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Photographer Hopes to Save Animals by Taking Pictures of Them


Joel Sartore and a clouded leopard cub cuddle after a photo shoot at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio. The leopards, which live in Asian tropical forests, are illegally hunted for their spotted pelts.(Photo by Grahm S. Jones/National Geographic Photo Ark)

Joel Sartore and a clouded leopard cub cuddle after a photo shoot at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio. The leopards, which live in Asian tropical forests, are illegally hunted for their spotted pelts.(Photo by Grahm S. Jones/National Geographic Photo Ark)

American photographer Joel Sartore is taking pictures of animals in his effort to save them. He calls the effort, “Photo Ark.”

The National Geographic Society is providing financing for the project.

The term ark comes from the large boat in which Noah, his family and many creatures were saved from a great flood in ancient times. The flood is described in the writings of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Joel Sartore hopes to photograph about 12,000 animals. They all are in danger of disappearing forever because of hunting, loss of habitat and climate change.

Sartore launched the project in 1995. He has taken pictures of about half the animals.

He told VOA by email that he began thinking about endangered creatures when he was a teenager. He remembered reading a book about the North American wild pigeon. The bird is extinct now because it was hunted and its habitat was destroyed. He said the story had a strong effect on him.

The last passenger pigeon died “in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio,” he said. “She died in 1914, and the species went from billions to none. I couldn’t get over that -- still can’t.”

As Sartore grew up, he often thought of that last passenger pigeon. He noted, “I never dreamed I’d be meeting face to face with other species like frogs, birds and even rhinos that are down to the last of their kind. But that’s exactly what’s happening now, and I feel like I’ve got to do something to turn things around, while there’s still time to save species.”

Some animal species he will never see again. One example is the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit, which he photographed just before she died. It was the last of its kind.

Sartore said that when he takes pictures, “I hope the animal glances back at me and makes eye contact. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, that’s exactly the connection I’m hoping to make.”

The Photo Ark project began at a small zoo in Lincoln, Nebraska, Sartore’s home. He has now traveled to more than 40 countries for the photography project.

He said the animals most at risk are in Asia and Africa because of what he describes as “human overpopulation.” He recently visited the West African nations of Gabon and Cameroon. He said he saw major problems “with habitat destruction from logging, farming and poaching due to overpopulation.”

In Cameroon, he searched for the Cross River gorilla and the goliath frog. He said he never saw the frog. “They had all been caught and eaten by local people -- and we saw just one of the gorillas, in a rehab center,” he noted.

He said people are often so hungry that they eat animals they normally would not. Even small birds are killed for food. People are even eating bats, he noted.

Sartore hopes his photos will persuade people to take steps to save the animals. He told VOA half of them could become extinct by the year 2100.

“I hope the public will finally stop and pay attention to the fact that we’re all in this together,” he said. “There’s still time to save the majority of species on the planet, but we must care, and act now. As other species go extinct, so could we.”

Sartore is 54 years old. He hopes he will be able to finish the project. But he has a plan if he cannot. His oldest son is 22 years old and helps him from time to time. The young man has promised to continue the project if his father cannot.

I’m Mehrnoush Karimian-Ainsworth.

VOA’s Deborah Block reported this story from Washington. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted her report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

habitat – n. the place or type of place where a plant or animal naturally or normally lives or grows

teenager – n. someone who is between 13 and 19 years old

extinct – adj. no longer existing

species – n. a group of animals or plants that are similar and can produce young animals or plants; a group of related animals or plants that is smaller than a genus

glance – v. to look at someone or something very quickly

log – v. to cut down trees in an area for wood

poach – v. to hunt or fish illegally; to catch or kill an animal illegally

rehab center – n. a place where injured animals are cared for

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