This story appears in the October 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.
A naked mole rat. That was photographer Joel Sartore’s first model in 2006 when he began making studio portraits of animals in captivity. The purpose: to capture for posterity species that someday might be extinct. To reflect the project’s life-preserving mission, Sartore named it Photo Ark.
By the time you read this, Sartore expects to have portraits of nearly 10,000 animals in the Ark. He plans to keep going to 15,000, which could take another 10-15 years. We asked him about his project, which we’re featuring in this special issue on endangered wildlife.
Of the species you’ve photographed that have since gone extinct, what’s one of the most memorable?
I’d say the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog, Ecnomiohyla rabborum. A few years ago there was one left alive, a male, at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. He was a total sweetheart. I photographed him three times before he passed away [in 2016]. Making those photos felt epic because you know this animal is never going to come this way again. At those moments I think to myself, Don’t screw this up. It may be this animal’s only chance to have its story told well, and forever.
How about a memorable species you photographed that was endangered but seems to be bouncing back?
The Florida grasshopper sparrow is not out of the woods yet, but it’s coming back. I love this one; it’s a very small brown bird, and a handful of people cared about it enough to try to save it. There are many success stories: in the United States, the California condor, the black-footed ferret, the Mexican gray wolf, the whooping crane; and in Canada, the Vancouver Island marmot. They all got down to perhaps two dozen or fewer individuals, but they’re all recovering now because people worked to protect their habitats and to start captive-breeding programs that saved those animals from extinction.
What do you want people to know about the state of life on Earth?
A recent intergovernmental report says that as many as one million species are already on their way to extinction. It’s folly to think that we can throw away so much life and not have it affect humanity in a profound and negative way. The biggest question of our time is: Will we wake up and act, or will we stare into our smartphones all the way down to disaster? My goal is to get the public to care about the extinction crisis while there’s still time to save the planet and everything that lives here.