Mr. Big does not look happy having his image immortalized on film.
But it's all a pose.
The photograph above shows an African lion strutting his stuff, doing what big cats do when confronted by a stranger. The resident of the Omaha Zoo charges and growls.
The man behind the picture is Joel Sartore, an experienced Nebraska-based freelance photographer with National Geographic magazine who is on a personal quest to document as many animal species on film as possible, before some disappear forever. He has launched the Biodiversity Project, a largely self-funded mission that has taken him around the world.
The author of "RARE: Portraits of America's Endangered Species" has been blogging about his efforts and displaying some of his unique work on his website and National Geographic's Field Test blog. Prints of his work can be purchased at his website.
CNN spoke recently with Sartore, just before he headed out on another assignment.
CNN: Why did you launch the Biodiversity Project?
Sartore: This project basically looks at any animal I can put on a black and white background that will hold still long enough to get a picture of. The point is to get people to look these creatures in the eye and see if they care. Do we care that we're losing half of all the world's species by the turn of the next century? We better care, because what happens to them will eventually happen to us. It's folly to think that we can drive every other species on the planet to extinction and it won't affect us somehow.
CNN: How many animals are at risk?
Sartore: It's a big task. I've been at it six years. I've photographed about 2,000 of the captive species held in American zoos, aquariums and rehab facilities. So I'm a third of the way done. I'm going to try to get to all of them if I can, if my time doesn't run out. It's daunting. It's something that's going to be the big thing that I do with my time here on Earth, to try to get across to people that there's amazing things if they just stop and look. It's all around us, even in our own backyards. I'm showing the things that I think are the most interesting, weird, funny, quirky, scary. I'm trying to get people into the tent and get them to realize that these things all have value. They're worth saving. They're worth looking at. At least acknowledge them before they go away.
CNN: How do you get these amazing pictures?
Sartore: I work with zoos well in advance. We talk to the head keepers, we talk to management, and we always ask, which animal would tolerate having its picture taken in this way? In the case of a predator like a big lion, they said the portrait experience was actually enrichment for him because it gives Mr. Big a chance to express his "lion-ness" - if that's a word - that he is the top cat there. So he is exerting dominance. Otherwise he's going back to sleep. It tests your nerves. I can say that because he kept charging the bars repeatedly. For something like this, we go in ahead of time. The lion is sealed into the enclosure, and we put up paper and duct tape it down. We let him in; we'll toss a piece of meat into the middle of the background to get him to go to the middle so that he's surrounded by white, and we take his picture. The whole thing's over in 20 minutes, tops.
CNN: You have a mobile studio and travel across country. Is it glamorous?
Sartore: I load up my Toyota Prius with my paper, my lights, my background, my containers for small animals, and then I hit the road and drive however far it takes to get there. I've driven all the way out to California to photograph an endangered fly. I've driven out to the East Coast to photograph shorebirds that were being trapped in the wild as part of a study with biologists. I always work with biologists. I'm not handling anything myself. It's just a lot of time on the road and eating fast food and thinking about the next place to go. It's very satisfying to know that the zoos are very encouraging. They're happy to see me. They like to see how beautiful these animals are, how alert and vibrant the colors are, how each one is kind of a work of art. So far, I've been self-funding this. It's kind of my hobby in a way, but it's more of an obsession, really, because I have almost 2,000 of these images now.
CNN: It can get messy, and your encounter with some hyenas proves it.
Sartore: I would say I'm one of the few portrait photographers in the country in which my subjects routinely poop and pee right on my background, right in the open. The hyenas, they defecate, and they drag it in on the white background. If you tried to put black cloth in with them, they would pull it apart in a minute. Predators in general are really hard on black backgrounds. We try to keep things as clean as we can, knowing that the animals are going to soil it immediately. They start out clean, and it goes downhill pretty quickly. We don't have too many minutes with these animals. We don't want to stress them unduly.
CNN: Your photos have a unique look. Why use those plain backgrounds?
Sartore: I use these backgrounds because it allows the viewer to look into the eyes of each of these species. We want to give people a clear idea that a fly is no less important than a polar bear, that a mouse is equal in value to a tiger. All these animals, when they're put on black and white backgrounds, you have no sense of size or scale, and they're all equally important. These clean backgrounds, with no sense of size, are the great equalizer. For somebody like me, who's concerned about all creatures great and small, this is basically a tactic to get people to realize that all of them have equal weight and that none of them should be purposely driven to extinction. It's not right, and they're all key to our very survival. When we doom a certain number of species, we're going to doom ourselves.
CNN: Martha is a good example.
Sartore: Martha the passenger pigeon is what really got me into this in the first place. I was a kid growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, and my mother bought a book on the birds, and there was a section in there on extinction, and they showed this old black and white picture shot in about 1913 or so, this last living passenger pigeon, named Martha, at the Cincinnati Zoo. And she died a year later. Well, I studied that picture for a long time. I read the caption over and over again. It talked about how this bird was once the most numerous on Earth, populations that numbered in the billions. It would take hours and days to fly by, with flocks blocking the sun. When I looked at this picture, it made me think, "how can we let that happen?" Well, market hunting drove that species to extinction. But something that's driving creatures to extinction now is not that easy to identify. It's a changing climate that makes it harder for some high-altitude frog to make a living. Or poaching takes away the last of the ape species in a jungle in Asia. So these things are much more subtle. We can't really see what's happening. We just know that our world is diminished more with each passing year as people spread out. I've followed endangered species all my life because of the impact that picture made on me when I was 8 or 9 years old.
CNN: Tell us about some of the animals you met up close.
Sartore: The gray gibbons were interesting, photographed at the Miller Park Zoo in Bloomington, Illinois. I've been to about 60 zoos so far, and often they don't have the room or the funding to provide an ark going forward in time for every species. And so of the world's nine to 12 gibbon species, depending on who you talk to, zoos are going to be able to save three. And they're going to be the three showier ones that they have 50 or more in captivity. With the gray gibbon, there's only about 28 in captivity worldwide. If there's not enough in captivity to keep the genetic lines going, they can't get any more from the wild, so the zoos are going to phase out these gibbons, and that means letting it go to extinction. It's a new concept to me, because I thought we could just save everything in zoos, but we can't. Zoos now realize, not only do they need to step up their captive breeding efforts, but they need to actually save habitat and stop poaching. They need to reach out and work in foreign countries if they're to hope to save anything at all in the wild.
CNN: Do you remain pessimistic or optimistic about your work?
Sartore: I feel good about what I'm doing. I want to continue to do it as much as I can. I've gotten more invitations to zoos than I can possibly get to for the next four or five years, which is very gratifying. Truly, the idea is to get the public to care about more than the price at the gas pump and what's on TV. I just need to get people aware of the fact that we are animals ourselves. We have to have clean air, clean water and a stable climate in order to survive. When we doom so many other species to extinction, we're really threatening our own existence. I'm basically a witness, if you will. I feel like I'm standing by myself on the end of a bridge, and I'm waving a flag or a light in the darkness, and I'm saying, "the bridge is out, guys. We can't keep going this way."
We are doomed!!!
I guess this hipster has never picked up an encyclopedia.
How clever of you!!!!
WONDERFULL!!!! Some people just do not have a clue about how we aqrthreatening our own existence here on earth. I have three hybrid wolves, and just by observing them through the years I can see how they inactive the environment, and that is just in my own backyard.
They create small ponds just by their digging, which causes algae to form, and to grow. I get all these crazy new plants that grow from their digging, the wind blowing seeds and pollen in the air, and from their fertilizing the dirt. from their waste. They create theit. own habitat, and it is amazing. There is more on that subject, but another time. Keep with it we need people like you, so very much, to get people to understand the real cost of that hamburger. and fancy bid.SUV.
I meant interact with environment
, and big SUV.
Oh, almost forgot! You know what is really scarry? It is said that only 1% of the water left on this planet earth is potable water.
and im sure thats accurate because the sat and counted every drop.
No, I am almost certain that they did not sit down and count every drop. I do think that. just possibly that they made some estimation using something like I don't know..... oh, science. You, I am sure are just brilliant, and have heard of it. Maybe, you heard of it back in the second grade.
I live in one of the healthiest ecosystems in the world right here in the United Sates. If you would like to photograph wild endangered animals such as Grizzlies, Wolverines, Fishers along with Wolves, Mountain Lions, and 4 different colored Black Bears. Imangine that!!!! We have huge White Tails, Mule Deer and big Bull Moose and monster Bull Elk all in my back yard. Catch me if you can. Having to much fun!!!!
@natural selection – the primary difference btwn previous extinctions and the current one is the RATE of extinction. The current rate is many times greater than that of a natural event. Ecosystems are unable to deal with the current rate of change and are in grave danger of collapse.
