Photographer Builds A 'Photo Ark' For 6,500 Animal Species And Counting

Feb 27, 2017
Originally published on February 27, 2017 5:54 pm

National Geographic contributing photographer Joel Sartore is 11 years into a 25-year endeavor to document every captive animal species in the world using studio lighting and black-and-white backgrounds. So far, he's photographed 6,500 different species, which leaves approximately 6,000 to go.

Sartore tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that presenting the animals in the studio, rather than in nature, gives them equal importance in the eye of the viewer. "A mouse is every bit as glorious as an elephant, and a tiger beetle is every bit as big and important as a tiger," he says. "It's a great equalizer."

Sartore chronicles his project in the new photography book, The Photo Ark. The ultimate goal of his project is to help ensure that the future existence of his subjects, many of which are either endangered or on the verge of extinction.

"I've been a National Geographic photographer for 27 years, and I photographed the first 15 years or so out in the wild doing different conservation stories, on wolves, on grizzly bears, on koalas all in the wild — and can I say that moved the needle enough to stop the extinction crisis? No, no it did not," Sartore says. "So I just figured maybe very simple portraits lit exquisitely so you can see the beauty and the color, looking animals directly in the eye with no distractions would be the way to do it."


Interview Highlights

On what it takes to photograph animals in captivity

There's millions of species in the wild and there's about 12,000, maybe 13,000, animals in captivity ... in human care at zoos, aquariums, wild life rehab centers (where they take injured and orphaned wildlife in and raise them and let them go again) and also at private breeders. ...

The reality is that the animals that are in captivity around the world, they are used to people. They've been around people their whole lives, born and raised. And so it's just much easier to convince them to come into a room and most of the time, we shift animals into a room that has been prepped with black and white ... paint or cloth or paper. And then we feed them during the shoot, and it takes a few minutes, and then they leave. So most of the time they just think they're coming in to get lunch by the time I get there.

The majority of these animals are not tame, they're not trained, but they've been living in human care for many years, and for many of the species, Terry, they only exist in zoos and aquariums now. They don't live in the wild anymore. A lot of the species that you see in The Photo Ark would be extinct by now if it weren't for captive breeding programs.

On using Photoshop to alter the photographs

Since the name of the game is speed, we put all these animals on black-and-white backgrounds, but if they poop or they drag dirt in, we'll clean that up in Photoshop because we don't want to have to grab the duck, remove him from the tent, clean the tent, put him back in. I mean ducks go to the bathroom every 60 seconds, so we just want to put him in there and get the best portrait we can and we will remove any extra things in Photoshop after the shoot ... with some of the big animals, some of the flighty animals (like gazelles, zebras, giraffes), we don't even use lights, because it could scare them.

On the pressure of The Photo Ark project

I enjoy saving the animals, but the photographic process is a lot of work for the places I go. ... I will be very glad when it's done, because there's a lot of pressure. ...

I know of at least four or five animals now that are the very last of their kind in the world's zoos and I've got to get to them, and it means I'm gone all the time, and once I get there I've got to do the world's best picture of this animal before it's lost. ... There's a type of oxen that's on a remote island in the Philippines that I have to go to, to get this. They're down to about nothing in the wild and there's one left, an old animal in captivity. There's a type of gorilla, a sub-species of gorilla that's in a zoo in Belgium, the last one. ...

There's lots of examples like that, a lot of birds especially. Birds and amphibians. A lot of them are down to the last ones, so I will be greatly relieved when all this is done, but I figure another 15 years or so, that's what it's going to take. No matter what, I'm going to get it done if I can still do it, if I can still walk and talk and shoot.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Imagine what it would look like if a rhino, a leopard, a panda, a grizzly bear, an ostrich, a warthog, an alligator, a double-headed turtle, a sand mouse, a tiger, a striped tree frog and thousands of other animals came to a photo studio to sit for their portraits. That's never going to happen. So Joel Sartore does the next best thing. He creates a version of a portrait studio wherever the animals are. Sartore is a National Geographic contributing photographer and fellow.

