A Turtle, a Rhino, and a Rainforest…
It was a balmy evening a few hours after sunset, the sand was soft and the ambient light was sparse. We walked along the beach and searched into the darkness, laughing and chatting in whispers. Our spirits were high even as it seemed our quest would end in disappointment. Someone shouted in surprise but it was quickly stifled. Our eyes had adjusted to the darkness but it took a few moments to notice the slow movement in the sand. When the sight finally came into focus there was even more motion appearing all around us. Female Leatherback sea turtles were emerging from the ocean up and down the coastline, arriving seemingly out of nowhere. We were in Matura Bay on the East coast of Trinidad and it was nesting season.
With red flashlights we watched their steady climb up the beach, their laborious scooping and digging in the sand, and we watched as they lay eggs carrying the next generation. We even spotted hatchlings crawl out of their nests and scuttle down the sand into the safety of the water. That night in Trinidad and Tobago, my college biology class and I observed hundreds of Leatherback sea turtles. According to NOAA, Leatherbacks are listed as endangered, “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” Six of the seven marine turtle species sit somewhere along the scale of threatened species. Hawksbill turtles, like the one in the image above, are critically endangered, just below extinct in the wild.
Northern white rhinos are functionally extinct, only two remain in the world. The mother and her daughter live under the caring gaze of armed guards in a Kenyan nature conservancy. New York Times reporter Sam Anderson met “the girls,” Najin and Fatu, and wrote about the bleak reality of the species in an enchanting article, The Last Two Northern White Rhinos On Earth (and a podcast episode for The Daily). For decades, the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation and Research has conducted research and efforts to prevent extinction of the northern white. The plan is to use female southern white rhinos as surrogates for northern white embryos, created from frozen cells in San Diego Zoo’s Frozen Zoo. If it sounds eerily similar to Jurassic Park, just listen to the podcast about Najin and Fatu, I can almost guarantee that you, too, will hope the scientists succeed in bringing northern white rhinos back from the brink of extinction.
Animals are threatened due to mostly human-caused factors: deforestation and habitat loss, poaching and overfishing, pollution, climate change, development, and rising temperatures. To protect species loss, their habitats need to be protected. The Amazon Rainforest is home to about three million plant and animal species but since 1970 over 700,000 square km of the forest has disappeared. What will it take for conservation efforts to be on the front page of the news, to be a regularly trending hashtag, to be a government spending priority? The following data visualization aims to tell the story of threatened species in a way that will convey the need for increased environmental conservation.
In addition to the NYT article discussed above, I took inspiration from various sources for data visualization as well as the story that I wanted to tell. The sea turtle migration map (see images below) from Nautilus magazine was a source of visual inspiration for the color palette of soft earth tones, grey minimal text, and a limited use of bold color. You can see it highlighted in another blog post of mine: A Visual Story of Animal Tracking.
A report from IUCN Red List and one from the UN Sustainable Development Goals convinced me that I could do something interesting with similar data. The third and fourth charts below come from an IUCN statistics summary that they produce each time the Red List of threatened species is updated. I like the simplicity of the line graph, but the stacked bars graph is too busy and I knew I wanted to stay away from that style. The second visualization below is from an article published by the Society for Conservation Biology. One of the bar graphs shows the percent of species that don’t have enough data for the IUCN Red List to make a conclusion. This data problem is an issue that I realized too late and that I will discuss below. The first graph below, from Mongabay, is my favorite and tells a striking story with simplicity. My main takeaway is how the initial preattentive visual communicates the clear message that the rainforest is shrinking. The user can then look more closely at the axes but numbers are not the focal point, I tried to emulate this in my visualizations.
