it intangible to find corporation across national lines, private lines, land lines, automobile asphalt lines? It is not intangible to the small farm that loses a cow to a jaguar, or a corporation that wants to build on a particular plot of land. Yet this kind of cooperation is needed if we are to continue to have Jaguars.
In addition to the Jaguar Corridor, I went to Costa Rica to photograph the Costa Rican Amphibian Research Station also located in the Talamanca Mountain Range. Herpetologist Brian Kubicki, has been restoring land that was originally a cattle ranch, and is now home to the highest density of frogs in Costa Rica. Kubicki has published a highly respected book on glass frogs such as we see here. He is making it possible for the frogs on his land to thrive by building ponds, growing native plants and removing invasive ones.
This is the critically endangered Splendid Leaf Frog photographed at night on Kubicki’s reserve. Frogs are five times more sensitive to light that humans and this little guy peed on me right after I finished photographing him which I felt was deserved given how much I dislike flash photography when it’s directed at me.
These are the eggs of the Splendid Leaf Frog laid in a plastic tub full of water.
“In 2003 we initiated an in situ conservation project for the splendid leaf frog within the C.R.A.R.C. reserve. Plastic tubs were placed at strategic points in an attempt to simulate breeding sites for this species. Cruziohyla calcarifer normally utilizes water-filled cavities in fallen or standing trees for reproduction. Their highly specialized reproductive mode targets a very limited reproductive resource in natural conditions. Our goal was to create artificial reproductive habitat in hopes to increase the size and vigor of native populations of C. calcarifer.”
This site is behind the lab at CRARC where Brian Kubicki has been cutting down invasive bamboo and creating small holes in the dead bamboo for egg laying.
When I was in the field in Costa Rica it was explained to me that younger herpetologists do not fully realize how altered the landscape has become with invasive plants. Invasive species are everywhere and the impact on native flora and fauna is misunderstood as each new generation sees less, but sees something.
A lush landscape can look like a positive habitat and be a destructive one. As Mendelson writes “ We now have a global legacy of “completely protected” National Parks that are virtually devoid of their crucially important amphibian eco-players.”
The grey spots on this native plant in a hand-dug pond are the eggs of Agalychnis spurelli. Making this photograph was a high moment of optimism for me as spurelli are also critically endangered. In the evening after I made this photograph I went back with Kubicki who waded out into the pond to check on the eggs. They were drying out, which results in death. As he splashed water on them my heart sank. I never thought I’d say it was dry in the tropics. Of course I had more than one reason to say this as frogs come out and mate in the rain and it didn’t rain that week of July, the rainiest month on record in Costa Rica. The herpetologists were sympathetic to my problem as sometimes they go out in the field with large crews of paid graduate students and it doesn’t rain for a month. Up until the last night, it looked like I would go home without images of critically endangered frogs mating.
On the last night, Herpetologist Joe Mendelson and I stayed at a hotel with a botanical garden that has in its ornamental concrete ponds critically endangered monkey frog species known only to live at that hotel and one or two other properties in the area including another botanical garden. Though it still hadn’t rained we went out to the ponds at night and found this one pair in amplexus. Amplexus is the state where the male has climbed on the female’s back and is waiting for her to lay eggs after which he will place his sperm on top. It looks like a hug and can go on for hours, days and even months. This male is asleep and his lighter shade of green is thought to be a product of his hormones.
The evening I made this photograph, I came to understand the power and potential of frogs and endangered species in general. I didn’t make a photograph of the frog that caused my transformation. Joe asked me to smell one that he thought smelled funny. I did and in the five minutes, my sinuses completely cleared out and my nostrils were burning. For a minute I thought I was coming down with something before I realized smelling the frog had caused my condition. Note to self, never smell a frog Joe says smells funny. A remarkable way to clear congestion, I wish I had a milder version in a jar. Who knows what gifts go missing when a species does.
This is the quarantine lab at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVVAC) in El Valle, Panama. The frogs in this lab are the last known samples of their kind, collected out of the mountains of El Valle in 2006. It was a radical act at the time to create a Noah’s Ark of frogs. Frogs are the gateway animal of species extinction, dying off in untold numbers from a disease caused by chytrid fungus. The frogs at EVACC where housed for two years in two rooms at a local hotel while a proper lab was built. EVACC is located on the property of a private zoo and funded by the Houston Zoo. Today there are virtually no frogs in the mountains of El Valle Panama, pictured out the window in this photograph. Chytrid Fungus has no cure in the wild, but is easy to treat in captivity.
The following are a few portraits of the many frogs housed at EVVAC that are now the last known of their kind.
This pair of Monkey frogs that had recently mated. This is an unusual site –looking like they are hanging out together on the veranda.
This is their only surviving off-spring from a different mating. This young monkey frog is thought to look peaked and lives alone in a different aquarium from it’s parents so as not to take the risk that a parent will kill it.
This is a male, the females have a pouch on their back and when they mate, the male takes the fertilized eggs and places them in a pouch on her back. Eventually little froglets crawl out.
Something of a national symbol in Panama. Thought to bring good luck. On record as last seen in the wild in 2007. Thought to be extinct in the wild in 2009.
After I finished the four-day shoot at EVVAC I was sitting in the lab going over the files to see if anything needed to be re-shot one last time. As I looked at this mating pair of Harlequin frogs, I started to weep, thinking about the fragility of the lives in the lab I might not see again and some might never see. I was exhausted and wept the entire flight home. Without thinking, I began to hum Paul McCartny’s song Mother Nature’s Son. In writing it, Paul McCartny was partly influenced by Nat King Cole’s song Nature Boy. The chorus goes “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” These amphibians exist through acts of love by people who grew up loving amphibians. They will continue to exist only with much greater acts of love.
In looking at overwhelming societal problems it seems essential to be solution oriented. Visiting captive breeding programs one sees that though we are at a pivotal and vulnerable point in the lives of many species, they need not go extinct. It is a societal choice to put the desire to consume ahead of the desire to conserve. Generations have successfully bred wild animals for domestic use. Our capacity as humans to breed endangered species, should we choose to devote the time, funding, and space necessary, would meet with many successes.
This image is of a pair of Mountain Yellow-Legged Frogs in amplexus taken in a lab at the San Diego Zoo. A well-funded, high security site, I walked into a lab with one type of frog in many aquariums all in amplexus at the same time. At no other frog site did a species have aquariums that size, that clean, with that level of technological support. I was there just the right week and had hit the mating jackpot. It was surreal to see so many mountain yellow legged frogs in amplexus in one lab at one time. With funding this site proved that potential for high success rates.
Here is another pair.
I started with a greenhouse that looked like something out of another century and I am closing with a photograph of a new species of frog that has not been named yet, which looks like it lives in the future. The reality is it is in an aquarium at Wikiri, seva viva (living forest), in Quito Ecuador. Wikiri is a private company dedicated to sustainable bio commerce of amphibians. Started by Professor Luis Coloma, Wikiri’s lab and offices are located on his parent’s property. Scientist here are developing food with improved nutritional value for captive amphibians, as much of what they are fed, does not meet all their nutritional needs. In this research is some hope for an improved captive future for critically endangered species as many are already captive.