Joel Sartore's stunning endangered species portraits

Wildlife photographer Joel Sartore wants us to fall in love with the world's threatened species.

Ironically, in a book of stunning images, what first struck me about Joel Sartore's Photo Ark was the beauty and melody of the animals' names: the white-bellied pangolin and the four-toed jerboa, the live sharksucker and the Coquerel's sifaka, the Tabasara robber frog, the warty nudibranch and the side-striped palm pit viper. They exist, for now.

Sartore set out to photograph the roughly 12,000 species in captivity around the world, to draw attention to the importance of biodiversity. The Photo Ark marks the halfway point in his quest. Whenever he can, he catches the animals looking directly into the lens, creating the impression, leafing through the book, that they are making eye contact, assessing and connecting with you, the reader.

A southern hairy-nosed wombat at Melbourne Zoo.  Photo: Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark

A southern hairy-nosed wombat at Melbourne Zoo. Photo: Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark

"The connection is the key for people to understand that there is intelligence and beauty and they have an equal right to exist, just as we do," Sartore says. "The first step to saving something is getting to know it and falling in love with it, or at least appreciating it greatly."

We are invited to consider the sad eyes of the African leopard, divine the tormented thoughts of the celebes crested macaque, stare into the expressive orbs of the Bengal slow loris and wonder what the De Brazza's monkey, with his professorial white beard and questioning gaze, makes of us. An accompanying exhibition of images is now showing at Melbourne Zoo.

Joel Sartore photographs a dwarf caiman, Paleosuchus palpebrosus, at the Sunset Zoo in Kansas. Photo: Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark

Joel Sartore photographs a dwarf caiman, Paleosuchus palpebrosus, at the Sunset Zoo in Kansas. Photo: Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark

As a child, Sartore had a Time-Life book about birds driven to extinction, featuring Martha, the last passenger pigeon, who died in captivity in 1914. "I was fascinated by how people could take something that numbered in the billions and drive it down through market hunting to one last bird," he says. "And that to me was astounding and pathetic and motivational. I never forgot that."

Sartore made his name as a staff photographer at National Geographic, shooting stories about threats to the environment including "food production, water use, deforestation, mining, habitat degradation, erosion, you name it". He began working on the Photo Ark in 2007, after his wife Kathy was diagnosed with breast cancer, as a way to remain professionally engaged while caring for her and their three children.

A barking owl at Healesville Sanctuary. Photo: Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark

A barking owl at Healesville Sanctuary. Photo: Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark

Photographing animals in zoos meant working predictable hours, close to the family home in Lincoln, Nebraska. It also eliminated the risk he would be killed on assignment: not a negligible concern for someone who has been in car wrecks, an emergency helicopter landing and a stalled plane with a screaming pilot. In the wild, Sartore has been charged by a grizzly bear and a musk ox. At zoos, the worst he has endured is a nipped finger, when a hornbill didn't appreciate having a lens in its face.

On his website, there is a video of a chimp ripping a paper backdrop off the wall of its cage; an early lesson learned. Sartore photographs the animals against plain black or white, in familiar feeding locations painted for the occasion. The result is a biodiverse fashion shoot, in a range of styles and colours not even the most daring designer would countenance.

A side-striped palm pit viper at Houston Zoo. Photo: Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark

A side-striped palm pit viper at Houston Zoo. Photo: Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark

"Styling by mother nature," Sartore says, of the albino porcupine, whose quills are arranged just so.

Half a dozen species in the Ark have died out since Sartore photographed them, and many more are under imminent threat of extinction. The female Gee's golden langur, for instance, is the last. Biologists estimate that half the world's species could become extinct by the end of this century.

Endangered African leopard, Panthera pardus pardus, at the Houston Zoo.  Photo: Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

Endangered African leopard, Panthera pardus pardus, at the Houston Zoo. Photo: Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

The sixth mass extinction in the earth's history, unlike the previous five, is man made, the outcome of rapacious exploitation of resources, rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and increasingly acidic oceans. Amphibians are dying out because the streams where they lay eggs are drying up. Bats are coming out of hibernation too early, tricked by warm weather, to find there are no insects for them to eat.

In this context, the Photo Ark is a curiously apolitical book. Sartore says preserving the environment is his life's work, but is determinedly unwilling to attribute blame for its destruction. "These animals aren't political," he says. "It's not a partisan thing."

Pressed on climate change, he concedes that "it's disastrous, of course, but I don't know that we would change any minds at all brow-beating others that we disagree with". Which is a smart answer in America's tribal political system, where climate change denial has become an article of faith for Republicans, but also something of a cop-out.

America's withdrawal from the Paris agreement on climate change is, to use an unfortunate metaphor, merely the tip of the iceberg. Under the leadership of Scott Pruitt, at the behest of big business, the Environmental Protection Agency is tearing up regulations, leading to more methane emissions, more fertiliser run-off in waterways, more leaks of toxic chemicals and increased use of pesticides.

"I know lots of people from all political persuasions who do love birds, who do love mammals, who love fish," Sartore says. "So I'm very hopeful that we will wake up and start to care and start to treat the planet better. And I'll not give up."

Five years ago his son, Cole, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. Thanks to early detection and treatment, the cancer has been in remission for four years, and is likely to be completely cured. Since regaining his strength, Cole, now 23, has been assisting his father on photography trips, to learn the trade.

Sartore estimates that it will take him another 15 years to photograph the remaining 6000 or so species to complete the Ark. His dream shoot is the Javan rhino, the only species of rhinoceros he has yet to photograph. There are about 40 left, all at Ujung Kulon National Park in Indonesia.

"Cole will likely take over the project if I can't complete it ... [ornithologist and painter John James] Audubon's son finished a project for him when he became too old to do so and hopefully Cole will do the same for this," Sartore says. As the air warms and the waters rise, the work could not be more urgent.

  • The Photo Ark exhibition is at Melbourne Zoo until October 1. National Geographic's The Photo Ark, $60, is out now.
This story Stare into the eyes of the animals we are killing off first appeared on Cootamundra Herald.