Editor's Note
Read the latest commentary from Editor in Chief Chris Johns, and then share your thoughts about the current issue.
Posted Mar 17,2009
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Posted Feb 17,2009


“There is no feast which does not come to an end,” a Chinese proverb warns, and this month’s story on Canadian oil sands is a cautionary tale about the consequences of large appetites. With the decline of conventional oil reserves and the rising price of oil extraction, sources like oil sands—layers of tarlike bitumen mixed with clay, sand, and water—are increasingly attractive as a way to satisfy the world’s craving for hydrocarbons. The catch: Extracting them is messy and costly to the environment.

All the more reason to be mindful of the choices we make. Nearly 20 years ago my wife, Elizabeth, and I chose to live in the country, which makes us highly dependent on a car. We could move to the city and use mass transit, but we want to raise our family in the country. In compensation for our choices, Elizabeth drives a small, high-mileage car, while I commute to Washington once a week, park, take the subway, walk, and stay with a relative.

Much in life revolves around balance. Public policy strives to balance individual needs and freedoms with community welfare. Canadian oil sands, says author Robert Kunzig, are about balancing the needs of today and tomorrow.

In my own personal quest for balance, it occurs to me that I could compensate for my rural lifestyle by purchasing carbon offsets, but, really, the best strategy is to live an environmentally responsible life to begin with.


Photo: Peter Essick

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Filed Under: Chris Johns, environment, magazine, National Geographic
Posted Jan 15,2009


Sometimes it takes the worst to see people at their best. For Bobby Model, a photographer who has worked for this magazine and a world-class climber, the worst happened two years ago while traveling in Cape Town, South Africa, with his sister, Faith. A concrete block crashed through the windshield and struck his head, causing massive brain injuries. Doctors doubted he would survive. Though never solved, the case was investigated as an act of random violence. That’s the darkest side of humanity.

Now, here’s the best. Witnesses fled except one man, who stopped, called an ambulance, and made sure Bobby got to the best hospital. “He saved his life,” his mother, Anne Young, said. Bobby Model, veteran  of many mountaineering expeditions, embarked on the longest expedition of his life. After a month, still in a coma, he was flown to New York City for surgery, then to Denver’s Craig Hospital for rehabilitation.  His family is his center of gravity, of course; his sister says it’s a gift to be there for the person you love. But Bobby’s big heart touched many, and many reached out in return. Schoolchildren in his hometown of Cody, Wyoming, sent cards. A blog for climbers posted a thousand messages. Friends flew in to visit, surrounding him with love.

“Sometimes I have to kick myself when I take my life for granted,” Bobby once wrote. “I’ve been fortunate to witness so many amazing human moments.” Now, Bobby’s drive propels him from one amazing moment to the next. “You see it in his eyes,” his mother said. “He is figuring it out.” He gets around in a wheelchair, talks, and laughs. He snaps with a point-and-shoot in his right hand, and, because his left hand lacks strength, the staff at Craig will rig a bigger, heavier camera on his wheelchair. The expedition continues. There is far to go. “But he is so much with us now,” Anne Young added. “He shows a sense of humor and sweetness that is pure Bobby.”

Recently, he wrote his friends:

OK, everybody you can stop crying for me now. Thanks, though.

Love, Bobby

Photo: Rich Clarkson

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Filed Under: Chris Johns, National Geographic, photography
Posted Dec 15,2008


The day before Thanksgiving in 2005, Kathy Sartore, married to photographer Joel Sartore, learned she had breast cancer. “Cancer is a thief. It steals time,” Joel says. “But cancer can also be a blessing, an amazing experience that forces us to set things right. My work had made me a stranger to my three kids. With Kathy sick, I knew it was time to stay put for a while.” So Joel stayed close to home. He started photographing endangered species in his hometown zoo in Lincoln, Nebraska. Then he took his portable studio down the road to the Omaha Zoo. “My fascination with endangered species started when, as a child, I saw a picture of Martha, the last passenger pigeon,” Joel explains. “She died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. Audubon described flocks flying at 60 miles an hour, darkening the skies for days at a time. And there she was, the last bird. I’ve never forgotten that.”

Kathy has beaten cancer, but Joel’s mission continues. So far, he’s documented more than 1,200 imperiled species. Among his photographs in this month’s story “Last One,” you’ll see a pygmy rabbit named Bryn. She died not long after the picture was made. Now the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit population is no more. Joel hopes his work will help prevent this from happening to other animals.

