With Extinction on the Rise, Joel Sartore works to fill his Photo Ark

Last updated on November 13, 2021.

Photo of a rhinoceros. Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash
Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash

When I first wrote this article, I’d already written about how the Trump administration weakened the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2019. A report from the United Nations report indicated that up to a million species may be threatened with extinction.1 One million!

“We are on the brink of a global extinction crisis. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) found that up to one million plant and animal species face extinction, many within decades, because of human activities.”2

But despite the depressing news, I wanted to share something that truly inspired me.

National Geographic October 2019 cover of a dying rhinoceros
Cover of National Geographic October 2019, available for purchase at bookstores and online.

We’re Losing Species at an Alarming Rate

This cover of National Geographic caught my eye and I checked it out from the library. It features a keeper at a conservancy in Kenya saying goodbye to the last male northern white rhinoceros. Yes, you read that correctly – the last male. There are two females left. In the whole world.3

How did it come to this? Mostly from human activity such as poaching, pollution, habitat destruction for land and logging, pesticides, and climate change. The rhinoceros is a keystone species with a 50 million-year-old lineage, and in just the last 100 years we have brought it to near extinction. The author of the article wrote that “Watching a creature die—one who is the last of its kind—is something I hope never to experience again. It felt like watching our own demise.”4

Photo of a newborn sea turtle. Photo by Alfonso Navarro on Unsplash
Photo by Alfonso Navarro on Unsplash

“When we see ourselves as part of nature, we understand that saving nature is really about saving ourselves.” -Ami Vitale, National Geographic5

Joel Sartore & The Photo Ark

The same issue of National Geographic featured an article about Joel Sartore, a photographer who has worked for the magazine for 25 years. The Photo Ark6 is “an effort to document every species living in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries,” and Sartore has photographed nearly 11,000 species. The goal is 20,000.7

His ultimate goal is “to get the public to care about the extinction crisis while there’s still time.” His work is beautiful and stunning and astonishing.8 The editor of National Geographic asked Sartore, “What do you want people to know about the state of life on Earth?” He responded, “A recent intergovernmental report says that as many as one million species are already on their way to extinction. It’s folly to think that we can throw away so much life and not have it affect humanity in a profound and negative way.”9

Photo of elephants. Photo by Florian van Duyn on Unsplash
Photo by Florian van Duyn on Unsplash

“The biggest question of our time is: Will we wake up and act, or will we stare into our smartphones all the way down to disaster? My goal is to get the public to care about the extinction crisis while there’s still time to save the planet and everything that lives here.” -Joel Sartore10

Check out his work

Sartore did a TEDx Talk in 2013 and talked about photographing the first few thousand animals for The Photo Ark. The video is almost 20 minutes long but I promise it’s worth your time, especially the second half.

Sartore and The Photo Ark have published several books that feature his photographs, including children’s books. They include animals that have gone extinct just in the few years since he photographed them. There’s also a fascinating three-episode documentarian PBS series entitled Rare: Creatures of the Photo Ark about this project. I’ve featured these books on my Books page under the Endangered Animals section. I’ll also put links to The Photo Ark’s store and the film under Additional Resources.

“The intersection of plants, animals, and their environment is the engine that keeps the planet healthy for all of us. But for many species, time is running out. When you remove one, it affects us all. The National Geographic Photo Ark is using the power of photography to inspire people to help save species at risk before it’s too late.” -Photo Ark Wonders11

What can you do?

There are so many things you can do! Follow legislation related to endangered species, habitat destruction, hunting and poaching, and pollution. Pay attention to what’s going on in your area locally, too. Donate money to any of the organizations that protect wildlife and the environment. Keep learning from leaders like Joel Sartore, Jeff Corwin, David Attenborough, Jane Goodall, and so many others that I haven’t mentioned. Share their information, shows, and books. Educate your friends and your children on the dangers of extinction. Spread the word!

Thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

Cover of Vanishing book

A note about the images used in this post: In order to not violate copyright and maintain a free website, I did not use any images belonging to Joel Sartore.

 

Additional Resources:

Page, The Photo Ark store, joelsartore.com.

Documentary, Rare: Creatures of the Photo Ark, PBS, 2017.

 

Footnotes:

Book review: “100 Heartbeats: The Race to Save Earth’s Most Endangered Species” by Jeff Corwin

Last updated on February 11, 2024.

“Every year, more than 20,000 species tragically disappear from our planet.”-Jeff CorwinBook cover of "100 Heartbeats" by Jeff Corwin, with Corwin's profile facing a rhinoceros nose.

Jeff Corwin has hosted many television shows about animals. But he’s so much more than a  popular television show host. He’s a biologist, wildlife conservationist, educator, advocate, and voice for endangered species across the planet.

This book caught my eye at the local used bookstore and I had to buy it. This is a very intelligible book meant for all audiences. Corwin did not write it academically but he does cite an immense amount of research and scientific studies. I honestly had a hard time putting it down even though it deals with a depressing subject matter. But Corwin countered much of the sorrowful information with stories of progressive movements and hope. And all of it is so important for us to know.

