A photo of 13 dead koalas projected on the screen above the stage in the Amphitheater during the 10:45 a.m. July 25 morning lecture. National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore explained that, with the koalas’ natural habitat declining, the marsupials are forced to live in populated areas. The result: hundreds of dead koalas every year due to car accidents and dog attacks.
Sartore began the weeklong theme “People and Environment in Partnership with National Geographic Society” by discussing his project Photo Ark and the mission of the series.
The aim of the Photo Ark is to photograph every species in captivity. Sartore hopes to encourage people to care about those endangered animals and inspire people to help protect them for future generations.
“We must be competitive with all the other noise out there,” Sartore said. “If we want people to care about nature, we better make it entertaining. We better make it competitive. We better make it stop people in their tracks.”
As a result of Sartore’s koala series, hundreds of millions of people saw photos of the marsupials: one with a broken arm, another recovering from surgery, one being caged for relocation.
“We want to get the best pictures where we have the ones that are interesting, but also send a message,” Sartore said. “That’s why we do these things.”
A month or two after the photographs were printed, the Australian government passed legislation to protect the koalas of northern Australia. Though he doesn’t credit that change to his photographs, Sartore said it shows the power of the voice of the people.
In 2005, Sartore’s wife Kathy was diagnosed with cancer, and, after 18 years of traveling, he became grounded. He took a year off to stay at home with his children and his wife as she underwent chemotherapy.
During that time, Sartore rediscovered his passion as he took pictures of birds in his hometown in Nebraska. He was inspired by John James Audubon, a naturalist painter, who provided accurate depictions of birds that are extinct today.
Sartore said he realized that while he was capturing the wild, he was not inspiring people to care about nature and what happens to the animals that inhabit it.
It took Sartore 40 to 60 hours to take pictures of various birds including the eastern bluebird and the red-headed woodpecker. Sartore was not happy with the excessive amount of time it took to get those images.
“We need to change the planet,” he said. “We need to get the public thinking more about our role on the planet.”
Today, Sartore’s wife is 11 years cancer-free. Once her health improved, he started his documentation of animals in captivity at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo a mile from his home.
At the Lincoln Children’s Zoo, Sartore took a photo of a naked mole-rat on a kitchen cutting board. The small, bucktooth rodent was the start of the Photo Ark.
In June, Sartore documented the proboscis monkey, marking the 6,000th species in the Photo Ark series. Sartore has traveled to more than 40 countries for the Photo Ark and said he will not stop until he documents all 12,000 captive species.
Sartore has visited more than 350 zoos for his project and encouraged audience members to support their local zoos. The majority of zoos are members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which focuses on conservation and education of endangered species. Zoos also work as educational outlets for a large percentage of people.
“Zoos are the real arks now,” Sartore said. “Zoos really are keeping the cream of the crop, and they’re keeping [endangered animals] going for a time when the world has enough sense to save big blocks of habitat and allow these animals to go forward in time.”
Sartore said thanks to those zoos, many endangered animals are becoming stable as conservation centers breed those species. He used the giant panda as an example.
“They’re stable for now, and that’s a remarkable thing,” Sartore said. “It’s because a handful of people with money or passion or time. They saw the need, and they’ve saved these animals literally from the brink of extinction.”
One of the ways Sartore said the audience can help the movement is through being particular about what they buy. Sartore said what people decide to buy is like who people decide to vote for.
“You’re telling the retailer, ‘I approve of what this is made of and I want you to do it again and again and again,’ ” Sartore said. “That is the power to change the world, my friends.”
Individuals can do a number of things to help the conservation of animals, including limiting their water use, eliminating the use of pesticides, setting aside parts of farm land for animal habitation and insulating their homes.
“We really have to have and see change in how the public views its relationship to nature,” Sartore said. “Water doesn’t just come out of the tap. Food doesn’t just appear at the grocery store. Clean air should not be taken for granted.”
Sartore’s way of changing the public view is through his photographs: a bear skin hanging on a wall in Alaska, a pool of dead frogs floating in a river and portraits of 6,000 nearly extinct species.
“I think pictures do have the power to change the world,” Sartore said. “The goal of the Ark isn’t to just have a giant obituary, it’s to really engage people and really change the world in how we see our relationship with nature.”