After about six hours spent searching for sea turtle population data that was historical and had both quantitative and categorical dimensions that wouldn’t be too difficult to clean, I settled on the UN Threatened Species dataset. For almost every country in the world, the data contains plant, invertebrate, vertebrate, and total threatened species numbers for seven years. There are many conditions that keep this data from telling the full story. The IUCN summary explains potential knowledge gaps and status changes that range from “paperwork” such as recalculations, taxonomic revisions, and found errors, to a species being taken off the threatened list because it has rebounded. Additionally, the data doesn’t include the total number of species in each country, and the amount of threatened species per country doesn’t resonate as much without knowing the relation to the total. The bar graphs from the Society for Biology Conservation attempt to solve that issue. I decided to keep the story simple: look how the amount of threatened species continues to rise.
Find the data here:
I initially looked at totals of threatened species, but the numbers were unreasonably high and didn’t match the UN reports and Red List summaries. I realized that since the data measured the number of threatened species in each country the same species could be listed across multiple countries, and so total numbers worldwide didn’t communicate any useful information, so I separated the data by country. I also realized that comparing a desert country like Sudan to a tropical and lush country didn’t tell a clear story either. I decided to focus on one geographical area and pull out the six biggest countries that contain parts of the Amazon Rainforest: Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. I also wanted to pull out and highlight vertebrates and invertebrates with labels, but the data labels were too long and I had a lot of data to change.
Shortly after the realization that the data needed to be cleaned, I succumbed to my fate and opened OpenRefine. I’ve used OpenRefine before and find it user friendly for simple tasks, but I know this data has much more potential for someone well-versed in the software. I kept it simple and changed the species variables to one word each. This could probably have been done in Tableau, but I was at a point in my project that I wanted to see if I could reproduce what I had already done. So I started over with the cleaned data.
Back in Tableau, I pulled out plants and animals in the line graph seen above, then separated by country to get a comparison. I thinned the lines so that it is easier to distinguish the data from each country, and set a graduated color pallette. I also switched the automatic colors for the plants and animals since the green-ish tone is associated with plants. I still wanted to include a simple and punchier historical comparison, so I pulled out the top six countries with the highest amount of total threatened species in 2004 and 2020. The graduated pallette and dark tones make for a striking visual impact. Click on either line graph, or here, to view the full project in Tableau Public.
Results & Reflection
The most surprising result from the visualizations of threatened species data is how Ecuador and, in 2020, Madagascar rise far above all other countries. Also, that the United States is in the top six with most threatened species. The other countries contain rainforests and jungles so it makes sense that their numbers would be so high, but why does the US have equal totals?
In the end, Threatened Species of the Amazon Rainforest raised more questions about the data than it answered. The surprises in the results can be explained with understandable caveats such as, maybe the US keeps closer tabs on its species and so has more thorough data. To data analysis and visualization problems like, if I had understood how to interpret the percent difference calculation then the results might make more sense. Also, I spent time changing the color pallette of the two plants and animals by country line graphs, but I don’t know why because it would make more sense for the higher numbers to be darker in color. Upon reflection, I prefer to make things visually interesting as opposed to understanding, analyzing, and interpreting data. However, the graphs trend upwards and communicate the story that each year more and more plant and animal species are threatened with extinction.
These stories are bleak to read, but the reality is bleak and should be taken seriously if we ever expect significant change. If you feel hopeless, listen to The Daily podcast about northern white rhinos. Trust me, it’s delightful. While the weight of an entire species rests on the docile and armor-clad shoulders of Najin and Fatu, their lives are anything but burdensome. The mother and daughter rhinos take long daily naps in the hot and dusty Kenyan afternoons, snoring and farting in unison.
- Amazon Rainforest visualizations
- Article: Where the Wild Things Go
- BBC: Brazil’s Amazon Deforestation
- Book: Where the Animals Go
- Data source: World Conservation Union (IUCN), Gland and Cambridge, IUCN Red List of Threatened Species publication, last accessed June 2020.
- IPBES Pollinator report
- IUCN Red list: Summary statistics
- Podcast: Northern white rhinos
- San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research
- Society for Conservation Biology
- UN report on sustainable development