'They say that people will only save what they love. And they certainly can’t love something if they don’t know it exists."
- Joel Sartore
The world's (probably) last thylacine - more popularly known as the Tasmanian tiger - died in a zoo. So did the world's last quagga, in the Amsterdam Zoo in 1883. The Cincinnati Zoo has had the dubious honor of being the last home to two now-extinct species: the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet. As wild habitats continue to disappear around the world, more and more species depend upon zoos and aquariums for their survival. Some are now found only in captivity. Not all will be successfully reintroduced to the wild.
For some extinct species, we have taxidermy mounts or preserved specimens. For others, all we have are images - grainy black-and-white photos, or bits of film footage. For others still, we have nothing. They have passed from this world undocumented, unmourned, and largely unremembered.
National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore is doing his part to remedy this situation with a project he has dubbed the Photo Ark. Realizing that many people are unaware of the great diversity of life on earth and how imperiled much of it is, Sartore has set out on a quest to document as many species of animal as possible and preserving their images. He has chosen to do this work in zoos, aquariums, and other captive environments.
African elephant at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, by Joel Sartore
Unique among many other wildlife photographers, he shoots his subjects on stark white or black backdrops as opposed to in a natural setting. It creates an arresting effect, where the focus of the viewer is on the animal itself, with no distractions. Which makes sense - focusing our attention on the animal is exactly what Sartore is trying to do. His hope is to call attention to the plight of endangered species and inspire people to make better decisions to ensure that they have a future. After 20 years, his collection is over 3000 species, and continues to grow.
I was drawn to the Photo Ark project because I - independently - have been doing the same thing for several years (fewer than 20, though... and I have a lot less than 3000 species in mine). Looking back on that old video footage of the Hobart Zoo's thylacine, I find myself looking at the animals that I care for - some of them critically endangered or even extinct in the wild - and wondering which will become extinct within my lifetime. So I started taking pictures, of animals at my zoo and every zoo and aquarium that I visit. I especially seek out animals that I know I'm unlikely to see anywhere else.
Sure, having a photo of an orangutan or a rhino might be a very poor consolation if the species itself goes extinct. That being said, I'm sure Joel Sartore would agree that it's better than nothing...
Joel Sartore's Photo Ark