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Virtual efforts in environmental reform

by Josh Crow and Madeline Ewing

“I started shooting photos when I was 19 years old,” said photographer Chris Burkard. “I realized that it was a way to explore and adventure and show people the beauty of the world around me.”

Across the globe, there are currently 16,306 endangered species. Due to air and water pollution, forest clearing, loss of wetlands and more, many species are being pushed to the brink of extinction. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the rate of extinction is now exceeding speciation, preventing them from maintaining a safe population level.

“Each extinction diminishes the diversity and complexity of life on earth,” said FWS on their website. “This is especially devastating because all life on earth is interconnected.”

The current extinction crisis is unique to Earth’s history due to three main characteristics: the spread of non-native species around the world, human actions changing evolution and the rise of the technosphere (the technologically modified environment).

Burkard shares his encounters with nature on his Instagram platform, which consists of 2.9 million followers.

“I wholeheartedly believe that posting images of beautiful places has inspired others to share in the same respect I have for nature,” said Burkard. “This is the best way to inspire conservation: experience.”

With such major issues arising in the world around us, many people and organizations have started to take part in efforts to bring a larger influence toward caring for the environment. Burkard, along with organizations like National Geographic, have used their large social media platforms to do so.

Social media has become a major part of National Geographic’s mission. According to one of their articles, they are proud that for most of the past two years, National Geographic has ranked number one among brands on social media in the United States.

“With more than 2.6 billion social engagements, we’re right up there with the NFL and the NBA,” said Susan Goldberg, the editor in chief of National Geographic.

In a National Geographic article published early last year, one of the last Sumatran Rhinos on the planet was saved, thanks to social media. Journalist Adam Welz discovered an article about one of the last two female Sumatran rhinos in Malaysia, suffering from a life-jeopardizing facial abscess.

Seeing a problem from halfway around the world, Welz took action by contacting the CEO of a non-profit organization that specializes in medically treating endangered wildlife. Even though Welz wasn’t immediately involved, social media provided a virtual bridge to create a connection that led to saving an endangerd species.

Additionally, Burkard has been documenting Iceland’s rivers to help conserve them. In Halendid National Park, there is a movement to barricade many of these rivers. By taking aerial photos, he hopes to keep a record of these rivers and bring awareness to the conservation of these systems.

Due to over-ploughing, overgrazing and heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides, the Earth has lost 33 percent of crop-growing land in the last 40 years alone.

“I got an account and mostly started posting just random moments from the road, but quickly realized that it could be so much more than that,” said Burkard.

This began Burkard’s path toward becoming “Insta-famous,” landing him a platform that reached millions of people.

According to Burkard, social media is a movement that is giving a voice to environments that haven’t had one in the past.

“Truly, this is social media’s greatest gift,” Burkard said.

Previously, conservation efforts required enormous resources, backers and volunteers. It has always been a large undertaking to garner public support.

Burkard believes that “today, social media has provided a unique way to engage an audience. No longer do you need to print thousands of boring brochures to educate the masses. It’s all in the palm of your hand.”

According to Burkard, accessibility  and awareness created through social media has made it easier to promote the message of conservation, thus benefiting the environment.

“It’s pretty simple. Don’t just travel to travel,” said Burkard. “Find a way to tell stories and support people getting outside. We can do this by sharing what we love and fear losing most. If you motivate someone to get to the rim of the Grand Canyon and all they do is shoot a selfie, it’s better than having them not visit. That is a start, and it only builds from there.”