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Joel Sartore on saving endangered species – and ourselves

A wake-up call on saving endangered species
A wake-up call on saving endangered species 03:46

By National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore: 

So, why should you care that so many of Earth's species are going to run out of time, and relatively soon?

Because what happens to them … will eventually happen to us.

Gibbon Conservation Center
A female, critically-endangered Northern white-cheecked gibbon with her year-old baby (Nomascus leucogenys) at the Gibbon Conservation Center. Joel Sartore/National Geographic

My Photo Ark project has made me intimately familiar with the nearly departed. In creating a photographic record of animals before they disappear, I've had a front-row seat to nearly 10,000 mammals, birds, amphibians, fish, reptiles and invertebrates, including the world's most vulnerable.

Most you've never heard of. There's the tarsier and the torpedo barb, the bonneted bat and the bearded pig, the wildcat and the woolly monkey.

Notice how many are looking us in the eye, as if they're counting on us to save them. Some actually look worried. We should be, too.

Though we forget it sometimes, we humans are animals ourselves. Yep, we're 100 percent primate, just like them, and we depend on the natural world in which we evolved.

We must have intact rainforests to produce dependable amounts of rain to grow our crops. We need healthy seas to generate much of the food we eat and the oxygen we breathe. And we need pollinating insects as well to bring us fruits and vegetables.

We need pollinating insects if we wish to eat fruits and vegetables. Joel Sartore/National Geographic

The solution is simple but not easy: We must preserve and restore vast tracts of wild lands and oceans now, to stabilize the planet's life support systems.

As someone who has looked so many others in the eye, this is very personal. If we fail, which of these would we choose to lose?

The bonobo or the kakapo? The Barbary lion or the lion-tailed macaque? The four-striped lizard or the polka-dot poison frog?

Each are living works of art, honed by the ages, intelligent in their own way. Whether it's the San Francisco garter snake or the San Joaquin kit fox, each is deserving of a basic right to exist.

Found in San Joaquin Valley by a wildlife biologist who was studying the population.  It had a broken leg and had separated himself from the group.This zoo rescues and rehabilitates injured and orphaned wildlife.
"Kit Kat," a San Joaquin kit fox, Vulpes macrotis mutica, at the Big Bear Alpine Zoo in Big Bear Lake, CA. This species is on the federal Endangered Species List.  Joel Sartore

The good news is there's no need to get depressed. Indeed, we live in a Golden Age for conservation. Thanks to the web, we can let the whole world know about the biggest threats to co-existence, in real time. And where there's a need, humans love to fill it.

You must get off the bench now, though. Step up and find a problem you can solve in your town, then actually do something about it.

Perhaps you can get your friends to grow flowers for butterflies and native bees in yards, public parks and along roadways. Native plants at your office building is a fine idea as well, as is insulating your home, eating less meat, and reducing, reusing and recycling everything you buy.

A baby aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) named Tonks, 16 days old, at the Denver Zoo. Joel Sartore/National Geographic

All of this gives me great hope – for the Pacific hagfish, the noble crayfish and the glass catfish. The Atlantic sturgeon and the Pacific seahorse. The aye-aye and the Iberian lynx. The little spotted kiwi, and the giant armadillo.  

By doing the best you can, diligently and for the rest of your life, your very existence will have improved the world.

Imagine that!

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Story produced by Amy Wall. 

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