Category Archives: conservation

Using photography to teach environmental education

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I haven’t had a chance to post on here in a while, but there’s a great reason why. I’ve been really busy working on a BIG project. One that involves photography, but in a different way.

I recently opened up my own environmental education organization Biosphere Environmental Education. And within it, I’ve created a unique environmental education program. It’s called the Youth Environmental Ambassadors Program or the YEAP.

What does the YEAP do?

Well, we’re just starting out, but our program will take kids on expeditions around the world, to experience nature first hand, to see its beauty, understand how it works and how valuable they are. They’ll learn about the human impacts on it and what their generation can do to reduce those impacts.

Our program is different than other environmental education programs out there. It uses photography and videography to teach environmental ed. We’ll be teaching high school students how to shoot and edit photos and videos with impact. They’ll be documenting the environments that we’ll be experiencing, what’s unique about them, what’s beautiful about them, what’s valuable about them and what the human impacts are on them. And then we’ll teach them how to use those stills and video to put together stunning visual presentations that they’ll give to their schools, their clubs, their communities and most of all, their peers. So, we’ll be teaching them how to become environmental ambassadors, sharing their own messages about the environment and how we need to make changes to lessen the human impacts on it.

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Our mission…. is to mentor a new generation of leaders, innovators, and world citizens who believe that the long term health of earth’s environments is at least as important as profits and development, and who will guide their generation toward a sustainable way of living.

We’ve been given a golden opportunity. We’re collaborating with a fantastic organization called Students On Ice. They’re an award-winning organization that runs youth expeditions to the arctic and antarctic. They’ve been doing this for 14 years and have taken over 2,000 kids on these expeditions.

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Students On Ice has provided us with the opportunity to launch our Youth Environmental Ambassadors Program on their July 2014 expedition to the arctic. We’re so excited about this! But the expedition is expensive. It’ll cost over $10,000 each, for me an my co-teacher to be on that expedition, delivering our program. And so we’ve created an Indiegogo crowd funding campaign to raise the money we need to be on that expedition.

We would love your support! Click HERE to visit our funding campaign. Watch the video that tells you what we are doing. And then click on one of the ‘perks’ to donate. We have funding levels from $20 all the way up to $2500. Each and every dollar matters!

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We really need your support. If you can donate to our campaign, we’d be extremely grateful. And we’d also love it if you could share the link to our campaign with your friends – either by clicking on one of the social media buttons on our campaign website. Or sharing this post. Or emailing your friends directly.

Our campaign will be running for another 38 days. We’d love your support. Visit our campaign website and let us know what you think.

As many of you are fellow photographers, I hope you can see how using photography and videography to teach environmental education, can provide a new way to interest and motivate youth to learn about our environment and to take action to be the generation that does something big about the human impacts on it.

Thanks so much for your support!

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So, how many polar bears are there?

Recently I wrote a blog post about the potential for negative impacts of mis-infomration about species and the environment. In my blog post, Do Species Suffer From Poor Communication?, I explained how someone at an arctic photography presentation I was at this past winter, commented that northern locals (Inuit) encountering more polar bears meant that there are more polar bears. In other words, if locals were encountering and seeing more bears on the land, this meant that the polar bear population was increasing and all the worry about the potential for polar bears to go extinct was bunk.

This bothered me. There is a huge and untested assumption implicit in this fellow’s assertion. He’s assuming that the frequency of encountering bears is directly related to the number of bears in the population. Just because you see more bears, doesn’t mean there are more bears. What if locals encounter/see more bears because bears are not getting enough food in the wild and so these hungry bears are coming closer to humans’ communities in search of food? In this scenario, there could actually be fewer bears in the local population, but people see them more frequently because they come close to humans more often.

I recently saw a really interesting webinar about polar bears. It was given by Natural Habitat Adventures, an adventure tour operator associated with the World Wildlife Fund. It was a great webinar. It included a talk by a polar bear biologist. What intrigued me about her talk was that she addressed the issue of the current status of polar bear populations around the globe. In this biologist’s presentation, she showed the figure below – a map of the world’s circumpolar region and the status of polar bear populations.

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If you have a look at the map, you’ll see that of the 18 polar bear populations define on the map, 6 of them are listed as being in decline. Seven of them are listed as being data deficient, meaning that scientists just don’t have enough information about the populations to say what is happening to them.  Four populations are listed as stable, meaning they are neither increasing or decreasing. And finally,  3 populations are listed as increasing.

