Editor's note: Asher Jay is one of National Geographic's 2014 emerging explorers, part of a program that honors tomorrow's visionaries—those making discoveries, making a difference, and inspiring people to care about the planet.
Asher Jay is trying to save world’s most threatened wildlife with an unorthodox weapon: art.
And as far-fetched as it may sound, scientists, professors, and leading wildlife groups are flocking to the 30-year-old artist because, after their fieldwork, research, and strategizing are done, Jay can do something they can't: translate the work into images that make people take notice.
"Today we need everyone’s involvement, not just core conservationists," says Jay. "People with no previous interest in conservation tune in to my messages because they engage with my work aesthetically. It starts as an interest in art for art’s sake and ends with making lifestyle changes.”
The New York-based artist has become a visual voice for a range of environmental causes. In Africa, screen savers glow with Jay’s graphic of a poached rhino horn dripping with blood. Her work integrating elephant tusks into Chinese language characters waves from banners that urge shoppers in China to stop buying ivory.
Jay's animated graphics of elephants killed for their tusks have loomed over New York’s Times Square, while other works have spread worldwide on social media.
“The right image can overcome language and cultural barriers, connecting with people on a nonverbal, emotional level," she says. "It all starts with making an emotional impression on one person. Only then will someone change habits, speak out, or donate."
In recent years, much of Jay's best known work has focused on the illegal ivory trade.
In 2012, she created a silk screen print showing a stark image of an elephant’s head silhouetted in black, dripping with red blood, and accented by a tusk populated with elephant families. “Every tusk costs a life," said accompanying text. "Stop poaching.”
“I wanted to visualize the scale and brutality of the crisis and use art to tell the blood ivory story,” she says. “Each year, 35,000 elephants are slaughtered; that’s one every 15 minutes."
"Two-thirds of Africa’s elephants have been killed for tusks in the last 35 years. If this continues, experts predict elephants in the wild will be extinct in less than ten years.”
A companion piece to the elephant silk screen used the same concept to depict a rhino horn, which is poached for use in traditional Chinese medicine and is a status symbol of wealth and success in parts of Asia. Within months, tens of thousands of people and scores of conservation groups around the world had shared the image online.
Much of Jay’s work around poaching aims simply to correct a widespread misconception: “Many people think an elephant’s tusk or a rhino’s horn simply falls off, like losing a tooth.”
“My goal," she says, "is to make them understand that elephants die agonizing deaths, alive and conscious as poachers hack out their tusks."
After the success of the elephant and rhino campaigns, requests poured in from animal advocacy groups around the world. Since then, Jay has created art for the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, WildAid, the African Wildlife Foundation, Save the Elephants, and Elephants DC, among other groups.
In 2013, the San Francisco-based March for Elephants enlisted Jay for one her highest-profile placements yet: a Times Square billboard.
The artist used a 31-foot-high, 55-foot-wide canvas to project an animated graphic depicting elephant slaughter. Bold illustrations in red, white, and black overlay silhouettes of elephants bleeding, a woman adorned in ivory jewelry, poachers crouching, and ominous rifle crosshairs.
Sound effects of gunshots, axes hacking flesh and bone, and moaning elephants—captured during an actual poaching incident in Gabon—reverberated in a continuous loop from the billboard. “Ivory lasts forever," said words floating at the top of the billboard. "So does extinction. Every tusk costs a life and destroys a family. Is it worth it?”
The 30-second ad appeared 24 hours a day for a month, drawing 1.5 million viewers.
Jay's most ambitious efforts are taking her antipoaching message to the source of the world's increasing demand for ivory: China’s growing middle class.
“Most Chinese are unaware that tens of thousands of elephants are illegally slaughtered to supply ivory products,” Jay says.
WildAid, a nonprofit focused on reducing demand for endangered species products, collaborated with Jay to teach Chinese shoppers about the ivory trade. To do it, she conceived simple artwork showing an elephant and rhinoceros that were transformed by the black-and-white coloration and markings of panda bears.
Chinese text below the altered animals read: “Protect the Pandas of Africa—Elephants. "
“Rather than scold Chinese people, I wanted to evoke a sense of pride in their successful panda conservation achievements and inspire them to extend the same empathy to African wildlife," Jay says.
The images appeared in magazine ads, on billboards, and throughout the Beijing and Shanghai subway systems. Since all materials were produced in Chinese language, the message gained more acceptance and attention from local media channels—and the public.
"People acknowledged, debated, and embraced the issue for the first time,” says Jay. “They extended the impact by tweeting and sharing it on all local social media—it went viral.”
She also worked with the animal rights group ElephantVoices to develop an imaginative ad that embellishes two Chinese language characters denoting the People’s Republic of China with tusks, ears, and tail. "Don’t buy ivory," accompany text says. "Every piece costs a life."
“The image created an uproar,” Jay says. Some Chinese had it flying on banners outside their homes, emblazoned on placards at demonstrations and marches, riding on cars as a bumper sticker, even tattooed on their bodies.
To help spur that level of involvement among ordinary Chinese people, Jay made the image open-source. “Anyone could print it out and use it however they wanted,” she says. “It’s a decentralized approach to inciting local movements." (She cautions that it is still important to ask permission and give credit when individuals use open-source work created by artists and nonprofit affiliates.)
Jay also tackles environmental issues deeper and broader than ivory. To bring attention to climate change, she created what she called the "iStorm Egg" for this year's Fabergé Big Egg Hunt in New York City.
A satellite image of the eye of a tropical storm forms the base layer of a painted oval, representing humankind's impact on the natural world, with images of human and wild eyes overlaid, representing those who bear witness to climate change but remain apathetic.
Building off that piece, Jay is collaborating with Cornell's Bioacoustics Research Program to create an interactive display that will engage audiences about human impacts on weather and climate.
Another upcoming project will seek to create a "seed population" of rhinos to ensure survival of the species. “I plan to focus more on solutions going forward," Jay says. "Embedding next steps for the future into scientifically researched, visual layouts.”
It will be aimed at motivating the one person she believes can change the world: You.