Joel Sartore National Geographic Photographer and Speaker Fri, 17 Oct 2014 20:40:31 +0000 en-US hourly 1 ​”De-extinction”: Bringing species back from the dead Wed, 10 Sep 2014 16:55:54 +0000 Gone, but not forgotten . . . the extinct passenger pigeon may be making a comeback.

Watch the photo essay on the CBS Sunday Morning Show.

When I was a boy, I had a Time-Life book called ‘The Birds’. In it was a section showing the few U.S. species we’d already lost to extinction; the great auk, the Carolina parakeet, the heath hen. The biggest picture though was reserved for the passenger pigeon.


Once numbering three billion or more, this species flew in vast flocks, passing overhead for days at a time. Witnesses described seeing a ‘feathered river in the sky’.

Our hungry, growing nation also saw them as delicious and inexhaustible, and hunted them to near extinction in about 50 years.

In the book was a picture of the very last one, named Martha, stuffed and sitting on a perch in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Next to her was a sign that said ‘EXTINCT’.

From three billion passenger pigeons to none. I still can’t believe it.

Martha died one hundred years ago, on Sept. 1st, 1914. Her demise proved to be a watershed event.


People finally began to care about the fate of our nation’s wildlife. Conservation groups sprang up, including those formed by hunters to protect habitat, allowing many species to flourish including grassland birds and waterfowl.

This pigeon’s story doesn’t end there though.

In a scene somewhat out of Jurassic Park, scientists today are actually trying to resurrect this grand bird.


Starting with the DNA from preserved museum specimens, the passenger pigeon’s genetic code will eventually be spliced into the living cells of a close cousin, the band-tailed pigeon, with the hope of creating something that looks, sounds and perhaps even acts like the real thing.

They’re calling the process ‘De-extinction’, and it’s not science fiction at all.

Laboratories around the world are working to bring back other long-gone species as well, such as the Pyrenean ibex, the Tasmanian tiger, and the woolly mammoth.

Scientists say it’s not just a matter of if, but when.

Should we be doing this at all though? That’s the question that nags me when we could be trying to save the rare creatures that are still here.

cbs_passenger_pigeon_sartore_032Species like the Florida grasshopper sparrow, the Poweshiek skipperling, and the relict darter are all on the very brink of extinction, as are the Florida panther, the mountain yellow-legged frog, and the Mississippi sandhill crane. Each and every one deserve our full attention.

And doesn’t reviving extinct species send a strong signal to the public that they can just relax, that extinction isn’t really forever?
Proponents would argue quite the opposite, that the excitement surrounding de-extinctions could finally get people to wake up and pay attention to what’s happening in the natural world.

NGS Picture ID:1212977

To be honest, I don’t really know what to think about this impending test tube menagerie. Are we going back in time to make things right for a few precious species? Or are we doing this just because we can?

What I do know is that second chances are very rare things. So when a new Martha is resurrected, I won’t avert my eyes. And I’ll be the first in line to bear witness, camera in hand.

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Measurable Success for Photo Ark Sat, 12 Apr 2014 17:15:52 +0000 It was almost too late when I first learned of the Florida grasshopper sparrow’s troubles. Down to just a few hundred in the remnant prairies of central Florida, the bird was in sudden, catastrophic decline, with biologists still unclear why.

One morning in the spring of 2012, I accompanied writer Ted Williams and biologist Paul Miller to Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. We found a singing male darting about to defend his mating territory. Paul put out a mist net, caught and banded the bird, and then put it in my little photo box for a few minutes. And with that, Ammodramus savannarum floridanus was on board the Photo Ark.


A year later, Audubon Magazine ran the bird on its cover with the words, ‘End of the Line?’ Between that and social media, people started to take notice of this tiny and tenacious bird.

And now, as the last of the males prepare to sing through the spring nesting season on the prairie, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it will put real money, $1.29 million, towards fighting the birds’ extinction. Intensive study and perhaps even captive breeding can begin in earnest.