In addition to his assignments in the wild, he's taken on the project of documenting the world's animal species that are currently under human care, in other words, a representative of each animal species in zoos, wildlife rehabilitation centers and aquariums. Many of these animals are on the verge of extinction or are endangered or may soon be. His goal is to document them before they disappear.

He hopes that by taking beautiful photos of them, more people will care about these animals and ensure that they have a future for the benefit of the animals, humans and Earth's ecosystem. He's already photographed 6,500 different species, which leaves about another 6,000 to go. The project is called The Photo Ark. He also has a new photography book called, "The Photo Ark: One Man's Quest To Document The World's Animals."

Joel Sartore, welcome to FRESH AIR. So why did you decide to do animals who are under human care as opposed to animals in the wild? Because there are a lot of animals in the wild aren't going to be represented in...

JOEL SARTORE: Right.

GROSS: ...Your Ark project?

SARTORE: Sure, there's millions of species in the wild. And there's, you know, about 12,000, maybe 13,000 animals in captivity. The reason is because I've never been able to talk a tiger into walking out of the woods...

GROSS: (Laughter).

SARTORE: ...And coming onto my set and posing. (Laughter) I just can't do it. So it's just...

GROSS: You're not very good at this, are you (laughter)?

SARTORE: No, I'm not. I'm not (laughter) - in fact, I haven't even tried. So the reality is that the animals that are in...

GROSS: (Laughter).

SARTORE: ...Captivity around the world, they are - they're used to people. They've been around people their whole lives, born and raised. And so it's just much easier to convince them to come into a room. And most of the time, we shift animals into a room that's been prepped with black and white, either paint or cloth or paper. And then we feed them during the shoot. And it takes a few minutes. And then they're - then they leave, you know. So most of the time, they just think they're coming in to get lunch by the time I get there.

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, I love that you photograph them in a studio-type setting. You basically create studios in the zoo or the wildlife center by setting up a white background...

SARTORE: Right.

GROSS: ...And floor or black background and floor...

SARTORE: Right, right.

GROSS: ...So why do you want to photograph them in that kind of setting as opposed to, like, in their - in the setting that they live in, in...

SARTORE: Sure, sure.

GROSS: ...In whatever, you know, either cage or wildlife setting they have...

SARTORE: Right, right.

GROSS: ...In their refuge or zoo or wherever?

SARTORE: Well, I mean, I did that for a long time. I've been a National Geographic photographer for 26 years, something like that, 27. And I photographed the first 15 years or so out in the wild, doing stories of - different conservation stories - a story on wolves, on grizzly bears, on koalas, all in the wild. And can I say that moved the needle enough to stop the extinction crisis? No, no, it did not. So I just figured, maybe very simple portraits, lit exquisitely so you can see the beauty and the color, looking animals directly in the eye with no distractions, would be the way to do it.

And also, on these black and white backgrounds with nothing to have as a size comparison, a mouse is every bit as glorious as an elephant. And a tiger beetle is every bit as big and important as a tiger. So it's a great equalizer. And the majority of the animals that are in "The Photo Ark" are not - are not gorillas, rhinos and polar bears. They're mice, and they're toads. And they're sparrows, and they're animals that will never have their voices heard before they go away, before they're - before they're led off to extinction. And so I feel it's a big responsibility to show them all equally and give them equal care and give them an equal voice.

GROSS: You know, it's funny. It's like the animals are making eye contact with you because you photograph them looking into the lens.

SARTORE: Right, right.

GROSS: It's like they're looking into my eyes when I look at the photo.

SARTORE: That's right. That's right. And people don't give animals enough credit. I mean, we're animals, too. We just happen to control most of the face of the earth now. But these animals all have - you know, they have personalities, most of them. And they're - and they're thoughtful. And they're - they're joyous, and sometimes they're scared. And they're, you know, they trick and deceive. And they play. And they're just - they're a lot like us. And so what you're seeing here - you are seeing a bit of their personality, hopefully, in every one.

GROSS: Because of the kind of studio setting that you create, it reminds me a little bit of, like, if the animals had, like, graduation photos (laughter)...

