This Photographer Is Saving Species, One Camera Click at a Time

A critically endangered Diademed sifaka (Propithecus diadema) at Lemuria Land in Madagascar. Joel Sartore Photography Inc.

A shy animal lets its guard down. The camera shutter clicks. Another portrait is made.

But it's not just any portrait — this image and the bigger collection of images it belongs to are a permanent record — and a bargaining chip.

With his project Photo Ark, National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore is making portraits of wildlife species that are at risk of disappearing. Indeed, some of his subjects no longer exist. He hopes not only to make the most comprehensive photographic record of all the species we stand to lose, but also to connect us to them emotionally, convincing us to change our ways.

Photo Ark aims to reframe how we think of wildlife before it's too late.

“Fifty percent of all animals are threatened with extinction, and it’s folly to think we can drive half of everything else to extinction but that people will be just fine,” says Sartore. “That’s why I created what’s now called the National Geographic Photo Ark. I hope seeing the images fills people with wonder and inspires them to want to protect these species.”

Photographer Joel Sartore stands in front of a collection of his images for Photo Ark.
Sartore stands in front of a collection of his images for Photo Ark. Chun-Wei Yi

Creating the Photo Ark

This summer, PBS is premiering a three-part series that takes viewers behind the scenes with Sartore, where we see what kind of effort — both logistical and emotional — it takes to capture these at-risk species.

"RARE: Creatures of the Photo Ark" follows Sartore to zoos and wildlife preserves where he sets up his backdrop, flashes, and other equipment, then crosses his fingers his animal subjects will play along. Sometimes they do and sometimes, not so much. The larger the animal, the more frustration and hilarity ensues — such as with a 500-pound giant tortoise who refuses to take his mark. Sartore also enjoys photographing the smaller smaller species which are often overlooked but have some of the largest impacts on an ecosystem.

Sartore photographs a praying mantis at Budapest Zoo, Budapest Hungary
Sartore photographs a praying mantis at Budapest Zoo in Hungary. Chun-Wei Yi

Through the three episodes, viewers travel with Sartore to China for the Yangtze giant softshell turtle, to Spain for the Iberian lynx, to Africa for the Cross River gorilla, and to New Zealand for the rowi kiwi, among many others.

Seeing results

Sartore's efforts are already working. "His images of parrots in South America and koalas in Australia prompted local governments to protect them. In the U.S., coverage of the Photo Ark has helped to save the Florida grasshopper sparrow and the Salt Creek tiger beetle," notes WGBH Educational Foundation in a press release.

Even so, these successes are few when compared to what we stand to lose. Traveling to nearly 40 countries, Sartore has snapped portraits of 6,395 species for the Photo Ark so far. Sometimes, however, species are already gone before he can get to them. Sartore's rush to photograph every species reminds us how much may disappear forever in a very short time if we continue on our current path.

"RARE: Creatures of the Photo Ark" premieres on consecutive Tuesdays, running on PBS on July 18, July 25 and Aug. 1 and air at 9 p.m. EST.

Joel Sartore takes a moment with two baby tigers.
Joel Sartore takes a moment with two baby tigers. Sandra Sneckenberger