An armadillo and a reporter meet in the desert. Here’s what happens next…

A nine-banded armadillo sniffs the air after a rare July rainstorm in West Texas this week. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

This crusty fellow wandered by after a wild rainstorm swept through the desert Monday near Sheffield, Texas.

He was rooting around for bugs. I happened to be walking across Independence Creek Preserve, a Nature Conservancy property near the confluence of Independence Creek and the Pecos River, when our paths crossed.

The nine-banded armadillo appeared completely unfazed. ‘Dillos have terrible eyesight; they rely on their sense of smell to find food. This one didn’t seem to notice – or care about – my natural odor, either.

He strolled closer and closer, and at one point dug his nose in the dirt just a foot from my camera lens. Then he reared up on his back legs, his wriggly, pink-tipped nose wagging. And look at those ears! Nubbly and tough, but at the same time delicate like rose petals.

Our eyes met – his tiny and squinty, mine wide and curious – and then we continued down our respective paths. I think we both appreciated the magic of a rare July rainstorm in West Texas.

After sniffing the air for a minute or so, the armadillo went back to rooting through the wet soil for grubs, beetles and worms. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Photographer Joel Sartore: Saving animals one portrait at a time

Joel Sartore, left, and Laura Huffman, state diretor of the Nature Conservancy in Texas, stand in front of a series of images Sartore shot for his National Geographic Photo Ark project. Pam LeBlanc

 

It’s all about eye contact.

That from National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, the man behind the Photo Ark project, which aims to document endangered and at-risk animals all over the world.

Sartore’s photographs of cuddly koalas, bug-eyed amphibians, sleek tigers and birds that look like they stepped out of a Fat Tuesday parade are set against solid black or white backdrops, making the animals jump out in detail. You feel like you’re face to face with each one, just by looking at a picture.

But behind the compelling photos lies a greater mission: Protecting rapidly disappearing species.

Sartore compares the project to a giant dating service, where people look at photos and fall in love with one particular species, then do what they can to save it.

“You won’t save it if you’ve never met it,” he told a crowd gathered at the JW Marriott for the annual luncheon of the Nature Conservancy in Texas.

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Sartore wove in behind-the-scenes stories of how he got some of the photos, showing video snippets of chimps destroying in a handful of seconds a backdrop he’d worked hard to assemble, and clips of a bird pecking the lens of his $6,000 camera with its long, curved beak.

“They all count, no matter how ugly,” he said. “These are works of art, every one of them.”

Sartore works quickly. His photo sessions typically last less than 5 minutes, and he works hard not to stress his subjects. The key is good lighting and an up close perspective, he says.

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After a decade of work, he’s about halfway through the project – and several of the species he has photographed have already gone extinct.

“Does it make me sad? Yes, but mostly it pisses me off,” he said. “Why do we need to wait until things get so dire? The clock is ticking, but I’m here to tell you it’s not too late.”