SARTORE: Right. That's right.

GROSS: ...Or if their parents sent them to the studio to get the photos that then can be framed and put on the wall, you know (laughter).

SARTORE: That's exactly right. Yeah, that's right. I mean, it is. It is a series of pictures like that, just exactly like that. We just want to show the animals looking their best and to get people drawn in, into the tent of conservation, to realize that all of these animals are important and valuable and worth preserving. I mean, after all, really, we stand to lose about half of all species by the turn of the next century, by 2100. And it's really folly to think that we can doom half of everything else to extinction but that people will be just fine.

I mean, we have to have pollinating insects to bring us fruits and vegetables, if you want to think of it selfishly. We have to have healthy, intact rainforests to help not only regulate climate but to make sure our rainfall stays stabilized and predictable and consistent in places like Nebraska, where I live, where we grow crops to feed the world. So really, as these creatures go, so do we.

GROSS: I love seeing the photos of animals that I'm familiar with, like, you know, a leopard, a rhino. But there's a lot of animals in your book that I'm really not familiar with, including the Bengal slow loris.

SARTORE: Right (laughter).

GROSS: And I think this is a little baby loris that you have...

SARTORE: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: And so the loris is in a hand, like somebody's...

SARTORE: Right.

GROSS: ...Holding it just for scale, I guess, because...

SARTORE: Right, right.

GROSS: ...It's tiny. And it has these, like, big, round eyes and this, like, adorable fuzzy hair, perfectly round face.

SARTORE: Right, right.

GROSS: It's just, like, a tiny little creature. How old was the loris? And what is a Bengal slow loris?

SARTORE: Well, he's just - he's just a little primate. And I believe that was photographed - was that photographed in Vietnam, perhaps at a wildlife rehab center? And they have, you know - a lot of these rehab centers have animals that have been confiscated from the pet trade. The mothers have been killed, and they're sold in the pet trade. And so you're looking at something just a few weeks old, and it's a primate. And it needs abundant attention and care, which are the places I work at.

And so you're seeing a little baby there that needs all the help in the world to make it to adulthood. And at rehab centers, you know, they grow them back up. They condition them to live in the wild, how to find the right food, and off they go again. So big fan of wildlife rehab centers in general.

GROSS: So there's a lot of animals that it must be really easy to get to pose, like the little baby loris that fits in the palm of a hand. But then you've got a bison. And people told you...

SARTORE: Right.

GROSS: ...You're not going to be able to get a bison to pose for you...

SARTORE: Right, right.

GROSS: ...Or to even go into the little studio tent that you set up. So what did...

SARTORE: Right.

GROSS: ...You have to do to get the bison photo?

SARTORE: Right, well, I should explain to folks, like, for small animals, we work with animals that, again, the institution knows that the animal will tolerate going into a little crate or a kennel. They're trained. And they let them go out - back out into a little tent. But for an animal like a bison, there's no tent big enough. It's a good way to get hurt (laughter). So what they did is they painted - this was at the Oklahoma City Zoo. And they painted an off-exhibit space black. And then we waited a day, and we painted it white. And we led her in there using mulberry leaves. They could literally park her on a dime using mulberry leaves. They had a herd of bison. They were named after the characters on "Gilligan's Island."

GROSS: (Laughter).

SARTORE: So she was Mary Ann. She was Mary Ann. And they just put her right there on a dime. They didn't think that she would do it. But we put the lights up in the ceiling, so she couldn't get into them or rip them down. The cords were all tied up against the ceiling, up in the beams. And then they just put her - they just put her right there, right there. And she'd stand there all day long. It's really remarkable. But again, the animals...

GROSS: Was she eating it?

SARTORE: Yeah - no, she - no, it was just - she standing on a painted backdrop and a painted floor. And then they would give her mulberry leaves. And when she'd finished the last leaf and look up at me, I'd say hey, Mary Ann, (laughter) and she'd look at me. And then I'd get her picture. And then, they'd feed her some more leaves to keep her there. And she'd just - you know, she was just having lunch because she was used to the backdrop. So it's very nice that way.

