The first thought that ran across my mind when I read Joel Sartore's book Rare: Portraits of America's Endangered Species was that it's a gorgeous book. Joel, a National Geographic photographer, has been on a 20-year personal mission to photograph examples of the world's most endangered species, so you'd kinda expect that out of him.
There are currently about 1,500 known species in the world that are endangered - Joel presents 68 of them in his book, ranging from wolves to wolverines, pitcher plant to pineapple cactus; all exquisitely photographed. As an amateur point-and-shoot photographer (erhm, that's being generous - I mostly take blurry photos of my kids), I can only imagine how long it took him to get that Eastern Hellbender photo!
The second thought that ran across my mind was that it's a rather sad book. One of the last two Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits in the world died a few months after Joel took its photograph (you'll read more about this below).
It took me a while, however, to realize just what Joel's book actually meant. For me, that meaning can be summed up in just one word: hope. Despite its weighty topic of the extinction of species, RARE manages not only to present the beauty and grace of some of the last members of animals and plant species on Earth, but also to touch its readers and (hopefully) inspire them into action. The last chapter of the book showcases animals that have stepped back from the brink of extinction through conservation programs like the bald eagle, the American alligator, and the gray wolf.
There's a lot we can do to help save endangered animals - you know, reduce, reuse, recycle - but for many of us who have trouble engaging in the theoretical debates of biodiversity, carbon footprint, and so on, reading Joel's book can be that first step to help save species from being lost forever: caring about these animals.
I'm proud to feature Joel's book RARE on Neatorama, and hope that these wonderful photographs will touch your heart as it did mine.
Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit 0
Oregon Zoo, Portland, Oregon
Bryn the pygmy rabbit died in 2008, marking the end of her genetic line.
This subpopulation lost its sagebrush habitat as the land was developed
for agriculture. Key features of Bryn's genetic material survive in hybrid
pygmy rabbits; a breeding and reintroduction program holds out hope for
In an off-exhibit room at the Oregon Zoo, the staff was quiet, even reverent,
as they brought in Bryn. She was one of two Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits
left, and since both were old females, this was a solemn occasion.
A keeper placed her gently on my black velvet background, and i began
to take photos. I stopped to watch her from time to time, but she didn't
move much. She wasn't even scared. Nearly blind, missing half an ear,
and with fur falling out onto the cloth, she seemed to have already given
The whole experience left me morose and extremely disappointed. We'd
done it again, this time by converting sage habitat to agriculture in
western Washington. Our photo session was one of the last chances Bryn
had to be noticed. She died a few months later, and then Raphaela, the
last of the breed, died as well. The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit is now
extinct, a passenger pigeon for the 21st century.
Bog Turtle <18,100
Zoo Atlanta, Atlanta, Georgia
America's tiniest turtle, the palm-size bog turtle now survives mostly
on private lands from Massachusetts to Georgia. Adapted to soggy soils,
the species suffers where wetlands are filled or groundwater is diverted,
and significant numbers end up as roadkill.
St. Andrew Beach Mouse <6,000
Peromyscus polionotus peninsularis
Panama City, Florida
In diminishing numbers, these mice live on about 20 miles of the Florida
Panhandle - a narrow margin for survival. Why save them? They are a unique
species and an important part of the food chain. Furthermore, their existence
is a good indicator of a healthy dune ecosystem.
Beach mice are anthropomorphic - cute as can be and easy to love
- unless you're a developer who is inconvenienced by preserving their
habitat. But photographing them is as tricky as saving them. The mice
never stop moving, and so quickly that I couldn't follow them with my
macro lens, let alone get a focus. My flash even had a hard time stopping
them. Only when this mouse paused to groom did I get a moment to take
a pictures - J.S.
Alabama Canebrake Pitcher-Plant <1,000
Sarracenia rubra ssp. alabamensis
Atlanta Botanical Garden, Atlanta, Georgia
Once found in 28 sites across three counties in central Alabama, this
carnivorous plant now grows in only 11. It takes to swamps or bogs with
acidic sands or clays, environments that have by and large been converted
to farm ponds and other agricultural uses. And plant collectors are willing
to break the law to add these gems to their collections.
Delhi Sands Flower-Loving Fly <1,000
Rhaphiomidas terminatus abdominalis
This fly is now relegated to a few vacant lots in the Los Angeles Basin.
The photo you're looking at may be its last hurrah. "The world would
go on without it," says biologist Ken Osborne of this humble southern
California dunes dweller, "but it would be a shame."