The Photo Ark had done its job.

My team and I care deeply about creatures like the Florida grasshopper sparrow, a species that literally is the least among us. We bet you care too.

Please help us spread the word. After all, we will not save what we don’t know exists.
Donate today. Your tax deductible contribution will be put to great use. Help us continue to give a voice to the voiceless.

Thank you.
Joel Sartore
April 11, 2014

Read the feature on the National Geographic Creative blog

Learn More about Photo Ark


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The Magnificent Sandhill Crane Migration Wed, 02 Apr 2014 19:30:43 +0000 Every spring, over half a million cranes stop for several weeks along the Platte River in Nebraska seeking rest, refuge, and nutrition.

Watch the photo essay on the CBS Sunday Morning Show.


When the Sandhill cranes first enter Nebraska, they’re so high up they’re all but invisible. You can’t blame them really; they’re shot at in every state but ours.

We Nebraskans don’t allow crane hunting– we hold these birds far too dear.  So much so, in towns across our state, we look up and beg them to draw near.

Slowly they descend, over villages named Alma and Arapahoe and Minden and Funk. And by the time they get to Kearney, they seem ready to trust us. They set their wings, extend landing gear, and they’re home again, at least for the next month or so.

They seem so grateful they confer and agree to put on a daily pageant just for us. And it is spectacular.

BIR003-00011This month some 600,000 Sandhill cranes will find rest, refuge and nutrition here along the Platte River.

While other bird populations have begun to fail at the hand of man, the cranes have thrived. Waste grain left in farmers’ fields allows them to put on a pound of fat during their month-long stay, vital energy reserves needed to fly to nesting grounds in the northern U.S., Canada, even eastern Siberia.

BIR003-00035At dawn and dusk each day they come and go in flocks so grand they literally block the sun. From a distance they look like clouds of smoke on the horizon, with a sound of thunder as they launch into the air at once.

Three and a half feet tall, with a crown of bright red skin and a clarion call that can be heard a mile away, they can live up to 40 years, and are extremely social.

Some birds dance and sing, call and pair up. Others fight and leave their mates. Some of the youngsters act out and become juvenile delinquents. In other words, they’re a lot like us.

BIR003-00196Believe it or not, these dense flocks are a man-made phenomenon. The birds need shin-deep water and plenty of open space to escape predators like coyotes, so conservation groups lovingly maintain several miles of river channel each year, creating a safe haven for the masses to roost each night.

In April, when the warm winds finally come, the Sandhill cranes will rise again, gliding up and up until we can’t even hear them anymore. Vanished, into a clear blue sky.

But for those of us who care, it won’t take long at all before we start looking up again. After all, the next big show is just 11 months away.

View the Sandhill Crane Gallery

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The Endangered Species Act turns 40 Fri, 03 Jan 2014 23:55:21 +0000 On December 28, 1973 — Richard Nixon signed the ESA, which at the time made us the only nation on Earth to declare a basic right of existence for species other than our own.

Watch the ESA photo essay on the CBS Sunday Morning Show.

It’s the 1880s, and my fellow Nebraskan has made a big decision: to spend real money to have his picture taken with his two prized possessions: a 10-gauge shotgun, and the whooping crane he’s just killed with it.


By 1900, this tallest of North American birds was driven to near-extinction by trophy and meat hunters.

And it was not alone. Laws to protect wildlife were scarce, too. So our forbearers pretty much shot and trapped out all they could, everywhere they could, every time they could.

The pioneers, like many of us, were greedy.

Human nature hasn’t changed much since then, but fortunately we now have laws in place to throttle us back.

Few are better than the Endangered Species Act.

Forty years ago yesterday — December 28, 1973 — Richard Nixon signed the bill, which at the time made us the only nation on Earth to declare a basic right of existence for species other than our own.