GROSS: So is...

SARTORE: There's a lot of advance work that goes into these pictures, obviously - months of work to go to one zoo just in the prep.

GROSS: Well, I'll tell you what. Why don't we take a short break here and then we'll talk some more about the animals that you photograph for your Ark series? And let me reintroduce you here. My guest is Joel Sartore, and he's a photographer - a contributing photographer for National Geographic. And his new National Geographic book is called "The Photo Ark: One Man's Quest To Document The World's Animals." And he's trying to document all of the animals under human care in zoos and aquariums, and the photos are really beautiful. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Joel Sartore. He's a contributing photographer for National Geographic, and the project he's been working on for over 10 years is the Photo Ark project. And his goal is to take photos of all of the animals under human care in zoos, in animal rehab centers and aquariums. And he's gotten over 6,000 of those photos done already...

SARTORE: Right.

GROSS: ...In other words over 6,000 animals he's documented, and many of those photos are in the new book "The Photo Ark." We're talking about, like, doing big animals and small animals, so another big animal that you did was a grizzly bear. And so...

SARTORE: Right. Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: ...You know, I mean grizzlies can be very dangerous, which I'm sure you've learned the hard way in the wild (laughter) because you photographed them in both places.

SARTORE: I have.

GROSS: But doing the grizzly bear in the zoo - was the grizzly bear pretty accustomed to humans? Did you have to do anything to protect yourself?

SARTORE: You know, we - if it's a big animal like that, we're always working behind a protective barrier of some sort, you know, usually wire, metal. But in this case, you know, again, the space is prepped. For a big animal, it's prepped. It's painted white and painted black, and that was at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas. They get the space ready. The bear's used to coming in there to have lunch. It's a little off exhibit space in the back of the zoo.

The pictures are taken while he's eating whenever he looks up in between tidbits - I think it was just raw meat - he looks up. We get his picture. He looks like he's smiling, and he goes back to it. And then the photo shoot's over when the - usually when the animal gets full, that's it for the photo shoot. A lot of food motivation there. So no danger at all, and I listen to what the staff at the zoo says in terms of how close to get, just never a problem.

GROSS: So compare the experience of photographing a grizzly in these controlled circumstances for your Ark series to photographing a grizzly in the wild.

SARTORE: Well, I tell you it's a lot easier photographing them in captivity, and you don't get charged. So I did an entire story on grizzlies for the Geographic years ago, and I remember getting charged on day three of the assignment because, you know, if your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough, the old saying goes. And so I got too close to a mother with her cubs in Alaska. And I just remembered her charging at me, and it looked like she was just - looked like she was shot out of a cannon.

She moved so quickly, and I couldn't have run away if I'd wanted to. My feet - I didn't even know I had legs to move. I just stood there with my mouth open, and she didn't touch me, but I thought, boy, this is going to be a long assignment. I had eight weeks to go. So it's just - it's a lot better working with animals that have been around people their whole lives, a lot better...

GROSS: Hold on, hold on. I don't think you finished the story. She came at you like a cannon.

SARTORE: She did.

GROSS: You couldn't move it. And then what?

SARTORE: Oh, and then what? Then she stopped. I don't know. She stopped close enough to me that I could smell her breath when she snorted at me, and I stood there. And I mean, it was just seconds, and then she kind of turned around and trotted back to her cubs. They were feeding on salmon at a - in Katmai National Park in Alaska. So I just shook my head and thought - I was real shaky at that point, and I thought this was really a dumb idea to take this assignment. This is going to be the end of my career because there's just no way I can do this. This is day three.

But, you know, if you don't do a great job, you're going to fail and starve and die in that order if you're a freelancer. And so most of the Geographic photographers do freelance by the story, and so I just kept going and tried to be more creative in how I worked with bears, and I started using remote cameras which allowed me to be very close without being there at all. Some of the cameras would get trashed a little bit, but that's OK. That's OK. We made some - made a lot of pictures that made the story, and it just taught me to be more respectful because when you're out there in the wild, you're in the bear's house. You're in their home, and you just have to know bear behavior which I didn't know very well at the start and learn from it.