The only species that could do with a little eradication would be the human species. We're pretty much vermin.
Lets start with you
I don't understand all this. If we want to clean up our planet, why not video tape all of the animals in 3-D, then humanely euthenize them all with disinfectants. That way we can "switch them on" when we want to see them, and "switch them off" when we don't. No egg shells, no nests, no fleas, no mess.
Not sure how natural selection has a big hand in this. It seems like it's a land and water issue, pure and simple. As the human population continues to grow, their's will diminish. If we do not value life, other than our own, their's will be sacrficed. If we want to save a species, we have to do what is necessary for their survival. While we may be at the top of the food chain, ulimately we are creating our own destruction. How sad for all of us if we become the generation who didn't care one way or the other.
The animals being photographed are obviously captive (tame) and therefore these species are not likely to become extinct. The animals specifically mentioned, lion and hyena, are certainly not facing extinction, even in the wild.
Can't be mankind causing any of these problems. Extinction is a result of changing environmental conditions. Once man arrive on the scene it's been endless bad news for everything else. Must be a little slippage in god's plan.
Extinction is as natural as the sun rise. It's how nature evolves. Man thinking he can do anything about it is quite comical actually.
Yes extinction is a natural process. But most of these animals are becoming extinct because humans are destroying their habitats and poaching them for their selfish wants. Learn about a subject before you make such an uniformed statement.
dont forget we are a part of nature too.
When there is no more wild left, then zoos are the only safe places for all these animals. I used to feel sad visiting zoos before! Not anymore! Kudos to them for saving these exotic lives!
stop being sorrow and get involved in wild-life preservation projects and with groups that put political pressure on the issue
We cannot even get our politicians to deal with human issues! Why would they care about exotic animals? Politicians are the dumbest of our species to start with!
We all need fresh air and fresh water to survive. If we don't address these issues, we are doomed. There are cities in China where you cannot see the sun in daytime hours due to the factory pollution. It is insane to think we can continue down this path. Big business only cares about money and mainly for the top executives. They don't show any compassion for their staff at lower levels. I think conservation needs to become big business if we have any hope of survival of these species. Instead of corporate heads making a big public deal about giving to charity and writing it off their taxes, they should make a product where all the proceeds go to reverse animal extinction. That way their stock shares still go up and they only lose one product line, which would be much more successful than just a handful of billionaires giving to charity a couple of times.
Humans will eventually destroy this planet. The destructive nature is in our genes and unfortunately there is no restraining it.
How do you know it's in our genes? There's nothing to suggest that it is. There is plenty we can do to stop it. It's a matter of making people care enough to put in the effort.
Well Mash, I think what was referred to our dna is greed and self before everything else. That certainly explains most of it.
What a wonderful article. The photographer is right... with a white background you really SEE the animals, look them in the eye. Sad to think we believe we're superior and the photographer is right, once we kill off everything else, we're done for. Awesome pictures! Great job!
My handle is in honor of one of these beautiful animals. I stared into the eyes of those hyenas and the sorrow I feel... I agree with a previous poster that it is tragic that this project has now become necessary.
I commend him on his quest. I've read stories to my kids about extinct animals, and I've had to explain what "extinct" means. It's heart wrenching when your kids ask why these animals no longer exist, and to tell them that even more animals will become extinct before they reach adulthood. People need to take a good look at what we're doing to this earth, and try to make an effort at preserving the beauty that's before us.
why does everyone seem to think that when a species is going extinct its due to Humans. there are more factors contributing, it has more to do with failed adaptations of these species then with Humans. Also this is natural for species to go extinct its not always a sad thing, Neanderthals went extinct and we were derived from that. It can be positive.
Geez, gimme a break.
"It's heart wrenching when your kids ask why these animals no longer exist, and to tell them that even more animals will become extinct before they reach adulthood".
There are heart wrenching things that you sometimes have to tell your kids, but having to tell them why a particular monkey or some other animal that they've probably never heard of isn't arond any more, ain't one of them.
I also agree wtih "Aaaa", why are we always so anxious to cast ourselves in the spotlight and single out humans as the primary agent in the demise of this animal or that animal? This self depricating mentality makes me sick. To all of those individuals who are so quick to loathe mankind as the evil one "destroying" the planet, why don't we ever hear of any of you being the first to volunteer to be the first to leave???? (i.e. rid the world of your OWN existence).
