Endangered Animals Say ‘Cheese’ for Nature Photographer

BY Rebecca Jacobson  March 8, 2012 at 4:17 PM EDT

For most portrait photographers, odds that their subjects will defecate in front of them, rip their backdrops or charge at the camera tend to be low.

But that’s just a day’s work for Joel Sartore, a freelance photographer who often works for National Geographic. He has been working his way through zoos and rescue organizations across the country as part of a personal mission to photograph all of the roughly 6,000 captive species in the United States before they disappear.

“Zoos are arks,” he says, “What’s common in zoos today may not be common in 50 years.”

Hari Sreenivasan caught up with Sartore recently to learn more his Biodiversity Project. He is taking portraits of rare, endangered and soon-to-be-threatened animals. He’s funding the project from his own pocket, and selling prints of the portraits to raise funds for more portraits, and also for awareness.

Many species were at risk of disappearing due to human influence — hunting, habitat destruction, deforestation and pollution.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, about a quarter of the world’s mammals are threatened, and so are more than one-third of all amphibians. One in seven bird species worldwide are endangered or extinct.

Over the last six years, Sartore has photographed nearly 2,000 species. For him, that involves transporting portable mini-studios, consisting of heavy white paper, black velvet backgrounds and studio lights into zoos, aquariums and even out into the wild.

It’s not always easy; not all animals cooperate with the camera. There was the chimpanzee in Kansas that pulled his pristine white background into her cage and let her babies ball it up and destroy it. And the pair of hyenas that destroyed his set after 10 minutes: “That’s nine minutes and thirty seconds more than I thought I would get,” joked Sartore.

The photographs are somber reminders of the vast catalog of animals facing extinction. For example, Sartore’s photographs included one of the only two Rabb’s fringe-limbed tree frogs known to exist. But the frog in the portrait has since died, and now only one exists.

Sartore says there’s still hope for many of the species in the project. With increased protection, attention and funding, most of the species in his photographs can be saved, scientists say. Some like the California condor have already bounced back.

“It’s folly to think that we can doom everything to extinction, and we’ll be just fine,” he said. “When we’re saving biodiversity, we’re saving ourselves.”