There are some notable take home messages from this figure showing polar bear populations status. For roughly half of the polar bear populations around the world, we have no idea what is happening to them. They span western Alaska, across Russia, to Greenland. That’s a huge part of the polar bear’s population for which we have no information.

A second notable take home message from the figure is that the populations in decline, shown in pink, are not small. They cover a substantial chunk of the polar bear population in Canada.

Perhaps most notable and relevant, is that the figure shows three populations in green, populations which are increasing. One large population is in the Labrador region; one small population and one medium-sized population in the central Canadian arctic are listed as increasing. So the question is, why are these three populations increasing? Aren’t polar bear populations around the world in trouble? Was this fellow right? Are Inuit seeing more bears because there are more?

Image by Bruce Raby, taken in Churchill, Manitoba.

Image by Bruce Raby, taken in Churchill, Manitoba.

Someone in the webinar asked to the biologist what the global status of polar bears really was. She explained that these three populations, shown in green, were increasing because of decreased hunting pressure. Bear quotas had been reduced to prevent these populations from declining. So at this point in time, these populations are increasing because fewer bears are being hunted. But by how much will they recover? And will that recovery be sustained? If these bears  experience the same issues of decreasing ice coverage, lack of ice floes for hunting, and therefore, lack of food and places to raise their cubs, reduced hunting pressure may not matter eventually. These increases may  just be a tiny blip on a graph.

The biologists’ comment was that on a global scale, polar bear populations are declining and we should be concerned. Clearly we need more data to understand what is happening to the populations across Russia. Thankfully, a few of our Canadian populations are rebounding from reduced hunting pressures, at least for a while. Sadly, one third of the polar bear populations around the globe are decreasing. This isn’t a rosy outlook for polar bears. We can only hope that actions taken now will ensure the persistence of polar bears throughout their range. But given their precarious status as a species, do we really want someone telling a room full of people who polar bears are doing just fine and that the concern over this species is purely hype? I think not.

Image by Bruce Raby, taken in Churchill, Manitoba.

Image by Bruce Raby, taken in Churchill, Manitoba.

With some populations stable and a few rebounding from hunting pressure, what this means is that it buys us some time. It gives us a chance to effect change while these populations are not in decline. So that means we don’t sit back on our heels or dust our hands, saying ‘no problem here!’ Not at all. It means we get even busier. It means we take advantage of this ‘buffer’ for polar bear populations and act now while there is still a chance to ensure the bear’s continued existence. Those green and blue patches on the map are not a reason to get lazy and do nothing.

I should also note that the biologist  mentioned that human-polar bear encounters were on the increase, as more people visit or live in the arctic and as the climate changes and bears alter their foraging behaviour.

Image by Bruce Raby, taken in Churchill, Manitoba.

Image by Bruce Raby, taken in Churchill, Manitoba.

We don’t have all the data we need and we don’t have all the answers. It takes time to get these things. But in the meantime, let’s focus on communicating the facts. Perpetuating mis-information can have negative consequences for species and for the environment. As scientists, we also need to do a better job of communicating the facts to the media and the general public. Let’s get it right, before it’s too late.

My friend and fellow photographer, Bruce Raby, kindly provided the polar bear photographs for this blog post. These images are from Bruce’s trip to Churchill, Manitoba a few years ago. To see more of Bruce’s wonderful photographs, please visit his website at www.brucefoto.com.

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Conservation & Environment: Do species suffer from poor communication?

Today’s post falls under my Conservation & Environment Series. And no, it doesn’t refer to chipmunks that need hearing aids or a Canada Goose couple that just don’t seem to understand each other.  I’m referring to the impacts, on nature and the environment, of perpetuating mis-information.

It’s an issue that’s been gnawing at me for a while and so I finally had to write about it – get it off my chest and toss it out there for discussion.

At the real heart of the issue is how we, as scientists, are not very good at communicating science to the general public and as a result, the public ends up mis-informed. That mis-information can hurt the environment. That’s the crux of it.

My angst about the issue began when I attended a photography presentation this past winter by a local photographer, Michelle Vallberg. She had made several trips to the Canadian arctic, photographing its stunning landscapes and wildlife. She was exhibiting some of her images and also gave a fabulous presentation, showcasing many of her images. She stated up front that she was not a biologist and that these were simply her observations and experiences. But it was clear she had a decent grasp of the basic biology of arctic ecosystems and some of the environmental issues facing our arctic regions. Her photos were stunning and I would have been happy to have walked a mile in her shoes. 🙂

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After the presentation, she entertained questions and comments. Someone in the audience asked her about polar bears. He wanted to know if she had encountered lots of polar bears during her trips. The short answer was yes. And in fact, Michelle elaborated by saying that the locals (primarily Inuit people) in some of the areas she visited had actually noticed that they were seeing and encountering considerably more polar bears in and around their communities in recent years.

I don’t doubt that observation for a second. The Inuit, as people who live off the land, know their land intimately. They know about the plants and animals and what is happening to them as global climate change occurs. They are very connected with their surrounding environment. That locals in these northern regions are encountering more bears is not something that I would question.

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What bothered me was the comment that ensued. In response to the statement about local Inuit encountering more bears, someone from the audience responded that maybe polar bears are not threatened by climate change. Maybe polar bear numbers are increasing. Hey, if Inuit are seeing more bears, there must be more bears out there than there were before. As a biologist, alarm bells sounded for me immediately.

Just because the locals are encountering more bears does not mean that polar bear populations are increasing. In science, the reason why we do experiments is to try to understand what is causing some pattern – what is the explanation for the observations we have recorded because an observation on its own does not tell you anything about its cause. I’m not for a minute saying that we need to start experimenting on polar bear populations. Not only would that be completely inappropriate, but it also is utterly infeasible! My point here is that just because locals are seeing more bears doesn’t mean that bear populations are increasing.

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The comment that maybe polar bears are increasing in numbers alarmed me enough that I just had to speak up. And so I made a comment in response –  that more sightings and encounters around the local villages does not mean polar bear populations are increasing. It simply means that bears are being observed and encountered more frequently by the people in the area. We can’t say anything about the cause of the increased sightings.

I just couldn’t let the audience believe that more sightings meant polar bear populations are increasing and that this whole issue of population declines of bears due to climate change is bunk.  I didn’t want a roomful of people going home and thinking, Hey, tonight I found out that global climate change isn’t killing polar bears and that in fact, maybe it’s helping them. There was no way I could let people leave thinking that.

So, I offered up an alternative explanation. Maybe locals are seeing and encountering more bears because of the effects of global climate change on their environment. Maybe local bear populations are declining, but that local Inuit are seeing more bears because bears are on the move, looking for food. Sadly, we already know from the many years that the garbage dump existed in Churchill, Manitoba, that polar bears will gladly munch on human garbage. Tour operators in Churchill used to take their clients to the local dump, just so that they could see polar bears.

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Let’s just entertain the following hypothesis: what if local polar bear populations are in fact declining because climate change is affecting availability of sea ice (which polar bears need for hunting), making it harder for bears to hunt seals(their main food source)? If this were true, then maybe bears are venturing into local villages more frequently, in search of food because they are hungry, because they are having problems getting enough food in the wild. This is just an hypothesis; I’m not saying conclusively that this is the case. What I’m pointing out is that we could have a completely opposite explanation for the same observation.

After I made my comment one fellow in the audience said (to paraphrase) that what I was saying was crap and that environmentalists were trying to pull the wool over our eyes and that scientists had no clue what’s happening to polar bears in the wild. He wasn’t timid in sharing his opinion.

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That worries me. Its’ true that we need more data to better understand what’s happening to wild polar bears. I’m not an expert on polar bears. But I am a biologist and I used to teach population biology. I know that we need more data to get a clearer picture of what’s happening to wild polar bears. But I also know that we have to be careful about the conclusions we draw based on observations. All the scientific literature I have read (field studies investigating changes in the amount of arctic sea ice, polar bear survival and birth rates and population sizes as well as modelling studies predicting bear population sizes at the end of the century) indicate that there is a general trend toward decreased sea ice in the arctic and that many polar bear populations are in decline. Polar bears need sea ice for hunting seals and for resting. My point is that yes, we are still learning about how climate change is affecting polar bears. But when people jump to conclusions and pass it on to others as if it was fact, I think it has big potential do damage.

Mis-information can be dangerous. I wonder how many people went home from the presentation that night, thinking that polar bear populations are not in peril? How many went home thinking that the concern over global climate change is overblown? Listening to people mingle and discuss, after the presentation, I surprised by how many echoed that polar bears must be doing just fine if the Inuit are encountering more of them. After all, they just saw a lot of gorgeous images of polar bears. There must be tons of them up there!

