Photo Ark: Portraits of Wildlife Worth Saving

The National Geographic Photo Ark seeks to create portraits of the more than 12,000 captive species around the world. The aim is to use the power of photography to inspire people to help save at-risk species before it’s too late.

For years National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore worked far away from home—documenting the astonishing wildlife of Bolivia’s Madidi National Park or scrambling up the three tallest peaks in Great Britain or getting too close to grizzly bears in Alaska. His wife, Kathy, stayed in Lincoln, Nebraska, and took care of the kids. “He never wanted to change diapers or be a stay-at-home dad,” she says.

But in 2005, on the day before Thanksgiving, Kathy was diagnosed with breast cancer. The cancer sentenced her to seven months of chemotherapy, six weeks of radiation treatments, and two operations. So Joel Sartore had no choice: With three kids ages 12, 9, and 2, he couldn’t travel for the stories that were the mainstay of his career. Of that time, he says now, “I had a year at home to think.” He thought about John James Audubon, the ornithologist. “He painted several birds that are extinct now,” says Sartore, who has prints of Audubon’s Carolina parakeet and ivory-billed woodpecker in his home. “He could see the end for some animals, even in the 1800s.” He thought of George Catlin, who painted American Indian tribes “knowing that their ways of life were going to be seriously altered” by westward expansion. He thought of Edward Curtis, who “photographed and recorded, on early movie footage and sound,” threatened native cultures.

“And then I thought about myself,” he says. “I’d done almost 20 years of photographing in the wild, and I wasn’t moving the needle very much in terms of getting people to care.”

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