Joel Sartore found this mandrill in a bushmeat market in Equatorial Guinea. “It was probably going to be sold and eaten in stew that night,” he says. Sartore happened to have his portable studio handy, so he borrowed the monkey and snapped a photo. He hopes the image will help save the animal’s species, which is threatened by hunting and habitat loss. (Joel Sartore/National Geographic)

Photographer Joel Sartore is tired of tigers and pandas hogging all the headlines.

“The little stuff — the mice and snails and salamanders — they really don’t get much press,” he says. If you look closely, “a sparrow is every bit as magnificent as an elephant.”

To prove his point, Sartore is on a mission he’s dubbed “Photo Ark,” for which he’s making portraits of as many species as he can. His project, now sponsored by National Geographic, will be showcased at the National Geographic Museum starting Thursday.

“I’m taking these photos because we don’t know which species are going to be gone by the turn of the next century,” he says. “I think it’s important to document them.”

Over the past 10 years, Sartore has photographed some 5,300 animals for the project, all beautifully lit on solid-colored backdrops. The 53-year-old figures it’ll take another 25 years to capture all 12,000 species represented in the world’s zoos and aquariums, plus other captive animals he encounters on assignment. That’s pretty much the rest of his life.

The project would go faster if Sartore included the species he’s photographed in the wild, but those scenes aren’t as intimate as the studio-style portraits, he says.

“When we isolate them on these black and white backgrounds, we can really look these animals in the eye and see that there’s great intelligence there, and that these animals are worth saving,” Sartore says.

Sartore hopes that Photo Ark will inspire people to get involved in conservation efforts and learn about how humanity’s explosive population growth is crowding out these creatures.

That’s not just a pipe dream. In 2013, a photo Sartore took of a Florida grasshopper sparrow was featured on the cover of Audubon magazine. That earned the endangered bird species “enough attention that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allocated more funding to its captive breeding program. It had real and tangible results,” Sartore says.

“It gives me a lot of hope that, if people can just meet these animals and learn about what’s going on with them, maybe they will step up and say something,” he says.

National Geographic Museum, 1145 17th St. NW; Thu. through April 11, $10-$15.

With only about 100 males left in the wild, the Florida grasshopper sparrow is perhaps the most critically endangered bird in the continental U.S. The females are so good at hiding in the Central Florida prairie, biologists can’t get a good count of them. Joel Sartore took this picture of a wild sparrow right after it had been banded by biologists. They popped the bird into a black box, and Sartore poked his camera lens through a hole in the fabric walls. “He probably thought he’d been abducted by the mother ship,” Sartore says. (Joel Sartore/Photo Ark)

Sartore took this photo of a northern white rhino named Nabire at a Czech zoo in July, just a week before she died of a ruptured cyst. “She was super sweet and very calm,” Sartore says. “She laid down and took a nap during the shoot.” Nabire was one of five northern white rhinos in the world, and the outlook for her species is poor: The only remaining male is 42 years old and no longer able to breed. (Joel Sartore/National Geographic)

Joel Sartore takes a portrait of a dwarf caiman at Sunset Zoo in Manhattan, Kan., for National Geographic’s “Photo Ark.” (Joel Sartore/National Geographic)

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