© Photo by Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images for National Geographic Magazine. A welcome sight returns to Zakouma: babies. Thanks to stepped-up enforcement, the park hasn’t lost an elephant to poachers since 2012. Without the stress of poaching, the elephants started breeding again, and more than 40 calves have been born.

My Wildlife Worries — and Wonders

I still remember the first time I encountered African wildlife in their native habitat. I was staying at the Sabi camp in South Africa. We set out on foot at the crack of dawn and — even though it was a quarter century ago — I remember that walk with the ranger like it was yesterday. The elephants. The hippos. The lions. And as many times as I’ve seen Mother Nature at work, I’ve never lost that initial sense of awe at the power of these amazing creatures. But as I’ve come to learn, there is also fragility.

Today is World Wildlife Day and it is an important wake up call for all of us. We need to understand more about what would happen if thousands of species were to go extinct.

Look Into Their Eyes

I have also spent quite a bit of time recently in our Museum at the National Geographic Society’s headquarters just downstairs from my office. Our current exhibit, Photo Ark, continues to take my breath away; it brings a new lens to the fragility of wildlife.

Photo Ark was created by world-renowned photographer Joel Sartore. Joel is on a quest to photograph every species currently held in captivity. The exhibit displays some of those images against the backdrop of which ones are on the brink of extinction, but also which ones are recovering.

Joel Sartore photographs a Dwarf caiman (Paleosuchus palpebrosus) at the Sunset Zoo in Manhattan, KS.

Since beginning this project in 2005, Joel has traveled around the world and completed portraits of more than 5,000 species, most photographed on either a plain black or white background. No matter its size, each animal is treated with the same amount of attention and respect. The resulting portraits are not just stunningly beautiful, but intimate and moving. Joel has said, “It’s the eye contact that moves people. It engages…feelings of compassion and a desire to help.” As I walked through the exhibit, I too noticed the power of the animals’ eyes.

© Photo by Joel Satore/National Geographic. The Florida Panther (Puma concolor coryi) is listed as “Endangered” — this one lives in the Everglades National Park, FL.

What Joel is doing is extraordinary, creating portraits of many animals that could be extinct if we are not careful — so that we will be more careful. There are animals that we may have never heard of, like the Okapi, the Axolotl, or the Mandrill. As I walked around the exhibit, one picture in particular caught my attention: the Northern White Rhinocerous. This animal died just one week after Joel’s photo was taken. Though three more remain, none are expected to be able to reproduce due to old age. These are the last of their kind.

© Photo by Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images for National Geographic Magazine. In January 2014, while x-raying a Vietnam-bound container declared to hold cashews, Togolese port authorities saw something strange: ivory. Eventually, more than four tons were found, Africa’s largest seizure since the global ivory trade ban took effect in 1990.

It’s Criminal

What’s also amazing is how many species of wildlife are endangered due to organized crime. Last year, we published a cover story by investigative journalist Bryan Christy in our magazine on ivory and the growing illegal wildlife trafficking trade. National Geographic commissioned the creation of an artificial tusk with a hidden GPS tracker that was planted in the smuggling supply chain.

The magnitude of the situation is unimaginable. Just last year, poachers slaughtered an estimated 35,000 African elephants, amounting to over 95 elephants killed per day. This year alone, wildlife trafficking is expected to generate approximately $10 billion per year in illegal profits for sophisticated criminal syndicates.

Whether it’s stopping illicit wildlife trafficking or being more aware that there are thousands of animals that could become extinct (thanks to the most extraordinary and unusual Photo Ark exhibit), this World Wildlife Day is a time to take note.

You can learn more about what can be done about illegal wildlife trafficking. Check out Joel’s remarkable photos — and share them on social (#PhotoArk and #WWD2016). And wherever you are today, take a moment to celebrate the wonder and importance of the magnificent creatures in our world. They just might smile back.

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