Because people like you don't take those of us who do care seriously. Listen to yourself. Selfish through and through. How could it be your fault?? Your better then the rest of us obviously!
Of course its humans! How blind can you be? We've overpopulate, polluted, continue to want to drill for more oil and coal which are bout destroying the planet ! It is science, which I understand for the right wing of this nation has somehow become myth, but its for real. As we destroy the animals and the planet, we destroy ourselves, our children and their children's children. We can stop doing it. We have the power to stop destroying everything to build one more 7-11 or durg store. We can rebuild in cities that have gone to decay. We can use alternative fuels,and soaps and manufacturing processes that are better for the planet. It is not about the DOLLAR! Care more than what you are paying for gas at the pump, humans, care for the planet, It is the only one we have and we , yes, we humans, are destroying it , flippantly. By denying that we are the cause, we are betraying all of the humans still to be born.
How sad about the grey gibbon monkeys..if there is only 28 left in the world could we not take all 28 and put them on an island or somewhere where they mate and reprocreate and save the species? How can we let something so cute die out? Why are there only 28 left? What has caused this decline towards extinction? Loss of habitat or poaching for wild animals to sell? or????????????????
There are only 28 in captivity worldwide. There are still gibbons in the wild but their population numbers are decreasing. 28 isn't enough to maintain a captive population with a diverse gene pool which is why they would need more gibbons. They either need to capture more or increase conservation efforts to preserve the wild populations.
Don't get me wrong, it is a good thing to do Joel, a bit late though. We now have these animals on videos, in papers etc. Just watch NatGeo, Animal Planet, Smithsonian, NOVA etc. to name a few (here in the US)..try to get ones that have not yet been on the screen...some insects I guess...
So Reggie, you think all the zoo keeppers aut there are stupid and wasting his time. I don't think you thought one second about thinking about what you posted. Maybe one could argue "WE" could have started sooner to do such works but for you to insinuate the thought we should all just lay down and die is beyond lazy. And not just lazy, but a ignorant and lazy attempt at a peremptory post.
It's too Bad !! WE will miss the things that make us Happy! And that keep us at peace and to enjoy! NOT DESTROY!
How sad that it's come to this... :_(
The Second Coming is at hand so I'm sure we'll see all the extinct species in Heavan real soon.
YAY! So sayeth the immortal invisible ghost zombie in the sky. *rolls eyes*
Yeah that's right, the Second Coming is happening, so rather than try to use our brains and resources let's just blindly slip away into oblivion with the rest of the species we're pushing to extinction, right? Assuming that there is a "god," don't you think he'd be a tad miffed that we, who, if you are going to make biblical references, are supposed to be "stewards of the land?" The majority of the world's population clearly doesn't care what happens to the creatures here on Earth. But that's okay to you right? Because you think you're going to see all these creatures in your heaven. That's pretty funny too because just about every version of Christianity preaches that animals have no souls.......and if that's the case, how would they appear in heaven?
Yeah, I'm sure you're going to "Heavan."
What a sad state of affairs that this is even necessary.
we will end up having lots of beautiful photos of long dead creatures for others to look at if we're not careful...............meaning humans.
Those hyenas are the cleanest, well groomed hyenas i've ever seen. I've never seen a fluffy hyena on the nature channel.
My brother had a couple, but he only gets to see them once a week now.
I don't understand why people -particularly zoologist and other scientists- try to prevent the extinction of some species. Extinction has been part of nature since life began. It is estimated that 90% of the species that ever existed are extinct. I think this intervention in nature and natural selection.
I think the point is we are already interfering and some people want to mitigate the damage. Granted, we are a part of nature, so in a way this is still nature and natural selection, but that also means that anything we do to mitigate is also natural.
Because most of the animals that go extinct today, are not going extinct by natural happenstance....
It's because, unless you consider everything we do natural (deforestation, waste pollution, poaching/over-hunting, land developments) a lot of animals are not being wiped out naturally. Conservationists are attempting to be the part of humanity that controls its own actions.
I wouldn't consider pollution, poaching, and loss of habitat due to human over-encroachment "natural".
We have caused the most extinctions in recent times when we could have lived happily without causing them. We cause extinctions out of sport. Biodiversity is a good thing. It shows the health of the planet. The more we can prevent human caused extinctions the more we are keeping the planet healthy. Why do we need a healthy planet? So that it is interesting, non-monotonic, colorful, etc. If I have to give a perfectly logical answer to your question there is probably none. But as humans it is our responsibility and it is only convenient to not accept this responsibility.
