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

Last updated on November 13, 2021.

Photo of a rhinoceros, close up of face, black and white image.
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.” -Joel Sartore2

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, “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 on the beach, black and white image.
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, 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 two elephants, one on land and the other in a lake or pond. Black and white image.
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:

The Endangered Species Act is now Endangered

Last updated on February 25, 2024.

Photo of a leopard facing the camera.
Photo by Patrick Shields on Pixabay.

I don’t like to write about topics related to politics, especially in our current divisive and eruptive political environment. However, sometimes politics cross the line and challenge vital environmental protections. This week, the Trump administration announced that it was going to essentially gut the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Before I get on my soapbox, please realize that many species would be extinct today if not for the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This includes the bald eagle, the national symbol of the United States. They were placed under protection through the ESA in the 1970s when only 400 pairs were remaining. They were removed from the list in the 2000s because their population increased to 20,000 pairs. It took almost 40 years of educating people, hunters, and farmers, as well as reducing the use of toxic chemicals (DDT, specifically) for agriculture which inevitably make their way into the food chain. This success story alone should be all we need to keep the ESA sacred.

They’re moving fast on this as well – the new changes are expected to take place next month. Not many government changes go into effect that fast.

Black and white photo of a bald eagle.
Photo by Cristofer Jeschke on Unsplash.

Including Economics in Assessment

A New York Times article explained, “the new rules would make it easier to remove a species from the endangered list and weaken protections for threatened species, the classification one step below endangered.” The ESA previously did not allow for economic assessments when determining if a species deserves protection. “For instance, estimating lost revenue from a prohibition on logging in a critical habitat” would become part of the equation.1 This is dangerous because in government the short-term costs often outweigh the long-term benefits. This type of thinking could cause many species to become extinct.

“Over all, the revised rules appear very likely to clear the way for new mining, oil and gas drilling, and development in areas where protected species live.”2

According to the article, Erik Milito, a vice president at the American Petroleum Institute, which is a trade group representing the oil and gas industry, praised the revisions to the ESA.3 Of course, he did. Those industries often overlook the toll they take on the environment.

We have to put nature first and make nature more important than profit and consumption.

Excluding Climate Change as a factor

While economic assessments will now be considered, revisions will go a step further by REMOVING the impact of climate change when evaluating how to best protect species. This is despite that study after study, CITES, the IUCN, and the United Nations have all determined that climate change is one of the critical challenges in protecting wildlife. A recent study in part from the United Nations declared that approximately one million species are at risk of extinction and that global warming is one of the biggest factors in wildlife decline and endangerment.4

“The new rules also give the government significant discretion in deciding what is meant by the term ‘foreseeable future.’ That’s a semantic change with far-reaching implications because it enables regulators to disregard the effects of extreme heat, drought, rising sea levels and other consequences of climate change that may occur several decades from now.”5

Photo of rhinoceros mother and calf in South Africa.
Photo by Ken Goulding on Unsplash.

Politicians Claim Revisions are for “Modernization” and “Transparency”

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the changes would modernize the ESA and make it more transparent, which is just not true. “Mr. Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, wrote that the act places an ‘unnecessary regulatory burden’ on companies.” He argued in 2018 that the ESA elevates protections for threatened species to the same level as those given to endangered species and that “we need creative, incentive-based conservation, but that becomes impossible with the current blurring of the lines between the two distinctions.”6

The distinctions were created because of scientific foresight. If a particular species is declared “threatened,” the ESA allows protections to be put in place to prevent that species from becoming endangered. We cannot wait for species to become endangered before we do something about it.

Bernhardt also wants species to stay on the list for less time. The reason species stay listed as threatened or endangered is because they are not recovering in population, habitat, and health. The argument that the law is not reasonable because species are rarely removed from the list, is flawed. “Since the law was passed, more than 1,650 have been listed as threatened or endangered, while just 47 have been delisted because their populations rebounded.” That’s not because the standards have gone up! That’s because species are continually threatened and assaulted by a variety of human activities. Further, it seems that no one is looking at the number of species that went extinct while waiting to get on to the ESA’s list.

Photo of a sea turtle swimming under water.
Image by Андрей Корман from Pixabay.

Government Representatives Have Attacked the Endangered Species Act before

Republicans have been working on relaxing and reducing this bill for several years, if not longer. I’m sharing a video of wildlife biologist and conservationist Jeff Corwin (@wildcorwin) testifying at a hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee in July 2017:

“Historically, the [Endangered Species Act] was not politically-based. Remember, it was produced in an administration that had tremendous challenges. And if it wasn’t for Richard Nixon, and his policies, we would not have bald eagles today.” -Jeff Corwin

Black and white photo of an African elephant and calf.
Image by Christine Sponchia from Pixabay.

“We celebrate the value of natural resources, going back to Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, through the work of Rachel Carson. And today, we as Americans, are unique and we have a such a splendid tableau of valuable species and landscapes. And it can only stay through wise, pragmatic, common-sense management, and I believe that the ESA is a big partner in that.” -Jeff Corwin

In response to this news, Corwin denounced the changes on social media:

“When we allow our political persuasions to destroy the very fabric of our country‘s wild legacy, then it will be our children that pay the ultimate price.”

Update (8/27/2019): I found this video of an interview with Jeff Corwin from the same date that I originally published this article:

UPDATE 2/25/2024: A coalition sued for the Endangered Species Act to be restored, and in 2022 a federal judge “overturned a 2019 Trump administration move to gut the landmark Endangered Species Act, vacating that administration’s changes and restoring protections for hundreds of species.”7

You Can Help!

Everyone who knows even just a little about the Endangered Species Act knows that it has been successful. So we have to fight this! We can be the change! As always, thank you for reading, and please subscribe!

Footnotes: