LOS ANGELES — Meet Jolie, an Indochinese green magpie. She’s cute, bossy — and lucky to be alive.
In 2017, she was among 93 Asian songbirds, many endangered, found stuffed into luggage while being smuggled through Los Angeles International Airport. Only eight of the birds survived.
Jolie now lives in a mixed-species aviary at The Los Angeles Zoo, where National Geographic Explorer Joel Sartore photographed her for the Photo Ark, a project with the ambitious goal of documenting every species in human care.
“She was charismatic and posed … she was grooming and fluffing up and making little vocalizations, and she was absolutely a great subject,” he said.
This sassy songbird marks a huge milestone for Sartore — his 14,000th animal species photographed.
“The Photo Ark is an opportunity to really get to know animals that we wouldn’t know even exist and hopefully save species and their habitats while there’s still time,” he said.
“As these other animals go away, so could we,” he added.
The effort began 17 years ago in Sartore’s hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska. His wife had been diagnosed with breast cancer, so the National Geographic photographer took a one-year hiatus to care for her and their three young children.
No longer trotting the globe on assignment, Sartore turned his camera’s lens toward his own backyard.
“I thought about a way of highlighting the small species,” he said. “We all know what gorillas and tigers look like, and that they’re rare. But we don’t really think about the sparrows or the toads or the mice of the world.”
Throughout history, species have gone extinct without a visual record of their existence. Perhaps blurry black-and-white photographs and museum exhibits help humans understand these long-gone creatures, if we’re lucky.
Santore created the Photo Ark not only to preserve these records but inspire others to do more. The animals are photographed with a black or white background and studio lighting to limit distractions.
“The photographs are actually kind of boring, and it’s good. It’s really good,” he said. “We let the animals be the stars of the show … This is the animal, that’s it.”
Friday marks Endangered Species Day, and this year, the U.S. celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Postal Service is marking the occasion with new stamps showcasing 20 endangered animal species from the Photo Ark collection.
From the desert bighorn sheep to the Wyoming toad, the featured animals can be found within the 50 states and U.S. territories.
“At one point, the black-footed ferret and the Vancouver Island marmot and the Mexican gray wolf — these are animals that all got down to fewer than two dozen each — and they’ve been pulled back right from the very brink of extinction just by people that cared,” Santore said.
He remains optimistic as he continues his journey, aiming to photograph more than 20,00 species in total. His son, Cole, has promised to finish the job if needed.
“if you look at the Photo Ark, you see really what biodiversity looks like, and it is so varied and so fascinating. It’s so worthy of protection,” he said.
Visit NatGeo.org/PhotoArk to find your favorite animals and more.
The Walt Disney Co. is the parent company of National Geographic Partners and this ABC station.