photoarkWow! Hundreds of amazing photographs fill the pages of The Photo Ark: One Man’s Quest to Document the World’s Animals by Joel Sartore from the fine folks at National Geographic. Sartore has spent most of the last decade travelling around the world to zoos, wildlife centers, private homes and wherever animals live under human care to photograph as many species as he can. So far, that’s over 6,000 species, several hundred of which are included here. He is the founder of National Geographic’s Photo Ark which hopes to add photos of every species under human care to its archive. In his introductory essay, Douglas Chadwick (wildlife biologist and journalist) points out that while Earth’s human population nearly doubled from 3.7 billion in 1970 to 7.5 billion now, during that same time, the number of large land animals fell by half. Ninety percent of the living land animals today are humans and their livestock. Fifty-nine percent of all large (over 33 pounds) and sixty percent of herbivores over 220 pounds are officially threatened with extinction. If pollution and other effects of human existence do not change, one-third of all species could be gone by 2100. Aside from the awful statistics and anxieties about extinctions and ecological disaster, it’s a lovely essay about biodiversity and what makes it a good thing, including how beautiful and interesting so many animals of all sorts are.

In his own essay, Sartore explains the genesis of the Photo Ark project. His wife was diagnosed with breast cancer which caused him to take stock of his life and work as well as to try to figure out what he could do for work while staying close to home (as he normally travelled for months at a time to find animals in remote locations to photograph). He decided to do something worthwhile—photographing as many endangered animals as he could—as well as work that would not require such long trips, which made zoos and the like great places to work. He began his photo ark with a naked mole rat at the Lincoln (Nebraska) Children’s Zoo, a mile from his home. His wife has recovered, and his work continues. He plans to photograph all 12,000+ captive species over the next 15 years, making this a 25-year project.

The animals are photographed in front of either black or white paper backgrounds in studio portrait style and the layouts vary, but are carefully thought out. For instance, in Chapter One (Mirrors), one page might be a bird with various shades of blue plumage while the facing page is a similarly colored butterfly, or a praying mantis on one side with an arctic fox on the other, both with their heads cocked or a giant deep-sea roach appearing to face off with a very similarly shaped Southern three-banded armadillo.  Chapter Two (Partners) features either photos of paired/grouped animals (breeding pairs or friends or littermates, mother and cub and whatnot) or opposite pages of “birds and bees” or “owl and pussycat” and so on. Chapter Three (Opposites) focuses on the unlike or antagonistic (snail and cheetah, Siamese fighting fish, a tiny katydid and a huge stick insect, etc.). “Curiosities” are featured in Chapter Four, your echidnas, platypuses, tarsiers, and other unusual animals along with strangely posed animals or pairings. Finally, Chapter Five presents “Stories of Hope.” Animals like the Bali mynah, rescued by a captive breeding program and re-introduced to the wild or our own Kirtland’s warbler, the rarest songbird in North America. A happy accident (a controlled fire that got out of hand) enabled scientists (in cooperation with nature) to reclaim the habitat necessary for their survival. The birds only nest in 10-foot tall or shorter Jack pines and, given those again via fire and plantings, are now making a comeback. Golden Lion tamarins are being bred in captivity and released to the wild in a repopulation effort that appears to be paying off. By the way, their “cousins”, the cotton-top tamarin, are the focus of Springfield’s Dickinson Park Zoo’s Proyecto Titi, a conservation effort to help preserve it, one of the most endangered primates in the wild.

Each photo is captioned with the animal’s species and its level of existential threat according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. So, EX equals extinct, EW is extinct in the wild, CR is critically endangered, EN is endangered, VU stands for vulnerable, NT is near threatened, LC means least concern, DD indicates data deficient, and NE means not evaluated.

There are a few scattered pages of “behind the scenes” looks at some of the photo shoots, capturing some of the methodology used in getting these extraordinary photos. Also distributed throughout are several “heroes” who have dedicated themselves to assorted conservation efforts, including raptor recovery, endangered primates, extinct in the wild pheasants, and others. The book concludes with an index of the animals photographed including the zoo or other center where the animal was photographed along with their web address.

Open to any random page and enjoy and, to cap it off, learn a bit about conservation efforts and why we need them.