I wished I had asked some of them, what if you’re wrong. What if you think polar bears are fine, global climate change is bunk and so we do nothing about it? And what if we end up with conclusive evidence that shows that bears are declining due to climate change. What then? We should have acted, but we didn’t. That’s a high cost to pay.

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This brings me back to my initial point, my general concern that as scientists, we need to do a much better job of informing the public about the results of our research. We need to make that information both accessible and palatable, putting it in a form that the general public can understand. If we leave it up to the media to get the word out, we know the mis-information will continue. That’s not a pot-shot at the media. What I’m getting at is that when we play the ‘telephone game’ (remember that from grade school? Where your teacher whispered something into the ear of the first student in the line and each student had to convey that information to the person next to them, on down the line. We all know what happens. The version of the message that the last student got is vastly different from the message told to the first student), we risk conveying mis-information. I think we have the same problem in science. Because we too often rely on non-scientists to interpret information and package it for consumption by the general public, we risk creating mis-information. I see it all the time in the media and it makes me cringe.

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In the past I think we, as scientists, have collectively done a really lousy job of conveying science to the public. But I do think it’s getting better. We still have a long way to go. We need more scientists with excellent communication skills talking to the public. We need more scientists working directly with communication specialists to put the results of research into a form that the average person can understand. We need to ensure that information gets conveyed to the public in a way that they can understand it, but at the same time, ensure that the information is accurate. We need to avoid the ‘telephone game’.  And this doesn’t just apply to environmental issues. It’s rampant in the medical field too. How many of us have heard on the news that drinking red wine is bad for our health. But then a few years later, we hear about a study that says drinking red wine is actually good for our health! No wonder people are confused…

A while ago I came across a new programme at Sir Sandford Flemming College here in Ontario. The programme is called Environmental Visual Communication and its focus it to teach students with a science background how to use the tools of communication (photography, video, graphic design, etc) and how to develop communication skills and use them to convey conservation and environmental issues to the public. That’s brilliant, in my books! And long, long overdue. The students in this programme bring me hope.

A big focus of my photographic work is visual storytelling. Using images to tell people about nature, conservation and the environment. Combining words with images to inform people, in the hopes of getting them to care about nature and environmental issues. If we can get people to care, then we can get people to act. It’s getting them to care that’s difficult. Or maybe they do care, but they can’t see how their daily actions have ramifications for our entire planet. I mean hey, I’m only one person on a huge planet with billions of other people, right? Just a drop in the bucket, so to speak. What I do doesn’t matter, does it? WRONG! What each of us does, matters.

Our actions are based on our understanding of the world around us. This means it’s critical for people to understand the world around them. Mis-information can cause us to behave in ways that harm the environment, not help it. This quote that I found recently sums it all up for me:

In the end we will conserve only what we love.

We will love only what we understand.

We will understand only what we are taught

– Baba Dioum

So  I hope we do a better job at getting people to think more critically of the information they glean from the media. I hope we do a better job of communicating science to the general public. And I hope we ensure that information gets conveyed accurately, so that people can scrutinize it and make up their own minds about an issue.

My thanks go to my good friend and polar storyteller, France Rivet at Polar Horizons, for allowing me to use some of her fabulous polar bear images for this post. Be sure to check out her website and her latest project.

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It’s Turtle Time – Photo of the Week

I’m just back from a fantastic long weekend in Toronto with family and so just getting 44th Parallel Photography’s Photo of the Week up. This week’s photo signals the start of my Turtle Conservation Photography project – to bring awareness (and hopefully some appreciation!) of these wonderful reptiles. Seeing them dead on the road bothers me and reminds me how many people could stand to treat nature with more kindness.

Click on the thumbnail below to see and read about 44th Parallel Photography’s Photo of the Week.

4 May 2013

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Wildphotomag – my image portfolio and interview

Recently, I was very kindly invited by Andre of wildphotomag to be interviewed and to submit a portfolio of images for his wonderful online nature and wildlife magazine. If you haven’t seen wildphotomag, check it out. There are fantastic articles and images in there, by a lot of talented photographers.

The May issue is out and my portfolio is in there. Have a look and let me know what you think.

Wildphotomag_Portfolio

Not only was it nice to be able to have a selection of my images in the magazine, but it was great to be able to share some of my thoughts about photography. I am truly passionate about conservation photography. I think it’s an amazing tool for creating awareness and understanding of conservation and environmental issues and hopefully, for fostering concern and caring for our planet and all of its species.

Wildphotomag is loaded with great articles. Check out this month’s issue. You won’t be disappointed.

