The Photo Ark: critically endangered species’ last stand?

Joel Sartore, born June 16, 1962 in Ponca City, Oklahoma near the Arkansas River, is a 20-year contributor to National Geographic magazine. 

Arguably, though, none of his projects — not his 1993 story on the trail of ruin left by Hurricane Andrew, not his 2003 story on B.C.’s embattled Clayoquot Sound, not even his self-explanatory 2009 story “Vanishing Amphibians” — can hold a candle to the substance, scope and potential significance of the Photo Ark, an A-to-Z portrait record of critically endangered species that are still with us. 

©National Geographic, Joel Sartore

©National Geographic, Joel Sartore


Since October, 2013 Sartore has labouriously tracked down living specimens of critically endangered animals — sadly, nearly all of them in zoos, aviaries and botanical gardens — and photographed them the way Annie Liebovitz might, in solo poses, against a plain backdrop that forces the eye to focus on the subject and nothing else.

© Joel Sartore

© Joel Sartore

Sartore’s passion for nature was kindled when he was a child, when he learned about the last passenger pigeon from one of his parent’s Time-Life photography books. Last year, he had a brief cameo in the film Racing Extinction, photographing the last known Rabb’s fringe-limbed tree frog (Ecnomiohcyla rabborum) at the Atlanta Botanical Grounds in January, 2013.

That frog, which Sartore dubbed “Toughie,” has since passed away. It was the last of its kind.

Over a lifelong career in journalism and nature photography, Sartore has contributed to Audobon Magazine, GEO, Sports Illutsrated, Newsweek, and, bringing his life’s calling full circle, Time-Life, but it’s his National Geographic work that has made his name.

And it’s the Photo Ark, for all the right reasons — and wrong reasons — that will stand the test of time. “No matter its size, each animal is treated with the same amount of respect and affection,” Sartore explains on the National Geographic Society’s main web site. “The results are portraits that that are not just stunningly beautiful, but also intimate and moving.”

Sartore’s efforts have seemed especially relevant in recent days with the discovery — and concerns — that snow leopards and common leopards have been found sharing the same territory for the first time, owing to pressures from climate change and human expansion. 

In North America, red foxes are now commonly seen in territories previously occupied by Arctic foxes. Rival predators don’t get along: They compete for food and so invariably the less adaptive of the two dies out. By definition, that favours the invasive species, not the endemic species. It’s an invasion that snow leopards, like Arctic foxes, may not be able to stop.

© Joel Sartore

© Joel Sartore

The snow leopard report was followed just hours later by a New York Times story that suggests most of the world’s remaining primates are threatened by extinction in the wild, according to a recent scientific study by 31 primatoglosists that, like the Photo Ark, is unprecedented in its scope.

“The typical nature photograph shows a butterfly on a pretty flower,” Sartore has said. “The conservation photograph shows the same thing, but with a bulldozer coming at it in the background.”

Sartore made that comment to conservation writer Jaymi Heimbuch on the Mother Nature Network’s web site ( in 2014, in a story headed, “How One Photographer’s Foolishness is Saving Endangered Wildlife.”

The world could use a little more foolishness like that.