Since that monumental day in 2005, Joel has learned how to combine his passion for his family with his passion for photography. “Kathy’s cancer made me realize how little time any of us really has,” he says. Time, our most precious currency, is the most valuable thing we humans can spend.


Photo: Cole Sartore

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Filed Under: Chris Johns, environment, National Geographic, photography
Posted Nov 17,2008
Alfred Russel Wallace called Trogonoptera brookiana (above) “perhaps the most elegant butterfly in the world.”

I once met a hunter in British Columbia who could read a trapline as if it were a novel. Where others saw merely trees, scrub, and earth, he could interpret the wanderings of foxes, deer, and lynx. He was a man who did more than look. He could see.

Alfred Russel Wallace, the almost Darwin, was such a man. Without benefit of formal education, Wallace, a young English field biologist and collector of exotic species, described a theory of evolution that paralleled one Darwin had developed but hadn’t yet published. What lifted Wallace from the realm of the ordinary, points out David Quammen in this month’s story, was his extraordinary capacity to observe, a skill honed in his early days as a land surveyor, during long walks across the Welsh moors. It helped that Wallace, on his monumental expedition to the Malay Archipelago, collected specimens in multiples. One might construct a sentence from one golden birdwing butterfly. Given 50 golden birdwings, Wallace could construct a story. Another naturalist might not note ever-so-slight variations in size, color, and pattern. Wallace did. He not only saw, he meticulously recorded his findings, then connected the dots. Of such stuff is great science made.

“Learn to see,” said the eminent 19th-century physician William Osler. Before the advent of sophisticated medical imaging like MRIs, Osler could diagnose a complicated disease simply by noting subtle signs visible to the eye. To be able to see, not merely look, is the foundation of discovery.


Photo: Robert Clark; photographed at Sophia M. Sachs
Butterfly House, Missouri Botanical Garden


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Filed Under: Chris Johns, environment, National Geographic, nature, Science
Posted Oct 31,2008

Photo: Earth from space

The desert air at night is cold and clear. I’ve never seen a sky so bright. The stars and planets seem to pulsate. I’m hundreds of miles from a city, deep in the Namib, one of the oldest deserts in the world. The Bushmen, southern Africa’s oldest inhabitants, call this home.

Legend says that one dark night, a young Bushman girl, wanting to see better, threw fire embers in the sky. The embers became the stars and planets. Thrilled with the transformation and wanting to make it even better, she tossed different burning roots into the air and added color to the sky. This, say the Bushmen, is how the Milky Way was created.

I have my own story about the sky, one that precedes my experience in the Namib by more than three decades. I’m ten years old, perhaps even the same age as the mythical Bushman girl, and am sound asleep. My father lifts me from bed and carries me to a couch in front of our flickering black-and-white television. It’s three in the morning on February 20, 1962, and John Glenn is boarding the Mercury spacecraft. Soon an explosion of light and smoke erupts, and the rocket, burning like a hot ember, lifts him into the sky. “Godspeed, John Glenn,” radios fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter. The world waits and watches. Five hours and three orbits later, anxiety turns to elation when Glenn splashes down safely.

It’s a scene I will never forget, but the mission that stirred my imagination more than any other was Apollo 8 in December 1968, with its haunting photographs of Earth, made by the crew as they rounded the moon, the first humans ever to see its far side. There is our planet, beautiful, fragile, a mottled blue-and-white orb, floating in the blackness of space. The mission’s defining moment came on Christmas Eve, when in a live telecast from lunar orbit, the astronauts read the majestic words of Genesis to an enthralled audience on Earth.

This special edition of National Geographic celebrates the 40th anniversary of that mission. We also salute all the heroes who have ventured into space, and those on the ground who make such incredible journeys possible. May the dreams and aspirations of humanity always be as infinite as space itself.


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Filed Under: Chris Johns, National Geographic, photography
Posted Oct 15,2008


The night sky in the small, rural Virginia community I call home is a big deal, but I didn’t realize how big until our local schools considered installing stadium lighting for nighttime sports. The controversy that erupted surprised me. I thought there’d be arguments about the cost of installing and maintaining lights—and there were. I just never expected the most intense debate to revolve around the potential light pollution of our famously dark skies. When the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors heard public comments on the issue, eight residents spoke in favor of the lights. Nine spoke against. Readers of the local newspaper also weighed in. “Our children will have the opportunity to play more sporting events,” wrote one supporter of the proposition. The lights   “will fundamentally and unalterably change the quality of life,” countered an opponent.

