When you set out on a mission to document all 12,000 species of captive animals, it's bound to get a little silly sometimes.

Joel SartoreJust ask Joel Sartore, an award-winning photographer (at right) who created the National Geographic Photo Ark. The project seeks to photograph every single animal species currently in captivity, many of which are endangered or nearly extinct.

Since he started the project in 1995, he's photographed about 6,500 different species so far, Sartore told NPR in February 2017.

In the video above, we're given an intriguing behind-the-scenes look at what it's like to do this kind of work — from squirming rodents and pooping tortoises to curious snakes and mischievous chimpanzees.

"Think taking pictures of your pet is hard?" National Geographic asks. "Sartore must wrangle the unruly, distract the curious, and clean up all the unexpected messes that come with photographing wild animals."

Unpredictable antics aside, Sartore's Photo Ark is an eye-opening endeavor that showcases the multitude of reasons why our world is worth saving.

"It is folly to think that we can destroy one species and ecosystem after another and not affect humanity," Sartore writes. "When we save species, we’re actually saving ourselves."

Judging by the way things are currently going, it's estimated that nearly half of all the world's plant and animal species may be extinct within less than a century. With that in mind, Sartore's ultimate goal is to "inspire millions around the world with the message that it's not too late to save some of the planet's most endangered species."

The Photo Ark is an ambitious project, but the magnificence of Sartore's finished works brings the focus where it should be — and the comical "blooper reel" above all the more entertaining.

Continue below to see just a small selection of species that have been documented for the Photo Ark, and be sure to check out more of Sartore's work on his website and Instagram feed.

Mechow's mole rat


"These creatures can be found in the savannas of Central Africa," Sartore writes. "Their long buckteeth aren’t just for eating roots and tubers — they help the mole rats dig tunnels through the soil where they live."

Green-cheeked conures


"Believe it or not, these five parrots are all the exact same species of green-cheeked conure," Sartore explains. "They simply hatched out in different colors in the private collection of Geert Van Nieuwenhuyse of Belgium."



This cat-like creature is the largest mammalian predator in Madagascar, but like many other Malagasy species, it is declining in the wild.

Asian elephant


Say hello to Billy, a 30-year-old Asian elephant living at the Los Angeles Zoo. Billy and his roommates Tina and Jewel were recently the subject of a lawsuit that alleged "that the zoo was not providing adequate space and natural conditions for the elephants."

Royal antelope


This pint-sized antelope from Western Africa is the smallest of all antelope species. These creatures are so tiny that a newborn calf can fit in the palm of your hand.

Panamanian golden frogs


This pair of critically endangered Panamanian golden frogs were photographed mating at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center in Panama.

According to Sartore, the male frog (seen on top) "was the last individual to ever be found in the wild; sadly, this species is now extinct in the wild."

Syrian brown bear


Syrian brown bears, like this one from the Budpest Zoo, are a vulnerable subspecies of brown bear known for their light brown or straw-colored fur.

Hispaniolan solenodon


Its distinctive looks aren't the only thing that's fascinating about this endangered animal from Hispaniola (the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic). As Sartore explains, "the second lower incisor tooth of this animal is grooved [and] can be used to deliver venomous saliva."

Editor's Note: This story was originally published in December 2015 and has been updated.

Catie Leary ( @catieleary ) writes about science, travel, animals and the arts.