Without government regulation, unbridled hunting, pollution and development was going to doom much of America’s bounty, and lawmakers knew it.

So the goal of the Endangered Species Act was kept simple: to keep species from going extinct, no matter the cost. And by and large it’s worked.140226_Toronto_Zoo_85872

Among the closest of calls were the California condor, the black-footed ferret, and, yes, the whooping crane. Incredibly, all got down to fewer than 25 individuals, yet were pulled back from the very brink of extinction thanks to federal protection.

Some animals have done so well they’ve actually been taken off the Endangered Species List. The peregrine falcon, bald eagle and American alligator were all in real trouble back when the law was passed in 1973. Now they’re commonplace.

And don’t forget the gray wolf. Completely gone from the American West when the ESA came about, Canis lupus has since been reintroduced to Yellowstone, where it is thriving. Its haunting howl is the very definition of wilderness, one that tourists gladly pay millions to hear each year.

A rare Salt Creek tiger beetle.The ESA doesn’t discriminate based on sex appeal or location, though. It nurtures all of our flora and fauna, including plants like the pima pineapple cactus and the blowout penstemon. Animals like the Karner blue butterfly and Salt Creek tiger beetle. The northern spotted owl and the Attwater’s prairie-chicken. The Alabama beach mouse and the Mount Graham red squirrel. In the eyes of the law, all are as important, and magnificent, as a grizzly bear.

And that’s a great thing, because when we save other species, we’re actually saving ourselves. We need pollinating insects like bees and even flies to produce our crops. We need birds and bats to control the insects we don’t want. Grass and trees sequester carbon, filter our water and air, and regulate climate as well.

Perhaps inadvertently that Victorian Era hunter has done us an enormous favor after all.


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The Power of Photography: National Geographic 125 Years Thu, 24 Oct 2013 23:27:11 +0000 The Power of Photography: National Geographic 125 Years will be on display at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, CA from October 26, 2013 through April 27, 2014. The show celebrates the publications’ 125 year anniversary and is open to the public.

Building the Ark, Joel’s latest story for National Geographic, is featured in the Annenberg exhibit. In addition, Joel is one of 6 photographers who participated in a documentary commissioned by the Annenberg Space for Photography. View behind-the-scenes footage and personal interviews in this film by Arclight Productions.

“For 125 years now, National Geographic has been a place where art and insight and a deep cultural understanding come together – a place where we can be astonished and inspired by the world all around us. I can’t think of a greater partner for the Annenberg Space for Photography – or a greater model of what photojournalism can achieve. Especially at a time when print journalism is under siege, I’m thrilled that we’ll be able to showcase so many powerful, profound images from the pages of National Geographic. I’m delighted that the exhibit will be as cutting-edge and as multi-media-savvy as both of our institutions strive to be. Above all, I’m proud to join with National Geographic in celebrating this simple principle: that we are all stewards of this remarkable planet.” – Wallis Annenberg, Chairman of the Board, President and CEO of the Annenberg Foundation.

For more information, visit the Annenberg Space for Photography website.

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We’re All Surrounded By Survivors Sun, 25 Nov 2012 15:31:52 +0000 Look around you. The world is full of cancer survivors, and there are more all the time.

Kathy Sartore was first diagnosed with breast cancer seven years ago. She had a recurrence this year, but thanks to early detection, her prognosis is excellent.

In August, Cole Sartore, Joel and Kathy’s 18-year-old son, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He is currently undergoing chemotherapy, and has a very good chance of not only complete remission, but also of being cured.

Though it may be hard to believe, the Sartore’s are actually thankful

Below is the essay from The CBS Sunday Morning Show with Charles Osgood.

A link to the piece that aired is also now available. Please click here to view:

Thankful ….by Joel Sartore

Back home in Nebraska, Thanksgiving means gratitude, a look at the past year, a pause to hold hands around the table and count our blessings.

At our house, we hold hands tight these days.