Light pollution is a rather new, unintended consequence of technology in the arc of human history, reports Verlyn Klinkenborg in our cover story. The beauty of an ink black night aside, darkness turns out to be as essential to our biological well-being as light. The cyclic rhythm of waking and sleep parallels the cycle of light and dark on Earth. Tampering with it may turn out to have biological repercussions.

Back to the light storm in my own backyard: After an anonymous donor offered financial help, the measure passed, four to one. It was “best for the kids,” the superintendent of schools said, but the jury may still be out on that one.


Photograph by Jim Richardson


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Filed Under: Chris Johns, National Geographic, photography
Posted Sep 15,2008


My life has been bracketed by trails. I grew up near the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, which meanders from the Pacific Northwest rain forest to the California desert valley and passes through the Sky Lakes Wilderness in southern Oregon. It’s where I first tasted the magic of two loves, a backpack and a camera. I can remember rolling out of a tent to photograph a small lake as fingers of light poked through a scrim of mist and the rising sun burnished the landscape with the intense gold of late summer.

Thirty-six years later, on the other side of the continent, I can sit on my front porch, look west to the Blue Ridge Mountains, and see that other marquee route—the Appalachian Trail. I remember the first time I hiked the Appalachian. Being a Westerner, I imagined I knew what real mountains were; I figured I was in for a cakewalk. I was wrong. The Appalachian Trail upended my arrogance. I realized that a challenging hike and incredible beauty were not exclusive to the Pacific Crest.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of a national system that incorporates 1,077 trails, totaling more than 66,000 miles in all 50 states. We feature one of them—Arkansas’s Ozark Highlands Trail—in this issue. “Build a trail and they will come,” says Pam Gluck, executive director of American Trails, a nonprofit that works to protect trails across the country. Trails, she points out, promote exercise and can help ease traffic congestion and decrease pollution. Most of all, trails put us in touch with nature—and ultimately ourselves.


Photograph by Peter Essick

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Filed Under: Chris Johns, explore, National Geographic, photography, Travel
Posted Aug 18,2008

Elephants stir strong emotions. I remember standing in the roof hatch of a Land Rover to photograph a bull elephant in Tanzania. The animal turned, headed toward me, and laid his tusks on the hood. I slid down and froze as his trunk slipped through the hatch and paused, inches from my face. Gently, the tip tapped my left shoulder and snuffled my neck. His warm breath filled the Rover. Then he retracted his trunk and ambled off. The contact took my breath away.

A bull elephant browses trees in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater. He later investigated the Editor’s Land Rover.

Years later, I had an encounter that left me with a different emotion. I was in a helicopter chasing a large bull in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. As the pilot brought us in behind the frantic elephant, a ranger, Douw Grobler, leaned out and fired a bullet into the animal’s head. He collapsed, driving his tusks deep into the dust. “A perfect brain shot,” Grobler said, adding that he did it “only to protect the park’s biodiversity. I wish there were a better way.” Sadly, sometimes there are too many elephants, even in the vastness of Kruger. The ranger was simply doing his job as part of a culling operation. 

A passionate advocate of African elephants is zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton. For more than a year, he worked with photographer Michael Nichols and writer David Quammen to bring you this issue’s coverage of the elephants of Samburu National Reserve area in Kenya. It’s a heartening story, but elsewhere the situation is more complicated. After 13 years, South Africa has lifted its moratorium on culling. This month we also examine that decision and the debate it provokes.


Photograph by Chris Johns, National Geographic Image Collection

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Filed Under: animals, Chris Johns, environment, nature, photography
Posted Jul 15,2008

The hand singed by the blowtorch looks human. Close inspection reveals that it belongs to a drill, a baboonlike primate, for sale in the bush-meat market in Malabo, the Bioko Island capital of Equatorial Guinea. Scorching flesh brings a higher price for monkey meat, a delicacy in this part of the world. Photographer Joel Sartore captured this alarming scene, hoping to provoke change. He was part of an International League of Conservation Photographers project called a RAVE (Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition) to document wildlife on Bioko. 

Bioko’s bush-meat trade threatens animals like this young drill.

There, primates are hunted and sold through a growing trade fueled by money earned in nearby oil fields. The commitment to make a difference motivated three other National Geographic photographers—Tim Laman, Ian Nichols, and Christian Ziegler—to accompany Joel. National Geographic and Conservation International sponsored the expedition. Along with writer Virginia Morell, Joel, Tim, Ian, and Christian have produced a startling story for this issue. We hope their work will raise awareness of the need for conservation on the island, to help ensure Bioko remains what one biologist calls a “monkey paradise.”


Photograph by Joel Sartore                                                                              


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