Species are fizzling out of existence at a rate faster than any other time in human history—and no one is more aware of that fact than National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore.
Sartore is the founder of the Photo Ark, a 25-year documentary project aimed at photographing captive animals in danger of disappearing in the wild. This unprecedented archive of global biodiversity contains images of imperiled animals large and small, from the mighty African elephant to the humble St. Andrew beach mouse. [Learn more about the Photo Ark]
After 13 years of adding new animals to his archive, Sartore’s modern-day Noah’s ark now contains 9,000 species.
The momentous 9,000th addition was none other than the bandula barb. If you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone. Outside of captivity and a recently created protected area, this critically endangered fish only exists in a single stream in rural Sri Lanka that’s less than a mile long. Its entire population is thought to consist of fewer than 1,500 individuals.
While these small fish only measure a little over an inch in length, they are surprisingly ornate. The bandula barb is “is one of the most beautiful barbs out there,” says Madhava Meegaskumbura, a professor of evolutionary biology at Guangxi University’s College of Forestry. As is the case with most barbs, males of this species sport brighter colors than their female counterparts. “Males look like glowing red embers among the aquatic vegetation of the clear water stream,” he says.
Barbs, small colorful relatives of carps and minnows, are found in freshwater streams in tropical regions throughout the world. Over the past century, the rise of industrial agriculture has jeopardized many of the streams that barbs and other freshwater fish depend on. To make matters worse, wild barbs are often removed from the wild to supply the ornamental fish trade.
The embattled barb
Unfortunately, similar threats face other freshwater fish, which as a group represent the most threatened large taxon in the world, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “As we continue to pollute and modify their limited habitat, or directly harvest and exploit them in unsustainable numbers, we will continue to see declines in freshwater fish species,” says Gary Longo, an ichthyologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“Freshwater fishes are particularly vulnerable to extirpation or extinction due to their intimate proximity with humans and their relatively small habitat size compared to marine species,” Longo says. “They are like a canary in a coal mine for how we are doing with taking care of the environment. Unfortunately, there have already been a lot of dead canaries.”
When the bandula barb was first discovered in 1991, its total population was estimated to be around 2,000. But within a decade of its discovery, its numbers had fallen to fewer than 300, according to a IUCN report published in 2014.
The only stream in which the bandula barb is known to exist, located just outside the village of Galapitamada, in the Kegalle district of southwestern Sri Lanka, runs through rice fields and rubber plantations. Fertilizers and pesticides from these agricultural operations once flowed freely into the stream, but luckily for the barbs, their situation has improved.
In 2013, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Environment implemented an action plan to save the bandula barb. This plan, which granted protection to much of the fish’s habitat and established community-based mechanisms to conserve the species, was fully embraced by the local people.
Five years later, the population has grown to around 1,300 individuals, according to the latest IUCN assessment. Additionally, a number of zoos and aquariums, including the Zoo Plzeň in the Czech Republic where Sartore photographed the species, have begun breeding bandula barbs in captivity with the goal of preserving them.
“This is a small creature, really the least among us, and the fact that people cared enough to want to preserve it gives me a lot of hope,” Sartore says. “If people will stop and pay attention to a little fish, maybe they'll pay attention to the bigger stuff as well.”
The “bigger stuff” Sartore is referring to includes climate change, habitat loss, and unbridled pollution.
Doing something as simple as eating less meat or limiting the use of fertilizers in your garden can significantly reduce your impact on the freshwater ecosystems that barbs and countless other species depend on, Sartore says.
With his 9,000th species now documented, Sartore says he wants his massive animal archive to “inspire the public to care about conservation and change their behavior while there's still time.”