It took four and a half months to take this picture. That was the
wait time for a special handling permit that was needed through the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service. On the chosen day, with several federal agents
there to see the show, a federally permitted fly handler named Ken Osborne
readied himself to catch a single fly unharmed. Our permit allowed just
for one fly to be caught, so if it was injured or flew off before I got
the picture, that would be our tough luck. Neither of us slept a wink
the night before Ken was able to find a fly, net it, then run it back
to my rolling photo studio, a GMC Yukon lined with bedsheets. He knocked
it out with CO2 gas, then let it wake up a few seconds later on my black
velvet background. To our amazement, it stayed there and groomed itself,
giving me several minutes to shoot. Ken then gently scooped it into a
jar, took it back to the place where he found it, and we all watched it
fly off. - J.S.
Black-Footed Ferret ~800
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Colorado Springs, Colorado
A government-assisted war on prairie dogs in the 1900s nearly wiped out
the black-footed ferret, which depends on prairie dogs as a staple in
its diet. Its geographic range is now some 3 percent of what it once was
across the Great Plains. Meanwhile, reintroduced ferrets lack survival
skills and often fall prey themselves to eagles and coyotes.
California Condor 356
Phoenix Zoo, Phoenix, Arizona
Nine wild condors remained in 1985, many of their predecessors felled
by hunters or poisoned by eating fragments of lead shot. Captive breeding
and reduced use of lead ammunition have restored North America's largest
This species nearly didn't make it, but now there are more than 300
condors alive, and some of those birds fly free again. The bird you see
here is known simply as Male #50. He flew in the wild for a time, until
a collision with Arizona's Navajo Bridge dislocated his right wing at
the wrist. He'll be an educational bird from now on - starting with this
photograph. - J.S.
New York State Zoo, Watertown, New York
Originally roaming as far southeast as Maryland and as far southwest
as New Mexico, this bear-like omnivorous weasel now lives only in the
northwestern United States. Fur hunting and development have decimated
its numbers, yet larger populations in Canada and Alaska have hindered
its protection under the ESA.
I'd always heard how ferocious wolverines were. When irritated they
sound, quite literally, like hell unleashed. So to photograph a wolverine
on white is no easy task. First you find a place like the New York State
Zoo in Watertown that will work with you to place white sheets of one-inch-thick
plywood in his off-exhibit space. Next you watch the wolverine completely
demolish the plywood within minutes. As a last resort, you take a very
thin white seamless paper, which he proceeds to delicately walk across
many times in order to get his picture taken. Wolverines are a walking
contradiction. - J.S.
Eastern Hellbender ?
Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis
San Francisco State University, San Francisco, California
Surviving in the Appalachians as one of North America's largest salamanders,
these hellbenders range from 12 to 29 inches long. They like swift, clear
streams with rocky bottoms and thus serve as barometers of river health.
Topping their list of woes are dams and siltation; fishermen sometimes
kill them in the mistaken belief that they are poisonous.
Iowa Pleistocene Snail ?
This Ice Age snail was known only in fossils until examples were discovered
alive in 1972. The species persists on steep slopes in Iowa and Illinois
where cracks in the limestone act as cool-air vents. Naturally air-conditioned
at 15° to 50°F, these micro-habitats mimic Pleistocene conditions,
but logging and erosion threaten change.
This is a true relict species, left over from an age when glaciers
dominated North America. Today it can survive only in vents in the sides
of a few hills in the Midwest. Hot air literally kills it, so moving these
animals, even for a few minutes, is out of the question. The entire photo
set up consisted of a flash, a macro lens, and a piece of white plastic
stuck in a cracked rock. That they're the size of a pencil lead adds to
the fun of trying to photograph them. - J.S.
The Making Of RARE: Behind the Scenes With National Geographic
Photographer Joel Sartore
ABOUT JOEL SARTORE
In his 20 years as a National Geographic photographer, Joel Sartore has
made it a personal mission to photograph examples of the world's endangered
species. With Douglas H. Chadwick, he created the National Geographic
book The Company We Keep: America's Endangered Species (1996),
and his quest has continued every year since then. His work has been featured
on the NBC Nightly News, on NPR's Weekend Edition, on
CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, and in an hourlong PBS documentary.
He regularly contributes to CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood.
He lives in NEbraska with his wife and two children.
Portraits of America's Endangered Species
by Joel Sartore with essay by Verlyn Klinkenborg
P.S. Joel and National Geographic are kind enough to provide
3 copies of RARE, which we will send to commenters with
the best comments.
Update 5/31/10 - Congratulations to jeacobacci, reader23, and Rhiley who got the free books!