This story ran in the April 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.
And to think it all started with a naked mole rat.
The year was 2006, and National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore wanted to try making formal portraits of animals in captivity instead of his usual shots of them in the wild. For his first subject, he told a zookeeper, he just needed a creature that might sit still. The naked mole rat qualified.
From that modest beginning came Photo Ark, a joint project of Sartore and National Geographic. Within a 25-year span, Sartore aims to document as many of the species of animals now living in captivity as possible.
Why? Because by 2100, many of those species could be gone. Some of the animals he’s photographed may have already become extinct: A fish called the chucky madtom hasn’t been seen in the wild for more than a decade. Then there are others like the northern white rhino. Only three remain—destined for extinction.
Sartore travels the world from his home in Lincoln, Nebraska, to take these animals’ portraits. His days on the road are often long—12 hours or more—and challenging. Animals can be uncooperative subjects, and the work far from glamorous. At the Plzeň Zoo in the Czech Republic, Sartore slept in a room above the rhino enclosure. The female rhino banged her horn on the bars all night (it sounded like “a machine gun”), and the odor of rhino urine was nearly overwhelming. But the price (free) was right.
The results are incomparable—so irresistible, in fact, that we couldn’t pick a single photo for our cover. Instead we printed ten covers, each with a different photo; you can see them on the contents page. Sartore’s soulful portraits have been projected in heroic scale on the facades of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City and the United Nations building in New York City. They’ll soon be collected in a digital encyclopedia on nationalgeographic.com, as well as a gorgeous coffee-table book. They appear in a National Geographic book for kids of all ages and regularly in this magazine.
Which brings us back to the naked mole rat, a decidedly appearance-challenged rodent pictured in the article. Ultimately, Sartore says, “I want to get people to care, to fall in love, and to take action.” That’s a good description of the mission of Photo Ark—and of National Geographic as well. Thanks for reading.