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Putting animal conservation in focus: Zoo one of only 3 to host Photo Ark exhibit this summer

Photographer Sartore to share stories during visit
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Posted at 12:00 PM, May 18, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-18 12:00:38-04

CINCINNATI -- National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore's images have inspired millions, having been projected on the heights of the Empire State Building and the walls of the Vatican. His message to Tri-State residents: Plant milkweed.

“Most people don’t know that the monarch butterfly is in terrible shape right now – they’re in real trouble,” Sartore said. “They’re at risk of disappearing in the next five years unless we plant millions of milkweed stems. The word is getting out, but it’s moving along pretty slowly.”

Sartore’s plea is just another step in a personal crusade to save all species both large and small. His impassioned cry for help comes to life through the images he’s captured as part of National Geographic Photo Ark. The collection features more than 6,500 studio-quality photographs of animals taken at zoos and aquariums around the world.

Burmese star tortoises. (Provided by Joel Sartore)

The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens will be one of only three zoos to host the traveling Photo Ark exhibit this summer, sharing the honor with the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha, Nebraska, and the Dallas Zoo. The Cincinnati Zoo’s exhibit runs May 19 through Aug. 20, beginning on International Endangered Species Day.

Visitors may recognize many favorite Cincinnati Zoo animals from more than 50 images displayed on 8-foot kiosks along the zoo’s main path, said David Jenike, chief operating officer.

“We’ve been fortunate to work with Joel Sartore when he’s come here to the Cincinnati Zoo to add some species to the Ark,” Jenike said. “He’s just an amazing guy who is telling an important story, a story that is critical when we think of wildlife conservation – that truthfully now is the best time to act to help protect these animals and to make a difference.”

The fragility of life on Earth is painfully apparent, Sartore said, as two of the species he’s photographed for the Ark are now extinct. Bryn the purebred Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit and Toughie the Rabbs’ Tree frog represented the last of their kind and are both now deceased. While the two images deliver a haunting vision of the future, he said they also provide a wakeup call.

“People really do care when they learn about a need,” Sartore said. “I think part of it is guys like me haven’t been doing a good enough job letting people know that these things are at risk, but I think they will respond and they will care.”

Animals can recover from the brink of extinction, Jenike said, as evident with a variety of species including the gray whale, the American alligator and the bald eagle, to name a few. Bringing the touring version of the Photo Ark to zoos allows people to see the connection between the animals on site and the facility’s conservation efforts to save these species in the wild. For example, he said, the zoo currently partners with the Maasai community in Kenya’s South Rift Valley to help conserve its wild population of lions by teaching residents to use modern tracking techniques to better coexist.

Florida panther. (Provided by Joel Sartore)

“I’m proud to say after a decade of working there the number of lions has increased tenfold,” he said. “They’ve created an opportunity where they’re still able to practice their traditional herding and traditional lifestyle along with improving their livelihoods in a way that creates a landscape that’s resilient for wildlife, including lions.”

Helping zoo conservation efforts is a great first step, Sartore said. But he said people can show support in a variety of ways, such as encouraging elected officials to keep laws protecting wildlife or discontinuing chemical treatment to their yards that kill plants vital to many species for survival.

What began as a short-term project evolved into a quest to photograph 12,000 species to raise awareness. Eleven years ago, Sartore started working on a project that would keep him closer to home while his wife, Kathy, received treatment for breast cancer. The project took on a life of its own.

At the current rate, Sartore estimates it will take about 14 years to complete the project. Even though they’ve passed the halfway mark, it’s becoming more difficult as they’re traveling to remote parts of the world. Sartore will share stories about creating the Ark as well as his years with National Geographic when he speaks at the Cincinnati Zoo as part of Barrows Conservation Lecture Series on May 31.

“We want people to know they don’t have to save the whole world,” he said. “They just have to start in their own back yard.”

See Sartore’s journey here.