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Woodland Flowers for Earth Day – Photo of the Week

This week’s Photo of the Week celebrates spring, the beauty of nature, and Earth Day.

Click on the thumbnail below to see and read about 44th Parallel Photography’s Photo of the Week

20 April 2013

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Midway – a documentary everyone should see

All of us have impacts on the earth’s environment. Simply by living our everyday lives, we leave our footprint on the earth. Some footprints are bigger than others. And even if you want your footprint to be small and take actions to reduce it, it’s still there. But  smaller is better and that’s the key.

Salvin's Mollymawk, a species of Albatross. Taken near Kaikoura, New Zealand.

Salvin’s Mollymawk, a species of Albatross. Taken near Kaikoura, New Zealand.

Each one of us should strive to reduce our environmental footprint. In our household, we do things to try to reduce it.  I’m not happy with the footprint of my commute to work 3 days a week. But it’s better than 5 days a week. And I drive the most economical car I can afford. It’s one step away from a go-cart and with my commute, I can’t really go any smaller. I wish I could afford a hybrid. One day. But I hope I help to make up for my commute, at least in part, by the other things I do to try to lessen my impact on our environment. I’m not criticizing anyone for their environmental footprint. We all have one. I just hope we can all do things to reduce ours individually because if each of us does, collectively, it had a big effect, in a good way.

I think many people, perhaps all of us, to some greater or lesser degree, don’t realize the impacts we have on our planet because we don’t see them in our daily lives. I think this is why changing our behaviour and habits to reduce our impacts on the environment is often difficult. As humans, we are visual creatures and we need to see what our impacts are, in order to believe they exist.

This is why documentaries that actually show us the impacts of the way we live and the daily choices we make, on the earth’s environment is so fundamentally important. I recently wrote about Jim Balog’s documentary, Chasing Ice, that shows how the world’s glaciers are crumbling at alarming rates due to global climate change. Balog’s extreme dedication to the project was because he wanted to show the world that climate change is real.

There’s another documentary coming out this year that shows us the consequences of our actions (and inactions) –  the consequences of our modern lifestyles in developed nations. I’ve seen the trailer for this one and I think it’s a great example of showing us environmental impacts that we didn’t even think we had. You know, the out of sight, out of mind thing we humans are so good at.  Chris Jordan’s film, Midway, brings an important issue into focus.

His documentary is about Midway Island in the Pacific. Yes, the Midway Island, where a famous WW II battle took place. But Jordan’s film has little to do with Midway’s historical significance. Instead, here’s what his film is about:

“The Journey

Midway Atoll, one of the most remote islands on earth, is a kaleidoscope of geography, culture, human history, and natural wonder. It also serves as a lens into one of the most profound and symbolic environmental tragedies of our time: the deaths by starvation of thousands of albatrosses who mistake floating plastic trash for food.

The images are iconic. The horror, absolute. Our goal, however, is to look beyond the grief and the tragedy. It is here, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, that we have the opportunity to see our world in context. On Midway, we can not deny the impact we have on the planet. Yet at the same time, we are struck by beauty of the land and the soundscape of wildlife around us, and it is here that we can see the miracle that is life on this earth. So it is with the knowledge of our impact here that we must find a way forward.” (taken from Chris Jordan’s Midway website).

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There’s a trailer for the film on Chris Jordan’s website. I strongly encourage you to watch it. Warning – it’ll probably leave a lump in your throat. But that’s a good thing. A lump in your throat can provide the motivation to change your behaviour, for all of us to change our behaviour, so that this awful situation is remedied.

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Salvin’s Mollymawk, a species of Albatross. Photo taken near Kaikoura, New Zealand.

You don’t have to be an environmentalist, biologist, or nature-lover to understand the significance of this issue. It should affect us all, deeply enough that we change the situation. I’m not sure what the answer is. But I want to find out. I had read about the impacts of plastic and other materials on marine life. But seeing the Midway trailer really floored me. Actually, the word disgusting was what really came to mind.

Buller's Mollymawk, a species of Albatross. Taken near Kaikoura, New Zealand.

Buller’s Mollymawk, a species of Albatross. Taken near Kaikoura, New Zealand.

Click on the thumbnail below to view the trailer on the Midway website.

Midway trailer

I don’t know when the film is scheduled for release. Sometime in 2013. When I find out, I’ll post it here as well as any links to where it will be showing. I want to see it. I hope you want to see it too.

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