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Joel Sartore is out to save the Earth’s captive species with The Photo Ark

Joel Sartore game preserve South Africa.

Joel Sartore at a game preserve in South Africa.

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Updated: April 30, 2013 10:18AM

For more than 20 years now, I’ve been a contributing photographer for National Geographic Magazine. They’ve sent me to every continent, and I’ve worked on 34 photo essays so far. Most dealt with conservation issues.

But it has not been enough.

Every year, I see more habitats lost, more species barely hanging on.

At TEDxMidwest this week in Chicago, I’ll be introducing my latest project, The Photo Ark. The Photo Ark was born out of desperation to halt, or at least slow, the loss of global biodiversity. The goal is to document every captive species on Earth.

With The Photo Ark, I’m isolating animals on black and white backgrounds: A mouse becomes as important as a polar bear, a tiger beetle as beautiful as a tiger. After eight years of shooting, I’ve now got nearly half of the 6,000 species kept in the world’s zoos. My hope is that viewers stop, look, care and then act while there’s still time to save them.

Without a sea change in how we view nature, and how we consume resources, it’s predicted we’ll lose half of all species by the turn of the next century. That should make us all very nervous.

They say that people will only save what they love. And they certainly can’t love something if they don’t know it exists. That’s where these photos come in. We can look each animal directly in the eye and quickly see that these creatures contain beauty, grace and intelligence. Perhaps some even hold the key to our very salvation.

The plain truth is that when we save species, we’re actually saving ourselves. Healthy forests, prairies, wetlands, oceans and the myriad species within regulate our climate and provide us with everything from medicines to the food we eat.

And one more thing for those of you who still don’t know what to think about all this: Know that every time you break out your purse or your wallet, you’re saying to a retailer, “I approve of what this was made from, the distance it was shipped to me, and I want you do to it again and again.” The power of the dollar is real, and it moves mountains if enough people pay attention.

What kind of wood is that new dining room set made of? Do you eat locally grown fruits and veggies in season? Have you bought a smaller car? Is your home insulated well enough?

No one person can save the world, but each of us certainly can have a real and meaningful impact. Many of the species that are featured in The Photo Ark can indeed be saved, but it will take people with passion, money or both to step up and get involved.

The bottom line for me is this: At the end of my days, I’d like to be able to look in the mirror and smile, thinking that I made a real difference.

Now, how about you?

Joel Sartore is an author, speaker, conservationist, photojournalist and fellow of the National Geographic Society. He’ll be speaking at TedxMidwest May 2 from 4:30 - 6 p.m. Watch his talk live at or visit to see more of his work.

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