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Lincoln photographer Joel Sartore takes views on Photo Ark journey in Nat Geo special

“Man, you don’t see that in Nebraska,” Joel Sartore exclaims as he holds a 4-inch baby Caiman crocodile between his fingers, while walking down a creek bed in Manaus, Brazil.

“I won’t need to photograph him," Sartore says. "I've got all the world’s crocodilians already. But they are fun to look at.”

Placing the little croc back in the creek where its camouflage blends with the foliage to make him nearly invisible, Sartore and his guide continue down the creek, searching for the subjects for the excursion — frogs.

That’s just one of the journeys the Lincoln-based National Geographic photographer takes in Nat Geo Wild’s two-part special “Photo Ark” that will premiere at 9 p.m. Saturday and conclude at 9 p.m. Oct. 24.

The special, which documents part of Sartore’s ongoing project to try to photograph as many of the world’s species as possible, was intended to have more episodes. But the coronavirus intervened.

“We filmed on-and-off right up to the start of the pandemic,” Sartore said in an interview this week. “We were going to shoot more but didn’t have the time. I’ve worked with the same crew for over four years. They provide everything, get the visas, make all the arrangements. It’s really a dream. All I do is show up to work.”

In the first episode, showing up for work meant traveling to Indonesia, Colorado and Brazil.

In each location, Sartore shoots animals either in his “photo box,” a zippered, pop-up, white-nylon cube or against black and white backgrounds he sets up against tables and walls.

“You just create a little studio out in the middle of nowhere. It works out fine,” Sartore says in the special. “The thing that changes is the animal, and the key is to adapt to it.”

So, in Brazil, when a giant armadillo wandered away from the makeshift studio into a restroom, Sartore followed, lying down to capture the animal against the white background.

“I smell bad,” he says standing up. “I smell like the floor under a urinal. Anything for a good picture.”

In Indonesia, Sartore came face shield-to-face with a spitting cobra, clearly uneasy when the cobra rises up, perhaps to spit its venom at him.

“If you weren’t nervous, you’d probably get dead doing a number of the things I do,” he says.

The Photo Ark, which began 15 years ago, has its origins in Lincoln.

“For like 17 years, I was a (National Geographic) field photographer, doing stories on Nebraska culture, the Gulf oil spill, flesh-eating parasites, everything you could think of,” Sartore said. “My wife, Kathy, 16 or 17 years ago, developed breast cancer, and I had to stay home. I basically was grounded. After a long career with Geographic, everything stopped.”

As Kathy, who is now cancer-free, began feeling better, Sartore regained the itch to take pictures and contacted director John Chapo at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo.

“I called up Chapo and said, ‘Hey, can I come down and shoot something?” Sartore said. “We got out a naked mole rat and put him on a white cutting board in the kitchen. ... We ended up getting about everything they had.”

Sartore then traveled to zoos around the region in Omaha, Denver, Des Moines, Iowa, Kansas City, Missouri, shooting all the species at each. “I wasn’t thinking about doing a Photo Ark,” Sartore said.

Local View: Delay vote on poultry barns in Lancaster County

Like so many others, I’ve been reading with great interest about the monster chicken coops that may come home to roost on the north side of Lancaster County. I’ve got a farm nearby, and others have houses. There’s even a high school that’ll be affected.

Still, that’s where the project was born.

When he returned to the magazine, editors assigned Sartore to projects around the world where they knew he would moonlight for the Photo Ark. Then a National Geographic grant funded the project, keeping Sartore and a staff of six in pursuit of the animals for the ark.

Earlier this year, the Photo Ark hit a milestone, when a guina, one of the world’s smallest wildcats photographed in Chile, became the 10,000th animal in the ark.

“People say, ‘What’s your favorite animal?’ I always say, 'the next one,'” Sartore said. “I had a moth that came to my porch light, and I was thrilled. I’m getting species off my front porch. It was a bicolored sallow moth. They’re active from August to November. It’s a whole world I haven’t thought about.”

Since March, Sartore has been driving around Nebraska, photographing hundreds of insects.

