Top image: Pictured are specimens of Xerces blue moths from the collection of the Field Museum.

Kristen Rogers, CNN

When photographer Marc Schlossman held an extinct dead bird in his hand, he had what he called a “moment of conversion.”

Standing in the bird division of the Field Museum in Chicago with his two young sons in 2008, he realized that the specimen drawer from which the bird had been recovered was the only place anyone could see the bird. avian species.

“It was like a punch in the stomach and I was like, ‘We’ve done a lot of damage. What world do we want to live in? Enough is enough,'” said Schlossman, who is based in London.

The experience led Schlossman – who has a background in environmental and travel photography – to wonder why biodiversity loss was happening so quickly, if it was too late to do anything about it and, if not, what could -we do ? What he discovered became part of his new photography book, “Extinction: our fragile relationship with life on Earth.”

Through striking photos of specimens captured nearly 15 years after this transformative visit to the museum, “Extinction” serves as both a warning and a beacon of hope: it features extinct and endangered animals that have suffered losses due to habitat destruction, hunting, legal and illegal activities. wildlife trade, disease and other human-made threats. But Schlossman noted that it’s not too late for some of these at-risk species.

Of the 82 species in the book, 23 are extinct, Schlossman said. “The rest have been brought back from the brink of extinction as conservation successes, or they can be saved through robust conservation work and habitat preservation.”

“We’ve done a lot of damage as a species. But let’s move on to what we need to do, because we are at a critical moment in history.

Schlossman’s call to action comes at a pivotal time as the accelerating loss of global biodiversity threatens the interconnectedness and future of all life forms, including humans.

Worldwide losses

Loss of biodiversity means that even though there are approximately 8.7 million species on Earth, 85% to 90% of which are yet to be discovered, scientists are in a race against time to understand how the dwindling number, variety and genetic variability of species affect ecosystems, according to Thomas Gillespie, a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Emory University in Atlanta.

“We are losing species potentially faster than we discover them,” he said, “and even before we realize what their roles are in the world’s ecosystems.”

Schlossman’s ability to document some of these lost species dates back to the 1970s when, as a teenager, he volunteered in the Field Museum’s mammal division for a few summers, he said. After visiting the museum with his sons, he asked Field Museum curator John Bates what he could do as a photographer to tell the story of some specimens in the museum’s collection and see where it was going.

Over the next decade, he photographed through specimens of birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, mammals, insects and plants. “In any natural history museum, on average, 1% of the collection is exhibited. I had access to the 99% that you don’t see. … Every collection manager had to sort of agree, so it took a while to pass,” Schlossman said. “I have this relationship with the Field Museum, and the culture of the Field Museum is very progressive.”

The philosophy behind Schlossman’s curation of his book is that every species matters – especially the pollinators involved in the process of bringing food to our tables – but even “uncharismatic” species, he said. declared.

The rusty-patched bumblebee, included in “Extinction,” is one such crucial pollinator. It once thrived in the United States and Canada, but has suffered the most severe decline of any bee species in North America. Scientists have estimated that the critically endangered species has disappeared from 87% of its natural range, and in recent decades the population has declined by 95%, the book notes.

Of some of the extinct species photographed by Schlossman, only one specimen remained – like a small Mexican ray-finned fish, the inclusion of which reflected the book’s most heartbreaking message.

“It was in a tributary that ran through Mexico City, and because of the urban development, it was under too much pressure,” Schlossman said.

Urbanization — the concentration of humans into areas converted for residential, commercial, industrial and transportation purposes – also caused the extinction of the Xerces blue butterfly, last seen in the wild in 1941. It was the first North American butterfly disappear because of human actions.

As Schlossman worked on his book, themes or patterns of human behaviors revealed themselves. “Why do we need to hunt these things to extinction? Why doesn’t our species manage our use of resources sustainably? ” He asked.

“We are poisoning ourselves by acting recklessly in this way of overexploiting natural resources,” Schlossman said. “It’s really important for people to have that. I don’t know how we think we’re going to dodge this bullet we create for ourselves.

A glimmer of hope

Schlossman hopes his images will inspire ideas and optimism for the conservation of remaining species. “Human activities can both nurture and harm,” said Jeremy Kerr, professor and chair of the department of biology at the University of Ottawa in Ontario.

A good example is the success of the California Condor Recovery Program, which Schlossman included in “Extinction” as an example of how human intervention saved a species. Launched in 1975, the initiative is the result of cooperative efforts led by the US Fish and Wildlife Service involving a multitude of federal and state agencies and non-governmental organizations.

“The population went down to 22, and they captured them all and they established this captive breeding program. And they encourage the birds to lay two eggs a year to quickly increase the population,” Schlossman said.

“The chicks from the incubator eggs were handled and raised using condor puppets so they wouldn’t imprint on humans. So basically if the condor chick could see a human face they would think it was its mother,” he added. “They used condor puppets to raise them. … In 2020, there were over 500 condors.

“Rise up and fight harder”

Deforestation for the production of beef, soy (produced in large quantities for livestock) and palm oil harms the biodiversity of tropical rainforests and coral reefs, Emory’s Gillespie said. Much of the burden of tackling biodiversity loss falls on big industries and businesses, such as agriculture, Schlossman said — but there are things you can do to help, including changing your diet to reduce demand for produce. of these systems.

With habitat preservation being the most crucial antidote to biodiversity loss, you could promote habitats for species such as monarch butterflies – the International Union for Conservation of Nature says declared endangered in July — by growing milkweed, a primary food source, Schlossman said.

For bee species, you can reduce use pesticides or plant a variety of flowers and shrubs in your garden to prevent habitat loss and provide bees with shelter from extreme elements.

If you feel helpless or overwhelmed by these environmental issues, know that it’s not too late to start making changes to build a better future, according to Schlossman. “Everything that happened yesterday or the previous days is gone,” he said. “Eco-anxiety does not make things better; we just have to stand up and fight harder.

“Extinction” is available now in the UK and US.

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Top image: Pictured are specimens of Xerces blue moths from the collection of the Field Museum.

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