British photographer Tim Flach talks to Paul Little about his extraordinary new book, capturing some of the world's critically endangered animals.

If you've never heard of the saiga, the smooth-fronted caiman or Sloane's urania, don't worry - you may not need to learn their names.

They are all at risk of extinction and among more than 90 threatened species of all shapes and sizes that feature in Endangered, a monumental new book by British photographer Tim Flach.

Also included are many more familiar animals whose vulnerable status will be a surprise to some - among them, the lion, the monarch butterfly and the African elephant.


Flach is known for photographing animals using the techniques of human portraiture, aiming to capture the personalities of his subjects.

The intention is to break down barriers between them and us in order to create a sense of connection that will bring home to viewers not just the beauty but the importance of these beings in the greater environmental scheme of things.

When Canvas rang the photographer, it was early on a London morning but Flach was already at work trying to get the feathers right in a large print that will feature in an exhibition based on the book, opening in London next month.

Given its global scope and ambition, it's no surprise that scale is a prominent feature of Endangered.

It weighs in at just under 3kg and on its 375mm x 250mm pages tiny beasties such as the olm and kaiser's newt are depicted at the same size as the likes of the white rhino and polar bear.

It's a deliberate strategy. "You don't want people to turn a page and feel they've worked it out and can predict it," says Flach, who intended the book to have its own rhythm.

"It's like any art form - you have to have moments of quietness in music, and in imagery there's both ambiguity and clarity. There are things that look very familiar, and then there's: 'What's that funny thing with the long nose?'"

Anthropomorphism has been out of fashion for some time now, so why the emphasis on personality in these portraits?

In his introduction, Flach quotes biologist George Schaller to the effect that "you can do the best science in the world but unless emotion is involved, it's not really very relevant". Telling people the apocalypse is upon us is one thing; getting them to care about it is another.

"It's important for me to connect people with a personality," says Flach, "whether it's a sense of vulnerability or another element. It could be an incidental detail or metaphor. It could be that the fireflies in the forest remind you of Avatar or Pokemon."

This can occur in unexpected ways, but always with a connection to something humans can appreciate.

"For example," says Flach, "there's a bit of lichen that's abstract but might remind you of maps. Or you could be looking at frog's eggs and thinking that looks like an embryonic child. You're transported to a more emotive element, even though they're still frog's eggs."

So finding the personality and inter-species links was a large part of his challenge, as was connecting these to the wider theme of the links between all living things and between the living creatures and their habitats, which is why the latter also feature extensively in the images.

"Some connections take longer than others to find. Sometimes you stumble on them. I asked people who are much more knowledgeable than I what they thought the main stories were, and obviously, climate change and habitat loss are becoming the centre of conservation thought. You can, as a last resort, have an ark but it's not a long-term solution because many animals have adapted uniquely to their environments."

The photos are also intended to show some more subtle connections. Although "we like things that are fearsome, cute or symbolic", we need also to appreciate the likes of beetles that turn soil or vultures that play a role in the heath in countries where they eat carrion that could breed disease. Where vulture populations have declined, diseases are on the increase.

For Flach as an artist, the practical consid-erations included many he'd not encountered before: "I'm used to having control of my lighting and models, but when they are on the edge of extinction they're not quite as available.

I had to wait 10 days to get a firefly shot in Japan and make two trips to follow the antelope with a funny nose like an animal from the canteen in Star Wars, which can't be found in captivity because it doesn't keep in contained areas.

"I'm not a diver but I did go diving for the images of sharks. The main challenge was always to keep on track with the main idea, which was to connect us with the stories of what's happening to the natural world and speak about how we are affecting it - not to only depress people about the likes of the last white rhino, but to celebrate a sense of wonderment about the animals and beauty."

Endangered by Tim Flach (thames & hudson, $90).