My wife Kathy, a seven-year breast cancer survivor, had a recurrence in January. Her mother passed away not long after. I thought the only way things could get worse was if she backed over our dog in the driveway.

How wrong I was.

On a July vacation in Minnesota, we found a small, painless lump on the neck of our 18-year-old son, Cole. Five days later at the doctor’s office, we were facing a stage-three lymphoma, with chemo until the end of the year.

That’s when the condolences started in.

Friends approach us haltingly, as if we’ve already lost a child. They ask us to tell the story just one more time, ‘How is he doing? What happened? Why you?’ Some even tear up.

We tell them that we’re doing okay, but they don’t believe us, not for a minute.

But you know what? We actually are okay. And by that I mean we’re doing well.

Thankful, even.

Here’s why. In the history of humanity, there’s never been a better time to have cancer.

Genetic science leads us now to therapies at the molecular level. Early detection, nano-technology, immunotherapy and even vaccines against cancer-causing viruses mean that cancer death rates have finally started to fall, though slightly, 1 percent a year over the past ten years. Slow progress to be sure, but going in the right direction at last.

Want living proof? For both Kathy and Cole; the odds are overwhelming they’ll both be just fine.

And though outcomes still depend on what kind and what stage, just look around you. We’re all surrounded by survivors.

There’s my brother Paul , and my father. My little boy’s third grade teacher, and my boss at National Geographic. Even Cole’s girlfriend, and her mother. The list goes on and on.

Ask any of them if they’re thankful.

Every day, they’ll say, every day.

So what are you thankful for?

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About the Photo Ark Tue, 03 Jan 2012 17:24:17 +0000 It started simply enough with endangered amphibians. I read an essay on amphibian decline and knew I needed to do something to show these species to the world before they were gone forever.

How to Help 

Some support for the project is being provided by National Geographic. The zoos and rescue facilities I’ve worked at have all been incredibly generous with their time. One of the most important sources for funding, though, is individuals just like you.

If you like this work and want to see more of it, please consider purchasing a print from the project.

When you find a picture you like, there’s a “Buy This Print” button just to the right.  Click on that to start.

On a typical shoot, I go through half a roll of background paper and a few yards of black velvet.  The sale of one 8×10 print covers the paper, and an 11 x 17 will supply me with velvet.  It’s not a lot, but multiply that by 50 shoots or a hundred and it really adds up.  We reuse what we can, but once a hippopotamus or chimp has had its way with background material, there’s not much else to be done with it.

Another way you can support the Photo Ark is by visiting and patronizing your local zoo.  Zoos and aquariums are vitally important to conservation today.  Not only do they fund and manage captive breeding programs, but they are increasingly involved in conservation of habitat in the wild.  Find an accredited zoo or aquarium in your area here.

Last but not least, learn more about your favorite animal.  A simple web search will likely lead you to the organizations working on its conservation.  Support them.  And share what you know with your friends and family.  The more people who are informed and who care, the better.

Click here to return to the Photo Ark gallery and pick a print.

Why Studio Portraits?

Well, first, some of the species in the project simply can’t be found in the wild any more. Another reason for this portrait style is that it gives equal weight to creatures big and small. Some of the frogs I’ve photographed are the size of a thumbnail, and this is a way for me to put them on equal footing with bigger animals like lions.

Why the Photo Ark?

This effort started life as The Biodiversity Project and the goals are still the same — but the new name is much easier to remember.

Which Species Do You Photograph?

Though I started with amphibians, as I went from place to place, I’d hear about other species in trouble — primates, reptiles, migratory birds, and more.  So now, I photograph anything that will hold still on a background long enough for me to take a picture.