GROSS: Yeah. This is kind of like the wildlife equivalent of a Hollywood movie star who punches a paparazzi (laughter).

SARTORE: Paparazzi, right.

GROSS: The paparazzi who are trying to take their photograph (laughter).

SARTORE: Right. That's right.

GROSS: You're invading my space.

SARTORE: Totally. Yeah. I've been pushed under - yeah, I've been chased by elephants, muskox, grizzlies.

GROSS: Did they ever get you?

SARTORE: No. I've been made real sick by terrible diseases going to these places - bites from little insects, but nothing in terms of major contact. I mean, I had a flesh-eating parasite from a sand fly bite in Bolivia that took chemo to heal into the top chamber my heart for a month. That was not fun...

GROSS: Flesh-eating sounds really bad.

SARTORE: Yeah. It's called - it was called mucous cutaneous leishmaniasis, and it's - gets in through, you know, through the bite of a sand fly and wants to get in through your lymphatic system and eventually eat more holes in your head which is bad.

GROSS: Wait. Eat more holes in your head?

SARTORE: Oh, yeah. It just eats away your sinuses, the soft tissue in your head, causes big holes all over you.

GROSS: Was this happening to you?

SARTORE: Well, not in my head, but jus t- yeah - in my leg. And huge - you get bacterial infections from it, and it's just hard to treat.

GROSS: How many holes did you have?

SARTORE: I had one big hole in my leg, and you want to keep it from getting worse. So CDC in Atlanta gives you - gives your doctor permission to get their treatment which is a heavy metal called antimony, and it's - it has to be mixed up fresh and served cold, and they put it into your top chamber of your heart using a PICC line because the drug is corrosive to veins. And they wanted this - they want it to be dispersed in your bloodstream very quickly, so they run this PICC line up your arm in the top chamber of your heart, and the stuff goes in. And you don't feel very good for about a month.

And I had that treatment twice for it because they found it was still alive a year later. But I - you know, so far I'm good. But it's the little stuff that really - the little stuff that really gets you. Like, I came in contact with the Marburg virus which is like Ebola, a hemorrhagic fever in a bat cave in Uganda. So I had to be in quarantine for that for three weeks, and I didn't get it. I didn't get it or I probably wouldn't be talking to you. But - so, yeah - so working at zoos. It's all right.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So we were talking earlier about how you get each animal into basically like a little black or white tent so that you can photograph them with an - a solid backdrop, like an all-white or all-black backdrop and floor.

SARTORE: Right.

GROSS: For the bigger animals, you have painted backdrops because you can't get them into a tent, and you feed them as you're photographing them or somebody feeds them so that they're occupied and happy.

SARTORE: Right.

GROSS: And I'm wondering if you worked with any animal trainers because what I'm thinking of here is one of the animal trainers I talked to who works with animals in movies said that when they want the animal to look the person - to look the actor in the eye, what they do is they take a bit of food and sometimes put it on the actors' forehead. So the animal's looking at the food on the actor, but it looks like they're making eye contact with the actor.

SARTORE: Oh, really? I have not tried that. I have not tried putting food on my head.

GROSS: I think it would be a bad idea with a grizzly bear, for example.

SARTORE: Well, I think so too.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SARTORE: I think so too. Well, the closest I've come to that is there's a little, white, arctic fox from a zoo in Kansas. It's on the spine of the book. And he's got his head tucked in.

GROSS: Oh, that photo is so cute, yeah. I'm sorry. Go ahead (laughter).

SARTORE: And he is reacting to me squealing like a pig because he was not paying any attention to me. So I squealed like a pig once, and he looked. And then I tried it again, and it didn't work. So I got one frame of him. He was an educational animal, hand-raised and taken to zoos to educate school kids. So he was really used to people and being handled. And he just could not have cared less to have - about his picture being taken. But the pig squeal stopped him in his tracks. There he was.

GROSS: So describe the pose that he's in.

