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Photographing The World's Vanishing Biodiversity In Order To Save It

With the Biodiversity Project, photographer Joel Sartore is trekking around the world to take beautiful shots of soon-to-be-extinct animals in the hope that a little public exposure might rouse us to action.

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Despite a few positive trends, the world’s biodiversity is declining fast. The IUCN estimates "current species extinction rate is between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher" than has been true throughout most of the fossil record.

Imagine you were trying to snap a portrait of all of those plant and animal species threatened by extinction before they vanished forever. That’s a good portion of National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore’s life, and the reality for about half of the world’s species fading away due to habitat loss, invasive species, and other human influences.

Sartore’s Biodiversity Project—funded out of his pocket and by the sale of some of the resulting 2,000 portraits taken over the last six years—is his attempt to have the world at least see what it is losing before it is too late.

It’s an epic task. Sartore is traveling across America to visit zoos, aquariums, and rehab facilities and portrait these species (he’s about one-third of the way done). He sets up entirely white or black backgrounds to highlight the idea that every species matters. "All these animals, when they’re put on black and white backgrounds, you have no sense of size or scale, and they’re all equally important," he says in an interview with CNN. "These clean backgrounds, with no sense of size, are the great equalizer."

He’s managed to shoot everything from cheetahs and leopards to Coquerel’s sifaka and red ruffed lemurs. Sartore’s project has made him a major fan of zoos’ conservation efforts which are now about saving wild habitats, as much as exhibiting them to the public.

Yet even the zoos themselves are starting to "phase out" species such as the Grey Gibbon where there are too few in captivity to breed, and too few in the wild to collect more. That essentially means letting these species slip into extinction.

For Sartore, and perhaps humanity, this is the last stand before humanity loses the planet’s biological birthright.