Like a 21st-century Noah, Joel Sartore photographs the world’s species to save them from extinction
By Bliss Bowen
What if an ark was constructed not to rescue creatures from biblical floods but the contemporary oblivion of mass extinction? What if it existed not on water but online, on film, and in galleries? Would it help save them?
National Geographic conservation photographer Joel Sartore has staked his career on a hopeful “yes.” His work is “100%” devoted to the Photo Ark, a project for which he is making portraits of animals around the globe — including vulnerable, threatened and critically endangered species — in an attempt to compel viewers to truly see them and recognize their importance in the global ecosystem.
“I give a voice to the voiceless,” he says in an email interview. “It’s a huge honor, and a responsibility.”
Sartore’s individual portraits of such creatures as the Bornean orangutan, Florida panther, Mexican wolf, Diademed Sifaka, Malayan tapir, and the mandrill are indeed visually compelling — as well as funny, winsome, and poignant. In March, National Geographic published his book “The Photo Ark: One Man’s Quest to Document the World’s Animals.” (The company also published his previous book, 2010’s “Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species,” which PBS recently turned into a series.)
The Photo Ark was launched about 11 years ago, during a period when the witty Nebraska native was “grounded” at home caring for his wife and their children while she underwent treatment for breast cancer. (He says she is fine now.) On good days, he visited the Lincoln Children’s Zoo near his home to take photos. The Photo Ark evolved from there, despite the challenges of far-flung travel and uncooperative (and sometimes dangerous) photo subjects. The first animal aboard his filmic Ark: the naked mole rat.
Since then, by Sartore’s reckoning, the 25-year enterprise has taken him to 40 countries and he’s worked in more than 250 zoos, aquariums and animal rescue centers; it’s “halfway done” with portraits of 6,500 species. Because he needs to travel farther afield to find remaining species, he estimates it will take 15 more years to complete.
This Thursday and Friday, Nat Geo Live will host Sartore at The Broad Stage. His presentation will differ from PBS’ “Rare” series in that he will “show new species, in stills and video, along with sharing updates” on the Photo Ark’s progress. A witty yet sincere advocate of “common sense solutions,” Sartore aims to entertain as well as educate and inspire.
THE ARGONAUT: Were you attracted to photography by a desire to document what you saw in the natural world, or have you always connected with the world through a camera?
JOEL SARTORE: I was inspired to start photographing animals because so many truly had no voice of their own in terms of conservation — and that’s what continues to drive me on this project. The National Geographic Photo Ark gives animals the chance to be seen and have their stories told, while there’s time to save them and their habitats.
You’ve made a lot of amusing and endearing photos of animals, though your purpose is obviously serious. Has enhanced news coverage of climate change made it easier to persuade people to engage with issues like deforestation and habitat loss?
Some of the more obvious ways the Photo Ark has impact is in raising money to save species from extinction, but in the bigger picture we raise public awareness of the extinction crisis. From projections on buildings like St. Peter’s Basilica and the Empire State Building, to publication in National Geographic magazine and on their social media, we reach more than 70 million people per post now. The National Geographic Photo Ark images get people to care about some of the least-known animals on the planet, while there’s still time to save them.
Sadly, I have seen species go extinct since starting the Ark. A rabbit, a fish, an insect and the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog have all gone extinct since I photographed them. It saddens me greatly, but also angers and inspires me to want to give everything I’ve got to this project, and use extinction as a wake-up call: As these species go away, so could we.
In a 2013 TED talk you said, “Without your ecotourism dollars, we’re gonna lose the lions in Uganda in about 10 years. Hyenas and other scavengers in about five; that’s it.” Is your prediction still on track?
Actually there is hope there still — such as a new program that hires former cattlemen as wildlife guides.
You also mentioned lions and farmers in Uganda and wildlife poisoning, which reminded me of Charlie Hamilton James’ comment last year that “poisoning in Africa is probably the biggest untold story in Africa at the moment; it’s a massive event.” Have you witnessed other examples of that?
Yes, cattlemen poison a carcass, which then kills everything that feeds on it for many days. It’s terrible. … Until wildlife is worth more to locals living than dead, we won’t solve this problem. In other words, “if it pays it stays.”
Is there any other story that requires more attention to inform the public of a looming crisis?
Species in large parts of Africa and Asia seem the most imperiled to me. This is because of rampant human overpopulation. We’re at 7 billion souls now — on our way to 10 or 11 billion — and already many don’t have enough to eat. I’ve been to plenty of forests now that don’t have much wildlife left because everything bigger than a sparrow has been eaten.
Does witnessing so much species and habitat loss ever undercut your motivation? Where do you turn for fresh inspiration if you get disheartened?
That’s a good question, but I don’t get sad. I just get mad, and inspired to try to do all that I can for all of them. For the little creatures especially, the Photo Ark is their only chance to get noticed on a global scale. It’s a great responsibility, and the greatest honor of my life.
Nat Geo Live presents “Building the Photo Ark” with Joel Sartore at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday (Sept. 7 and 8) at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $50 to $90. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit joelsartore.com.