SARTORE: Well, he's just - he's just sitting there. He was in the middle of their vet clinic. We outfitted that with black velvet floor and black velvet walls and put lights overhead. And he was just sniffing everything - very curious, eager to go meet people because he was this outreach animal. And he really didn't care about anything other than just exploring. So that was the one moment he stopped. That's about all I got, really.

GROSS: Are you good at squealing like a pig?

SARTORE: Well, I've been known to being pretty good at it, you know. I'm from Nebraska and all.

GROSS: Can we hear one?

SARTORE: OK. Are you ready? (Imitating pig squealing).

GROSS: (Laughter).

SARTORE: It only works once though.

GROSS: Very convincing.

SARTORE: Thank you. Thank you. The animals in zoos, see, they've heard it all. People are shouting and yelling and not being very nice. And so I had to come up with something that would work. I'm glad to say that I squealed like a pig with Terry Gross.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SARTORE: I mean, I'm such a big fan. I mean, I dressed up for this show. And it's radio. And I knew that.

GROSS: And I'm not even in the same studio as you. So you're not impressing me at all with your clothing, believe me.

SARTORE: No. But I'm dressed up for this. I'm wearing clean clothes, even.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Which you don't do when you're photographing animals, I suppose.

SARTORE: Absolutely - there's no point. There's no point.

GROSS: Yeah. No, am I being, like, overly anthropomorphic when I say, oh, that little white fox, it was so cute? You know, because it's a beautiful photo. It makes me want to, like, pet the little fox. But it's a fox, you know. It's not - it's not a puppy.

SARTORE: Right, right, They're not pets. But, you know, really, that's the goal. If we can get some eye contact going with something that is a baby or looks really cute or is, you know, anthropomorphic - kind of looks like us, looks mad or happy - that's good stuff because it engages people. It changes their mind about how they feel about animals. It draws them in. And that is - that's the whole point.

The point of this isn't to just create this giant archive. The point is to get people to know that the world needs all of our help. It needs us to be better in terms of our consumer choices and how we live our lives and what - what we consume - and whatever it takes. I mean, already, in the 11 years I've been doing this, we've had several species go extinct that I photographed, and I never thought I would see that in my life.

GROSS: What are some examples of that, animals you've photoed (ph) that are extinct now.

SARTORE: Some of the animals that I've photographed, yeah. The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit from eastern Washington State is no more - a couple species of frog, an insect or two, we think. It's really hard to say precisely. But we're pretty sure that they're gone now. And people ask if that makes me sad. And no, it just angers me a little and motivates me to want to tell their story.

GROSS: My guest is National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore. His new book is called "The Photo Ark." We'll talk more after a break, and we'll listen back to an interview with actor Bill Paxton, who died Saturday. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Joel Sartore, a National Geographic contributing photographer and fellow. For over 10 years, he's been taking photographs of each animal species under human care in zoos, aquariums and wildlife rehabilitation centers. Many of these animals are on the verge of extinction or may soon be. His goal is to document them before it's too late. The project is called The Photo Ark, which is also the title of his new book, collecting many photos from the project.

So a lot of the work you've done for this series is in zoos. And I'll mention again, you've done a lot of work - a lot of wildlife photography. But this project is not in the wild, so a lot of the photography has been in zoos. Has your opinion of zoos changed over the years?

SARTORE: Yeah. It has somewhat. I mean, I grew up going to the Omaha Zoo, grew up in Omaha, Neb., - Ralston to be specific - and that was my zoo growing up. And I started the Photo Ark at the Lincoln Children's Zoo a mile from my house, and I just have so much respect for them now. I mean, I literally see that zoos are the arks now. They are kind of the keepers of the kingdom. They're saving critically endangered animals that would be extinct by now. And they also...

GROSS: But that's changed, hasn't it? I mean, I always thought in the past, I think, zoos were more like, like prisons for human entertainment.

SARTORE: No. Well, I mean, I'll tell you. They started out a hundred years ago as menageries, but as the decades have gone by, man, they're conservation centers now. And they're all that stands between extinction and survival for many of the species I photographed. They only exist in zoos. The other thing that's important to remember is that zoos are really important education centers.

