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This photographer is capturing images of dying species before they disappear

Joel Sartore travels to the world’s zoos, capturing images of animals in captivity that might end up being the last of their kind.

On Tuesday at the Berlin Zoo, a black-mantled tamarin–a small, dark, serious-looking monkey that lives in the northwestern Amazon in the wild–climbed into a small photo tent to pose for a portrait. Next was an Ansell’s mole rat, a buck-toothed rodent from Zambia. For the photographer Joel Sartore, they were among the more than 8,000 species that he has documented over the last 13 years. His goal: to photograph every species living in the world’s zoos and wildlife sanctuaries, many of which risk extinction.

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The project began in 2005 when Sartore’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Sartore, a National Geographic photographer, was thinking both about the fragility of life and what he wanted to do with the rest of his life if she survived. The series, which eventually became National Geographic Photo Ark, started at the local zoo on days when his wife was feeling better. “We started out with a naked mole rat and a couple of poison dart frogs, and pretty soon I ended up photographing about every species they had,” he says. He has since visited zoos and sanctuaries in more than 40 countries.

At a time when the Earth is losing mammal species at a rate of 20 to 100 times faster than in the past–leading some researchers to suggest that the world is beginning the sixth mass extinction–Sartore wanted to document animals that most people have never heard of and don’t realize are at risk. “Very few of us have heard of 90% of the things I photograph,” he says. Since he takes pictures of every species, the project includes less-cute animals like mole rats or mussels that tend to get less support in conservation efforts.

By taking close portraits, he aims to create a sense of connection. “People don’t think of ourselves as primates, but we are,” he says. “We really respond to eye contact. I figured if we had these animals lit well on plain black-and-white backgrounds, we would really be able to look in the animals’ eyes and see that there’s great intelligence and beauty there. These are animals that are just well worth saving.”

A vulnerable clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) cub with photographer Joel Sartore, Columbus Zoo, Columbus, Ohio. [Photo: Grahm S. Jones/Columbus Zoo and Aquarium]
He isn’t under the illusion, he says, that he can save every species. But he hopes that when people see the photographs, they’ll think about how the trajectory of extinction can be changed. “If people can look at these animals and fall in love with them the way I have, maybe it will change behaviors a little bit from eating less meat to driving a smaller car or using public transportation . . . We hope that it lets people start to think about something other than politics, and who won the ballgame,” he says. “We really do need to move beyond that, because we’re talking about a matter of life or death for all species on this planet.”

A selection of the photos will be on display at the Annenberg Space For Photography in Los Angeles from October 13 to January 13, 2019. Sartore also continues to add to the collection; in a decade, he estimates, he may be able to photograph all of the 12,000-plus species currently in captivity.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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