The Title

The title comes from the most critically endangered species we are about to lose which has fewer than 100 individual living members left. All are direct consequences of the actions and behaviors of humans. Here, Jeff Corwin talks about the film and book:

I have not been able to find the companion documentary they referred to yet, but if I do I will update this post.

The Contents

Corwin explained the story of each species delicately yet methodically. I read one review where Corwin was criticized for jumping around from one species to the next in different regions of the world. But one glance at the table of contents reveals that he was clearly dividing his book into thematic sections about the major human causes of endangered species. The sections were:

    • Global warming and habitat loss
    • The introduction of non-native species, pollution, and disease
    • The exploitation of animals for products and economy

I will say that that same review applauded Corwin for his genuineness and for highlighting how we can motivate people around the world to change.

“If you’ve ever doubted that a small group of people can make a big difference in the face of a tide that seems inexorable, organizations like the WWF and the IRF are proof that such a change is possible.” -Jeff Corwin

The Endangered Species list is vast

At the time this book was written, there were 16,928 endangered species in the world. I was hoping that that number had decreased since 2009, but I figured it probably increased at least slightly.
But I was devastated to discover that as of 2024, there are 44,000 endangered species, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They are the global authority on endangered species. Corwin cited the IUCN heavily in this book. If you’re not familiar with the IUCN, please check out this 3-minute video that will help you learn about them:

Corwin explained that there were 3,246 critically endangered species (the highest risk category for endangerment of extinction by the IUCN) in 2009. He wrote: “Whether we realize it or not, we need them…We’re inextricably bound with nature. When we put the survival of the natural world in jeopardy, we simultaneously put our survival in jeopardy.” We’ve harmed landscapes and habitats and entire ecosystems, and it’s going to hurt every species, ourselves included.

“We can’t fall back on letting nature take its course when we’ve changed the land and its inhabitants in ways that nature never intended.” -Jeff Corwin

Habitat Destruction

Habitat destruction is the number one cause of species extinction worldwide. It makes sense – as the human population increases, human activities spread and drive the land to a state in which the land can no longer support the indigenous species. Urban sprawl, logging, mining, and commercial fishing are all culprits, but agriculture is the main source of habitat destruction.
An orange digger clearing a forested area.
Deforestation and habitat destruction is the number one cause of species endangerment. Image by Robert Jones from Pixabay.

Oil & Drilling

We all know oil spills are bad. When animals try to lick off oil from their fur or feathers, “the effect is toxic and can induce kidney failure.” They also rely on their fur or feathers for warmth, but when they’re coated in oil, the animal can freeze to death. “Unless they’re rescued – a monumental feat in remote regions – animals affected by oil spills typically die of hypothermia.” This makes me want to stop driving immediately. How do we stop supporting this global need and greed for oil?

Close up of Gas pumps. Image by David ROUMANET from Pixabay.
Image by David ROUMANET from Pixabay.

Poaching, Slaughter & the Exotic Pet trade

Poaching is another major cause of species endangerment and extinction, although it is not always defined as just the slaughter of wild animals. It often includes animals captured for the exotic pets trade, for which there is a huge demand on the black market. Humans remove those animals from their habitats, affecting the ecosystem. This reduces the populations in more ways than one – since they do not reproduce in that ecosystem, their numbers obviously decline further.

Slaughter for commercial profit is most visible from the slaughter of elephants and rhinoceroses. Humans kill these large animals for only one body part, the tusks or the horns. They leave the rest of the animal to rot. My family and I recently visited the Nashville Zoo and I was impressed with their exhibits about critically endangered species. I took a photo of one about the rhinos because the image so shocked me that it moved me to tears:

Exhibit of a slaughtered rhino from the Nashville Zoo. Photo by me.
Exhibit from the Nashville Zoo. Photo by me.

We must do better.

“While the dinosaurs disappeared as the result of a natural but catastrophic event, the current causes of extinction are largely the result of human behavior.” -Jeff Corwin

Sepia toned photograph African elephant walking with the sky in the background. Image by Christine Sponchia from Pixabay.
African elephant. Image by Christine Sponchia from Pixabay.

Inspiration

Even though the book made me quite depressed about the state of species across the Earth, the book was very inspiring. It inspired me to feature this review of the book, to read more on the topics, and to write future posts on the subject. Corwin offered hope at every turn.

“We’re not powerless, though. As demonstrated by the success story of the American bald eagle, great strides can be made through compassion and dedication.” -Jeff Corwin

Bald eagle feeding a baby eagle in a large nest. Image by skeeze from Pixabay.
Image by skeeze from Pixabay.

I found the dedication Corwin wrote to his daughters particularly inspiring. Here’s part of it:

“To my daughters…you are both so very precious to your mother and me; your optimism and trust, reflected through a lovely lens of innocence, inspires us…While at present the creatures who share Earth with us are in jeopardy, I have faith that my generation will make things right so you and your children will have the opportunity to thrive upon a rich, healthy, and diverse planet. We will not fail you.

That’s beautiful, and it’s exactly how I feel about my own child. My son is precious to me and I do not want to leave a devastated planet behind for him to deal with. I want to be part of the change!

I will not fail him.