As our populace becomes more and more urban and less likely to encounter animals in the wild, zoos are the only place where they can go and learn and be excited and see and smell and hear live animals. So this is a - it's a critical role going forward. If you try to imagine a world without zoos, you're going to be thinking about people are just - they're just not going to care. They're not going to miss what they don't know.

GROSS: In your book, you profile some people who are doing really important work with endangered species.

SARTORE: Yes.

GROSS: And one of the people you profile is Tilo Nadler who runs an endangered primate rescue center in...

SARTORE: Yes.

GROSS: ...I think it's Vietnam?

SARTORE: Yes.

GROSS: And you write that he cares for mistreated animals who were part of the exotic pet trade...

SARTORE: Yes.

GROSS: ...And seized by the government so...

SARTORE: Right.

GROSS: ...But once the government seizes them from the illegal traders or poachers, do - does the government not have anything to do with them?

SARTORE: Correct. They don't - they didn't know what to do.

GROSS: I mean, what does the government do with these animals after they've rescued them?

SARTORE: Well, they used to euthanize them because they didn't have a place to put them.

GROSS: Oh.

SARTORE: And Tilo saw that, and he was like - he's quoted in the book - it wasn't my work or my profession, but what could I do? He was an electronics specialist. And he was like, what could I do? I couldn't let these animals get euthanized. So he would take in these primates. And now he has successful breeding colonies of these animals, and they're in big enclosures. And they're fed native vegetation right out of Cuc Phuong National Park there in Vietnam, and they're breeding. And they've got lots of babies.

And the truth is, he is a time capsule or a containment vessel until people put away their guns and quit shooting everything out of the forests there in Vietnam. He has a big percentage of the world's population of three or four different species there, and he's tried releasing them in the wild, and they all get shot and eaten. So he started a project that he knew in his lifetime would never be complete. In a way, he is buying time for many of these animals, hoping that people will quit shooting them, and people will leave the forests intact - leave the forests standing.

I really admire that. This is a guy that's up against big odds. We profile a lot of people in this book who were up against the same thing. Don and Ann Butler of Pheasant Heaven in Clinton, N.C., they're breeding species of pheasants - one species of pheasant that's extinct in the wild in Vietnam now. They had - when I visited them, they had 11 or 12 percent of the world's population in their aviaries breeding them. And it's a big responsibility. If breeders like that quit, the bird would go extinct.

Jack Rudloe at Gulf Specimen, which is a marine lab in Panacea, Fla., he educates school kids as to the importance of mainly marine invertebrates - kind of a thankless job, you know, but they're amazing. And these are people that work every day, not for the glory or any other reason than they want to see the world preserved. They don't want to see it diminished by extinction. So I really admire these people.

GROSS: Now, I read that you bought 1,200 acres in Nebraska where you live in an attempt to save a rare bird. Can you tell us what that's about?

SARTORE: We did. Well, my wife had cancer - she's OK now - but she had cancer. And when she came out of it, she didn't care what I did with our money. And there was two square miles of alkaline wetlands and really steep uplands out in the sandhills by Alliance. And I went and toured it with the rancher - I'd been out there exactly one time before I bought it - and I toured it with the rancher. And I said, do long-billed curlews breed here? And he said, yes, they do all, over the place. And I was like, that's good enough.

So we still - there's still some cattle run on it, but it's done in a respectful way. And there's a lot of migrating shorebirds that go through there - avocets and sandpipers and the curlews. And I just thought, that'd be pretty cool, you know? I mean, I see a lot of stuff that's not that fun when I travel to - especially developing nations in Asia and Africa. I see a lot of wildlife being consumed and eaten. And I just wanted to save a little piece. I wanted to save a little corner, protect something.

GROSS: So you bought 1,200 acres that you're just leaving alone so that the wildlife there can continue to live there or pass through there during migrations?

SARTORE: Yeah.

GROSS: So when you say your wife no longer cared, after she had cancer, what you did with the money...

SARTORE: Yeah (laughter).

GROSS: ...Why didn't she care anymore?

