In January of this year, veteran National Geographic photographer, Joel Sartore, began his latest assignment. Dubbed The Great American Zoo Trip, Sartore was heading off to eight different zoos to photograph endangered animals in portrait situations so that people like you and me could better connect to them. In the past five years, Sartore has collected 1800 photos of endangered animals and he hoped to add another 25 to his collection.
In the first of 13 dispatches for the project, Sartore said, “My job is to get you to look at them in a new way, to understand that all of this complexity and beauty has been shaped by millions of years of evolution. It would be a crime to doom even one of these species to extinction. It may also threaten our very existence. It is folly to think that we can doom everything else to extinction but that we’ll be just fine.”
Yet, this is a crime that we are committing. We humans, all 7 billion of us and counting, are consuming resources, converting natural areas into farmland, polluting watersheds and the atmosphere, over-hunting and over-fishing, introducing invasive species and altering the atmosphere. We are sending 100 species per day to extinction.
Sartore also writes that zoos still have a substantial “inventory.” Because many species don’t breed well in captivity, in the past, zoos have been able to get replacements from the wild, but for some species, the captives are all that are left. In a sense, zoos are becoming like arks, preserving the last of their kind.
Reading the dispatches in the series, you see the important work that zoos are doing to promote interest in animals, particularly endangered animals. These are places where we can see live animals – not videos or webcams – with our own eyes and admire their cuteness and quirks, their grace and majesty, and establish a bond between human and animal.
The series is a crash course on animal behavior, from lions to frogs (did you know that chimps like to throw their poop?) and you find out that animals can be pretty finicky about stepping onto black or white portrait paper. The shoots have to happen very quickly! But the final photos are dazzling. The animals are by turns mischievous, pensive, playful, stoic and majestic.
But the saddest part is hearing that when the world zoo population of any animal slips below 50 individuals, tough choices have to be made. If more individuals can be got from the wild, the species can go forward. Otherwise, the animal will be “phased out.” Like the gray gibbon, pictured above. There are too few left in the wild to bolster the population. So, soon we’ll lose the gray gibbon.
Sartore also points out the incredible dedication zoo keepers have for animals as well as those who work in wildlife recovery centers, who help heal injured or diseased animals and get them back into the wild as quickly as possible. They work with very little funding and could use whatever support we can give them.
That is the message of Sartore’s “Biodiversity Project” (he’s inviting new names for it): the natural world is in danger and zoos are providing life support for many unique and beautiful species. It’s up to us to educate ourselves about endangered species; it’s up to us if we want to save them.
Read all the dispatches here.
View a photo gallery from the collected dispatches is here.
Article by Daniel Hudon, who writes the blog Eco-Now, which features news about what we as individuals are doing for our environment now, with additional news about what we’re doing to our environment.