Keeping Hope Alive

National Geographic Photo Ark by Photographer Joel Sartore at the Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens

Photos: National Geographic Photo Ark by Joel Sartore

A critically endangered female Northern white rhinoceros, Ceratotherium simum cottoni). She was one of the last five northern white rhinos left on Earth. She died on Monday, July 27, 2015, just one week after this photo was taken at the Dvur Kralove Zoo.

When you hear the words “National Geographic,” what comes to mind? Many speak of learning about exotic locations, little-understood cultures, wildlife conservation, or globe-trotting adventurers and explorers when describing the iconic magazine, but the one thing that everyone agrees on is that it’s the photography that brings it all together. Is there a photographer out there who hasn’t dreamed of one day having their work featured within the yellow borders of the venerable publication?

Joel Sartore was once one of those photographers with that same far-flung dream. However, he became one of the very few to have that dream fulfilled after meeting James Stanfield, a legendary National Geographic photographer, while he was working at a newspaper in Wichita, Kansas, many years ago. Sartore now says that “How do I become a National Geographic photographer?” is the question that he is asked more often than any other. His simple answer: “By being very persistent.”  

On Stanfield’s recommendation, Sartore sent his portfolio to the National Geographic Society’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., but he didn’t stop there. He then doggedly sent them clips of his best work for the next two years. He didn’t send photos every day or even every week because he recognized that “there is a fine line between being persistent and being a pain,” but he usually sent them once every three months. His perseverance paid off and he eventually received a one-day assignment, which then led to a nine-day assignment. Twenty-five years later, Sartore is not only a National Geographic photographer, but he has also contributed to many other publications including Audubon Magazine, Time, Life, and Sports Illustrated and has written several books.

Mei Lun and Mei Huan, twin giant panda cubs, Ailuropoda melanoleuca, at Zoo Atlanta.

Sartore is also a speaker, and the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens will host him this November at its annual Toast to Conservation where he will talk about his Photo Ark, a project he founded to photograph all of the species around the globe that are now under the care of humans. The goal of his project is to raise awareness about the many species that are in danger of becoming extinct, which fits in with the zoo’s Toast to Conservation commitment to worldwide animal and plant conservation.

The Photo Ark came into being when Sartore was tending to his wife who had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005. He says that the experience gave him “a new perspective on the shortness and fragility of life.” As his wife recovered, he says that the one question that continued to haunt him was how to get people to care that “we could lose half of all species by the turn of the next century.” His answer was to commit to taking portraits of each of the 12,000 species residing in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries around world.  

Each of the over 9,000 species that have been documented so far have been photographed as cleanly and as simply as possible. By using black and white backgrounds, Sartore wanted to “level the playing field, making every mouse as grand

A vulnerable adult female white bellied pangolin, Phataginus tricuspis, with her baby, part of Pangolin Conservation, a non-profit organization in Saint Augustine, Florida. This juvenile is only 70 days old. She is the first of her species to be bred in captivity.

as an elephant.” He wanted those who viewed the portraits to look animals directly in the eye to see “there’s beauty, grace, and intelligence in the other creatures that we share the planet with.” The message is clear – all species are equally important to our survival, and each has a “basic right to exist.”

Although only a tiny fraction of the more than 32,000 images taken so far by Sartore appear on these pages, they speak volumes about the threats encountered by so many species and why time is running out to save them. The federally endangered Florida panther named Lucy (page 47), whose portrait was taken by Sartore at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, is one of a remnant endangered subpopulation of Puma concolor. Pumas once lived in most of the southeastern U.S., but are now found in less than five percent of that historic range. Lucy now shares her habitat with another Florida panther, Micanopy, at the Lowry Park Zoo, but other members of their species living in the wild are losing their habitat to urbanization, residential construction, and conversion of land to agriculture. Tragically, many panthers are killed by vehicles: 13 so far in 2019, out of a total population of only about 230.

Golden snub-nosed monkeys, Rhinopithecus roxellana.

There’s good news for the twin giant panda cubs, Mei Lun and Mei Huan (page 44), whose image was taken by Sartore at Zoo Atlanta in 2013 when they were just a hundred days old. They now live at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China where it is hoped they will breed their own cubs. Such breeding programs have helped move their species from endangered to vulnerable status on the International Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

Read MoreBy Eva Dasher

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