Some decry pigeons as “rats of the sky,” but what if they were no more? It’s hard to imagine when heaps of the birds can be found throughout the world, but species extinction can happen shockingly fast. For example, the wild pigeon (aka passenger pigeon) was counted in the billions in 19th-century North America, only to be snuffed out by the early 1900s.
Fortunately, these days, folks are more conservation-minded, and international efforts exist to preserve endangered flora and fauna. The National Geographic Society is one such entity helping to save wildlife, and one of their shepherds is nature photographer Joel Sartore. “The good news is that most of what I photograph can be saved,” he said in a recent phone interview. “We just have to know it exists first, and that’s where my pictures come in.”
His new book, Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species, is his latest effort toward that end. It is a visually alluring creation that focuses the reader’s attention on a handful of threatened critters. “The goal is to just get people to look these guys in the eye and to care enough to save them before it’s too late,” Sartore explained. “We stand to lose half of all species to extinction by the turn of the next century if we don’t do anything.”
While Sartore also shoots in the field, his endangered shots are primarily animals in captivity. “We work with zoos and aquariums around the world and determine which animals they have that would tolerate the portrait process,” he said. Sartore puts the animals against a black or white background in a studio-like setting, allowing the unique physical attributes and personality of the animal to take center stage. His snapshots capture the essence of his subjects — from a St. Andrew beach mouse (whose living population is no more than 6,000) to the Hawaiian goose (approx. 2,050) to the black-footed ferret (approx. 800) to the red wolf (no more than 330).
Sartore will be coming through town as a part of UCSB’s Arts & Lectures series and, while here, will visit the Santa Barbara Zoo to gather photos for his Photo Ark project, the goal of which “is to get every species in captivity, around the world,” he said. “Photo Ark has been going on about eight years now, and we have 3,200 species so far out of the world’s 10,000-12,000 captive species.” Among the S.B. Zoo animals getting their 15 minutes will be a Bolivian grey titi monkey, a San Clemente Island fox, and a rhinoceros hornbill bird.
Joel Sartore’s talk, titled Close Encounters: Grizzlies, Piranhas and Man-Eating Pigs, takes place Sunday, January 12, at 3 p.m. at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. For more information and tickets, call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.