Media Coverage:

NBC Nightly News (with video)
NPR’s Morning Edition and The Picture Show blog (with audio)
PBS News Hour
New York Times Lens Blog

For Updates:

Follow Joel on Twitter
Become a Fan on Facebook


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Lion Photo on Cover of 50 Best Pictures Fri, 28 Oct 2011 14:47:30 +0000 Image ID ANI019-00227

More info/purchase image

Joel’s photo of a tree-climbing lion in Africa’s Albertine Rift is featured on the cover of NG’s 50 Greatest Pictures special issue.

The Ishasha region of Queen Elizabeth National Park is home to some very unusual lions.  Unlike most other members of the species, these lions climb trees to nap during the day, waking up at sunset to hunt.

Signed prints of this image are available directly from Joel, though this website — just click on the link below the image.  The 50 Greatest Pictures special issue is available through National Geographic’s website.


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Two Photos Highly Commended in Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition Thu, 20 Oct 2011 15:06:25 +0000 Two of Joel’s images were selected as Highly Commended in the 2011 Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition.

Photos and the story behind them are below.  Both images are available as a signed print through this site — just click on the image to find out more.

Storm Painting

“It was one of the most thrilling rides I’ve ever had,” says Joel. The violent wind tossed the little Cessna plane around ‘like a cork on the ocean’. Struggling not to break his nose on his camera, he focused on the tempestuous raincloud emptying itself over Uganda’s Lake Albert. His aim was to capture an image that spoke of the seasonal rain cycle in the Albertine Rift but also the drama of the moment. ‘We could smell the rain as we bounced in and out of pockets of cold air,’ says Joel. It was only later, once the plane had landed, that the pilot revealed how tricky it had been keeping the plane in the sky against the force of the down-draughts, some pushing down at 1,000 feet per minute.

View “Storm Painting” on the Veolia WPoY site.

See more images from the Albertine Rift on this website.

Balancing act

In a death-defying manoeuvre, a mountain goat stretches to reach a mineral lick. Joel knew it was a favourite lick and had stationed himself at the other side of the gorge in Glacier National Park, Montana. When this female arrived, he watched as, slowly and methodically, she first balanced on all four feet on a single, tiny ledge and then pushed out with her front legs and wedged herself into the crevice, her rubbery hooves spread out for maximum grip. ‘They never rush,’ says Joel. ‘They have to be so careful about where they put their feet, testing each foothold, because every step could be their last.’ When she’d finished, the mountain goat reversed the move, carefully balancing again on the tiny ledge and then slowly turning around so that she could climb back up the mountain face and rejoin the rest of the herd.

View “Balancing Act” on the Veolia WPoY site.

See more images of animal migrations on this website.

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November Issue of National Geographic: Albertine Rift Sat, 15 Oct 2011 21:15:30 +0000
The Albertine Rift — the western part of the Great Rift Valley — runs from Lake Albert to Lake Tanganyika, through  is one of Africa’s most biodiverse places.   It is also host to some of the highest human population densities on the continent.
On his latest assignment for NGM Joel photographed everything from gorillas to lions to giraffes, and the increasing conflict between wildlife and a growing human population.  He also had a close encounter with the deadly Marburg virus.  More photos from the Albertine Rift story and links to NGM article.
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Amphibian Exhibit in Lincoln through November 30 Thu, 23 Jun 2011 21:23:30 +0000 Amphibians: Vibrant and Vanishing will be at the University of Nebraska State Museum at Morrill Hall until November 30, 2011.

The exhibit features over 60 striking photographs of amphibians that stretch our notions of beauty and shed light on the tragic decline of some of Earth’s most magnificent species.

Amphibians showcases the incredible diversity of these species, which include frogs, toads, newts, salamanders and more. Large-scale images give visitors a close-up look at these endearing and expressive creatures–from the strange to the comical, the camouflaged to the canary yellow.

Sadly, many amphibians are on the brink of extinction. The exhibit also highlights the widespread losses these species are experiencing due to environmental factors, such as pollution, habitat loss, climate change, and disease.

More information on Amphibians: Vibrant and Vanishing is available on the Musem’s website.

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