SARTORE: Well, she - you know, cancer has a way of really clarifying things. And so she just realized life was short, and so did I. And she didn't - she just didn't care what we did with our money. She just wanted to be healthy. And I wanted her healthy, too. But I don't know. It just - cancer is a profound experience, something many of us are touched by, if not all of us. And it actually created "The Photo Ark," believe it or not. She'd been pretty good about letting me run all over the world for many, many years doing these Geographic stories, one after the next after the next. And then she was diagnosed with a pretty large tumor in her right breast.

And I found myself grounded for the first time in my life. I stayed home for a year while she went through chemo and radiation. We had three kids at home. The youngest one had just turned two. I hadn't even changed a diaper on that kid. I was not a great father, I mean, a loving father but I'm not home very much. And so all of sudden I was home, grounded. And I just thought, OK, well, is she going to make it? I thought about that mostly. Are we going to lose our house because I can't go out and shoot anymore for the magazine? And I thought about what we would do. And then, it became apparent she was getting better. The chemo was working. And it's been 12 years now, and she's fine.

But in those days when things were going real good and we were on our way back out of the darkness, I would walk around the house kind of by myself when our youngest was sleeping and just look at the walls. And I had a lot of prints up of Audubon's work, John James Audubon, of birds and mammals, some of which are extinct now in the birds. And he was a great painter, but he was also a great naturalist. And he gave us our only descriptions of what these animals were look - would act like, how they behaved, these birds that are extinct. And I thought, wow, that guy gave his full measure of devotion. He worked his entire life to bring us this. And it stood through time.

And then I had a book in my library on Edward Curtis, "Shadow Catcher," that I hadn't looked at. And so I looked at that. And, you know, he gave his full measure of devotion, I guess, his entire life to documenting the customs, the ways of dress, housing, religious ceremonies, everything on Native Americans because he felt pretty strongly that European settlement was going to alter their way of life significantly. So he spent 30 years just working on that one thing. And I thought, you know what? These magazine stories come and go in a month. But if I could create a project that would stick that'd be cool. So that's how it started, you know. And I'm kind of an obsessive guy and, you know, maybe not the most talented, but certainly energetic. And so here we are today at 6,500 species, and I'm talking to Terry Gross on FRESH AIR.

GROSS: (Laughter) Did it give you pause at all though knowing that this project that you designed for yourself after your wife had cancer, would take you away from her and your children for long periods of time because you're traveling to zoos around the world, to wildlife rehab centers around the world?

SARTORE: Yeah. I didn't know it would become what it was. I just wanted to document animals that I thought were going to leave us. I didn't know that it would get big like this. And I certainly didn't think it'd be taking me away from home more than I was ever gone before. Sometimes I take my family with me, but more often than not I don't. It's just my son Cole and I. And yeah, that's - that's kind of a drag.

I mean, life's flying by. Every year seems to get busier, but - I mean, I think I'm home three days in March or four days in March, which is not good. But if it's a choice between photographing an animal that's the very last one in captivity and there are none left in the wild, I mean, I don't have a choice. This is the only chance these animals are ever going to be heard. This is the only time their voice will ever be heard is through this project. And if it's a choice between sitting around at home watching television or going out and getting these animals that - it really is not a choice at this point. And that's OK. I mean, my family understands it. It's just how it is. Once in a while they'll go with me. But, you know, they need the break, too, Terry.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SARTORE: They need the break (laughter).

GROSS: Oh, I can see why.

(LAUGHTER)

SARTORE: They don't mind if I'm gone. Sometimes they ask me when I'm going again.

GROSS: Well, Joel Sartore, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

SARTORE: Thank you so much, really enjoyed it.

GROSS: Joel Sartore's new book is called, "The Photo Ark." We have a slideshow of some of his photos on our website at freshair.npr.org. A related public TV series called "Rare Creatures Of The Photo Ark" will air later this year. An outdoor exhibition of his Ark photos will travel to several zoos including in Omaha, Cincinnati and Dallas starting this spring.

Coming up, we listen back to an interview with actor Bill Paxton who died Saturday. That's after a break. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.