By ROGER ARCHIBALD
Protecting the cloud forest ecosystem of a nearly-extinct bird with a magnificent plumage.
Highlighting a tiny island, part of Equatorial Guinea and home to rare primates under threat from the bushmeat trade.
Documenting the plight of the pronghorn in the Green River basin of western Wyoming.
One could imagine a horde of scientists descending to gather needed data on the threats and impacts to such rare creatures in remote areas. In fact, conservation groups have been doing that for years.
But now a relatively new group, the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP) has organized such trips — for photographers— to document the beauty and damage in areas with grave conservation concerns. The group calls them RAVEs, Rapid Assessment Visual Expeditions.
“Photography is a witness to history,” says Cristina Mittermeier, ILCP founder and first executive director, “and the RAVE is the tool that allows us to provide our joint testimony in the court of public opinion.”
Mittermeier, a marine biologist by training, recognized that past conservation campaigns often lacked any imagery with impact. She concluded that compelling photography could play a pivotal role in responding to increasing challenges to the environment.
Established in 2005 at the 8th World Wilderness Congress in Anchorage, Alaska, the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP) was created to further conservation through the use of ethical, credible photography. Its selective membership now includes some of the world’s best known nature and environmental photographers.
One of the first approaches the new organization has taken to fulfilling that goal was creation of the RAVE, a documentary photography campaign led by members of ILCP to areas of the world in need of immediate conservation actions.
Modeled after the Rapid Assessment Program(RAP) created by Conservation International in 1990 to send teams of scientific experts to explore threatened ecosystems and obtain urgently needed biological data, RAVEs seek to accomplish the same result in pictures. Conservation International reports that in “sixty-four RAP expeditions conducted around the world, scientists have discovered hundreds of species of plants and animals that are new to science.”
Spearheaded by RAVE concept co-developer Patricio Robles Gil, a Mexican conservationist, photographer and publisher who has been working to protect critical habitat for endangered species in his country for more than 20 years, the first RAVE in April 2007 was conducted in Mexico’s El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve, located in the Sierra Madre Mountains in the southern state of Chiapas.
The effort was aimed at protecting the cloud forest ecosystem of the quetzal, a bird of such magnificent plumage it was once revered by the Maya and Aztecs as being divine. The late Roger Tory Peterson once deemed it “the most spectacular bird in the New World.” Despite the area’s protected status, a planned road project that would bisect the reserve posed a threat to the quetzal’s habitat.
In addition to Robles Gil, participating photographers included Jack Dykinga, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning photojournalist formerly with the Chicago Tribune who now exclusively does large format landscape photography in the American southwest, Tom Mangelsen, a nature photographer from Jackson, Wyo. who operates a string of galleries in western states devoted to his work, Florian Schulz, a German photographer best known for his documentation of the Yellowstone-to-Yukon biodiversity corridor, and Fulvio Eccardi, vice president of the El Triunfo Conservation Fund in Mexico, whose efforts to document and publicize El Triunfo led to its reserve designation in 1990. Together, the team shot 30,000 photos and 30 hours of video during their twelve days in the field.
According to the ILCP, that visual material is now being used “to put a spotlight on this region to develop a strategic international awareness campaign on the conservation needs of El Triunfo.” The effort has raised $500,000 so far, and “is helping to inspire similar projects throughout Mexico, where environmentalism is still a relatively new, yet growing, movement,” the organization states.
A second RAVE in Sept. 2007 was also held in Mexico, this time at Balandra, located 20 kilometers north of the city of La Paz, on the Gulf of California near the tip of the Baja Peninsula, where the protection of more than 2,100 hectares of untouched estuarine and coastal habitat is being sought to prevent development into another beach resort.
Robles Gil again teamed up with Arizonan Jack Dykinga to lead the photography and video effort, this time compressed into just four days. They were accompanied by Mexican photographers Romeo Saldívar, Emilio Castillo Díaz and Miguel Angel de la Cueva, a younger professional who is a member of the ILCP’s Emergent League of Conservation Photographers. Despite the tight schedule, the team produced more than 6,000 images and 10 hours of video, all of it designed for use in a campaign to help obtain Mexican government protection for Balandra and promote its designation as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.
The ILCP’s most ambitious RAVE came this past January with an 18-day expedition to Bioko, an 800-square- mile island —part of Equatorial Guinea — that lies twenty miles off the coast of Cameroon in Africa’s Gulf of Guinea. Of particular environmental concern is the plight of the island’s endemic population of endangered primates that, with the country’s newfound oil wealth, have become targets for the voracious African bushmeat trade.
Supported by both Conservation International and the National Geographic Society, the RAVE team consisted of two veteran Geographic contract photographers, Tim Laman, a Harvard-trained biologist, and Joel Sartore, a former newspaper photojournalist based in Lincoln, Neb., who were joined by Christian Zeigler, a German biologist associated with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, and Ian Nichols, another ILCP Emerging League member who is the son of Geographic staff photographer Michael Nichols.
So far, the attention the RAVE drew to the plight of Bioko’s primates has significantly helped Conservation International negotiate an agreement with the Equatorial Guinea government to develop a long range conservation plan and to strengthen enforcement of the existing ban on primate hunting in Bioko. Details of the Bioko RAVE will be featured in the August 2008 issue of National Geographic.
The ILCP’s most recent RAVE was also its first in the United States. For two days in mid-May, their largest team yet converged on the upper Green River basin of western Wyoming near the juncture of the Gros Ventre, Wind River and Wyoming Mountain Ranges. The area has already been subject to significant oil and gas exploration, resulting in extraction complexes and support road systems that cut open range and migration corridors for the largest migratory animal herd in the lower forty-eight states, the pronghorn. And there are current Federal efforts to expand the exploration activity.
The Wyoming project also involved students attending a conservation photography workshop organized by former National Geographic Director of Photography Rich Clarkson at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in nearby Jackson. A selection of photos produced during the RAVE was displayed at the museum until late June, and can be viewed online at the ILCP website: http://www.ilcp.com/?cid=87 
The organization’s next RAVE, scheduled for mid-August, plans to examine the environmental impact that the proposed high-tech southern boundary fence/barrier will likely have on America’s borderlands with Mexico.
Roger Archibald, a freelance photographer and writer based in Boston, is photo editor of the SEJournal.
**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer 2008