I'm not sure it's accurate to say we cause extinctions out of sport. Species are almost always lost through loss of habitat. Regardless of ones ethical view of hunting, legal and managed hunting is not really a factor in extinction. Population expansion and conversion of habitat to agricultural, grazing, and timber land are the culprits, and we are all a part of it.
Dr. K, let's be fair and say that over hunting is another contributing factor along with natural selection and while spot hunting would probably be the smallest contributor, it's equally as irresponsible – a perfect example being the US wolf population in which these animals are become the victims of our encroachment into their habitat (cattle ranching). My point being when you take the global Buffalo and whale population into account, we can't disqualify the damage we've done as trivial. just my $.02
Note to self: put your glasses on before typing...
sport, not spot (sorry)
A lot of scientists are making a distinction between animals that are going extinct through our behavior or those who are going extinct through their own design. For example, as much as we all love the panda, it is an animal poorly designed for its environment. Despite all of the efforts to save it, population numbers are not responding as well as we would like. Therefore, there is momentum in the scientific community to move funding to saving other animals and let the panda go with nature.
Humans are quite capable of wiping out most species - animals and plants - from the face of the earth. If animals were going extinct at a reasonable rate, I would agree with you - it's natural, so why try to interfere? But the rate is so high because of humans. Yes, we are part of nature, but we don't live in a natural way. We create technology and the resulting pollution, we eradicate habitats. Other animals do not do the things we do. We could say that everything we do is natural and so whatever species go extinct is fine. But we will end up on an empty planet, and then we too will die out. Trying to prevent extinctions is not about playing God. It's about having something beautiful and not wanting to destroy it senselessly. It's about not wanting to destroy ourselves. But you know, even if it didn't "matter" if lions went extinct, do you really want to be telling your grandchildren that there used to be a thing called lions, and because humans only care about themselves we wiped out their habitat and/or hunted them to extinction? Would you really be okay with that?
As usual no east answer here. One could say every thing we do is a natural act. I also think most people do not have a good grasp of how interconnected or environment is. Which if you follow it all the way through relates to the air we breath, water we drink and food we eat. Though the loss of plants and animals through natural selection is probably 'normal' I think it is the rate of which these extinctions are coming in the past 100yrs is the bigger concern as we may realize too late how many rocks you can remove from the wall until it is beyond repair.
You've got to be kidding. You honestly believe that if we had not destroyed their habitat, killed every specimen we could find, that many of these species would have gone extinct anyway? You have no idea what you're talking about, do you? Going extinct due to an asteroid or natural climate change is a whole freaking lot different than going extinct due to over-hunting and habitat loss – in short, due to humanity's pathetic shortcomings in caring for the environment. If we do not change our ways we will pay the ultimate price for our stupidity. The planet will heal, of course, but it's a shame that we're taking so many species out with us.
It is not natural selection, it is human caused. Learn some science. Natural selection does not happen because on species chooses to destroy land, water, air. and food sources. That is something else. Burning of fossil fuels, leaking poisons into our water ways and air, huge destruction of habitats – that is all man made, not nature. Take responsibility for what you put out there. Try the truth and not some talking point that is just nothing but ignorance.
True, but what we're doing is natural. Chemicals, Monsanto, Dow, Dupont, are not natural products. They are laboratory abominations that could easily be eliminated from all of our environment. Before you go on the soapbox about how they have improved our lives with medical science, etc. No argument. WE live longer and better due to science. But when it comes to such things as, for example, the preservative chemicals in food that offer a shelf life of 50 years or more to benefit bottom lines for food additive manufacturers AND we can get the exact same product packaged in Europe on the same shelf with no preservatives, it's not nature at all. We are putting things into their environments that aren't just killing animals. They are killing us also.
I meant to say is NOT natural.
Thats a bad photoshop feathering job on the lion.
I would venture to say after going to his website and looking at the photos there, that this is not a photoshop issue but a purposeful shallow depth of field. National Geographic photographers are at the top and don't do bad photoshop (or at least, don't let others see it). Former biomedical photographer.
You have no idea what you're talking about.
Photonut has no idea what he's talking about, I mean.
Great article! Keep up the awesome work Sartore, what you're doing is a great thing.
One of my favorite photographers and this is a wonderful project.
The fact that we even have to consider doing this is enormously sad. : (
My thoughts exactly.
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