All I Want (to give) for Christmas

Proboscis Monkey
Proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus), by Joe Sartore

by Brooke Chilvers

When I remarked to my adult niece that the proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus) in the book The Photo Ark looked like Jimmy Durante – minus the hat and cigar – she asked, “Who’s Jimmy Durante?” That’s when I started to worry about the future of the planet. 

Actor Jimmy Durante (1893–1980) was famous for his schnozzola.

A little research proved that none of my Millennial relatives knew Humphrey Bogart or Rita Hayworth. Forget about Orson Welles or Bob Hope. In fact, they’d never watched Gone With the Wind – much less a single black and white movie – so no Bergman, William Wyler, or Fellini populates their universe. 

I figure this likely means they also don’t know much about the natural world. I know that Heather could not tell a petunia from a chrysanthemum until her Tata Brookie came along. Can any of them picture in their minds a pangolin or babirusa, or pick out a Dall sheep or a dik-dik in a lineup? If Pumbaa and Timon hadn’t adopted Simba in the movie The Lion King, they probably couldn’t describe a warthog. 

Does it matter whether or not they can distinguish a leopard from a cheetah, an American alligator from a Nile crocodile, or an Asian from an African elephant? I don’t know, but it matters to me that they can’t. Ditto for the kids of these kids who are slowly making their appearance. 

So, for Christmas, they’re all getting (mostly lightly used) copies of one of wildlife photographer Joel Sartore’s extraordinary Photo Ark books: Birds of the Photo Ark; A World Worth Saving; Vanishing: The World’s Most Vulnerable Animals; Wonders: Diversity of the Animal Kingdom; and RARE: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species.

I am confident that Sartore’s barrier-breaking portraits will remain firmly imbedded in their brains. Surely, they already understand that humanity itself is diminished if our earth is no longer home to toucans and hornbills, addax and oryx, much less the Mexican hairy dwarf porcupine. “It is folly to think that we can destroy one species and ecosystem after another and not affect humanity,” writes Sartore on The Photo Ark website.

Sartore is founder and public face of National Geographic’s The Photo Ark project, which he describes as “one man’s quest to document the world’s animals” that are conserved, preserved, protected, or confined, for the benefit of all parties, in animal parks and aquariums.  The native Midwesterner, Eagle Scout, and graduate of the University of Nebraska (“You know the N is for ‘nowledge,’” he quips), lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, “the Serengeti of the U.S.,” between travels to sanctuaries around the world. He is winner of the 2018 National Geographic Explorer of the Year and author of 40 illustrated stories in that magazine.

Sartore’s cozy, self-deprecating humor is on display on YouTube in his 20-minute 2014 TEDx Talk, Beautiful Photos of Animals Facing Extinction. (You do not want to miss his riffs on his “delightful” children and the making of the annual family Christmas card.) 

I also found his entertaining and informative 50-minute film, Birds of the Photo Ark.

In order to put all creatures, great and small, on the same footing, Sartore shoots them against solid black or white backgrounds. By capturing their “weird, funny, and odd” storytelling moments, he makes each specimen an icon of its species, whether a katydid or condor. His chiaroscuro okapi looking into the void behind feels like the last okapi in the world. (A fast-declining estimated 10,000 okapis remain in the wild; some 100 in zoos.)

Sartore’s okapi feels like the last specimen in the world.

In November, 2021, Sartore photographed his 12,000th species, an Arabian cobra, at the Arabian Wildlife Centre in Sharjah.  

If not turning the pages of a book, you can surf and search the entire Photo Ark database. Plugging in “hippopotamus” produced 31 images, cheetah 45. Sloths earned 42, plus two irresistible videos. (I swear I know somebody with the same facial expression as his brown-throated three-toed sloth, but I just can’t find the name.) 

Also check out the website’s The Best of Video Ark Gallery, featuring animals in motion. I can imagine no greater pleasure than watching, curled up with kids, the charming infant silvery gibbon, delightful Eastern grass owls, and mysterious Andean cock-of-the-rock.

Finally, the very short film that demonstrates why there are no chimps in The Photo Ark will make you laugh out loud.

“When we save species, we’re actually saving ourselves,” states Sartore. When I look again at the Jimmy Durante look alike, I know it is true. 


Brooke Chilvers wishes all her family, friends, colleagues, and readers a very Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a healthy New Year.