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25 Joel Sartore And Frill Necked Lizard Credit Douglas Gimesy

Why Joel Sartore is documenting all creatures great and small

The National Geographic photographer encounters his 13,000th species for Photo Ark

Joel Sartore and frill-necked lizard by Douglas Gimesy

“The spoon-billed sandpiper is a special bird,” says National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore. “It’s very small – about the size of a mouse – and has a cute little spoonbill, unlike any other bird. It's lucky because that spoonbill has got it some attention.” 

The spoon-billed sandpiper is special to Sartore for other reasons too. A bird he has long been eager to photograph, it is species number 13,000 in his 25-year mission to photograph all the world’s animals living in captivity. For 16 years he has been visiting zoos, sanctuaries, private collections, aviaries, aquariums and rehab centres, creating portraits of species, large and small, against white and black backgrounds.  

Besides the best-known animals including elephants, tigers and orangutans, the Photo Ark highlights the full range of global biodiversity, including tiny or mid-size, often under-appreciated species. Even those that are impossible to find in the wild are included – Malayan tapir, Andean porcupine, oblong-winged katydids, red-eyed tree frog, Lady Amherst’s pheasant and more. 

Photographing the spoon-billed sandpiper at WWT’s Slimbridge Wetland Centre in Gloucestershire, UK, coincided with the photographer’s 60th birthday. 

RPS Journal 01 Spoon Billed Sandpiper Cr Joel Sartore National Geographic Photo Ark 2792522

A spoon-billed sandpiper chases a cricket at the Slimbridge Wetland Centre in England by Joel Sartore

“I’ve been asking them for many years, politely: ‘Can I come and photograph the spoonies?’” says Sartore. “I got to know the folks who run the programme. We settled on a protocol where black and white boards would be installed in the corner of one of their enclosures. They sprinkled sand on the board, then brushed away a little every other day, fed them crickets, and got them used to running around on boards. Then I came in.  

“I just laid still and the birds ran around me. Eventually they came onto the boards – we did a little video and stills. It took quite a bit of training on Slimbridge’s part, but it all went smoothly on the day.”   

The spoon-billed sandpiper is one of many species needing global attention. “It’s a bird that’s very tough to save because it uses so many habitats over a great distance throughout the year,” Sartore explains. “Spoon-billed sandpipers breed in far north-east Russia and south down the Kamchatka peninsula, in the tundra, but in the winter it ranges all the way down the Pacific Rim, and it gets into trouble there, where it’s being poached or where marshes are being filled in or tidal flats are being developed.  

“Slimbridge has taken on tough animals before, like the Madagascar pochard, a duck from Madagascar that they saved. In the spoon-billed sandpiper’s case, they’re trying a captive breeding programme. They have some birds in their care in a lovely semi-outdoor enclosure. They’re also studying rearing protocols and how the birds are doing in terms of getting protection along their migratory route. That’s a big deal – for something to be sustainable, you have to have habitat and it has to be threat-free.”  

RPS Journal 10 Nabire Northern White Rhinoceros Cr Joel Sartore National Geographic Photo Ark 2504815

Nabiré, a 31-year-old female northern white rhinoceros, Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic by Joel Sartore

Joel Sartore’s books include The Photo Ark, Photo Ark Wonders, RARE and The Photo Ark Vanishing, all published by National Geographic Books 

See more work by Joel Sartore in the January/February 2023 issue of the RPS Journal