At risk bee species found near Denton

A National Geographic photographer's discovery at the Audubon Center's Spring Creek Prairie near Denton has caused a considerable buzz among ecologists.

“I finally get to work in Nebraska,” he said. “I’ve never had the time to work seriously in Nebraska. The diversity around here is amazing. If you provide an area for them, this area is bathed in insects.”

The insects and other subjects have pushed the Photo Ark total above 11,000 — on the way to 15,000 or more. The first 10,000 came in 15 years. The last 5,000 or so will likely take a decade, as they’re harder to find and often in remote areas around the world.

“It’s probably 20 pictures per animal,” he said. “That’s a lot isn’t it, 200,000? And there are a lot more to go. They’re all the same size. The ant counts as much as the elephant. They’re all important.”

In Colorado, high above the Rocky Mountain treeline, Sartore shot pictures of the pika, a mammal that lives in burrows among the rocks and snow at 10,000 feet.

The pika, he says in the special, are a canary in the coal mine for climate change. If the planet gets too hot or too cold, the pika will perish.

That’s part of the message that Sartore hopes to deliver with the Photo Ark.

The project, he said, isn’t political. But it is aimed at preserving as many species as possible and illustrating the impact environmental destruction — whether it be a development in the Amazon or the use of chemicals on farm fields — has on the animals and on people.

“Some of these animals are down to nothing,” Sartore said. “If somebody doesn’t pay attention to them, they will go extinct. If enough of them go extinct, we will, too.”

Photo Ark National Geographic covers
The life and work of Lincoln's Joel Sartore

Lincoln Southwest got to hoist the Class A championship trophy at the state tennis meet Friday in Omaha.

editor's pick topical alert top story
Governor to require hospitals to keep beds open for COVID patients, further restricts large gatherings

Gov. Pete Ricketts said Friday he will require hospitals to keep 10% of their beds open for COVID-19 patients in order to continue doing elective surgeries and will further restrict indoor gatherings in an effort to address a spike in the spread of the coronavirus.

Noting that the 323 Nebraskans hospitalized Thursday night is nearly 40% more than the peak in May, Ricketts reiterated that the goal of the changes is to maintain hospital capacity.

The numbers Friday continued to spike. The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services reported 1,286 new COVID-19 cases, one of the highest reported daily reports since the pandemic began in March.

That brings the state total to 56,714. There were 12 deaths reported Friday, increasing the death total to 547.

“We need to have a renewed effort on slowing the spread of the virus,” Ricketts said. “It’s important that we don’t become like Italy and not be able to provide the care to people who show up at our hospitals.”

In addition to requiring that hospitals keep 10% of their beds and ICU capacity free for COVID-19 patients, Ricketts said he will direct $40 million in federal coronavirus aid funding to 21 of the state’s hospitals to use to increase staffing. Lincoln hospital officials have said staffing shortages are more of a concern now than bed availability.

The money will be used to offer hazard pay for existing staff and to bring in “traveling” nurses and staff from other areas, said Dr. Gary Anthone, Nebraska chief medical officer.

Hospitals will be able to transfer patients within their system — one CHI hospital can transfer patients to another, for example — but not to different systems in an effort to maintain the minimum number of COVID-19 beds, Anthone said.

Nebraska hospital beds are at 70% capacity.

With new cases spiking, James Lawler, an infectious disease specialist with the University of Nebraska Medical Center, sounded the alarm Friday, a similar message to one scientists and physicians from UNMC and Nebraska hospitals issued last week in a joint statement.

“We’ve entered a dangerous phase of the pandemic for Nebraska,” he said. “We’ve reached levels of cases in our communities that are in great excess of where we were at our previous peak in May, and unfortunately we are still accelerating in the number of cases we’re seeing per day.”

In May, he said, outbreaks were concentrated in urban areas and communities with meatpacking plants, but now, he said the epidemic is widespread across the state, including rural areas. 

Many rural counties have infection rates greater than 70 cases per 100,000 people — rates well above those in New York City during its peak in May, he said.

Just a month after he relaxed state restrictions, Ricketts reduced capacity for some indoor gatherings to 50%, including crowds for volleyball matches and meetings in conference rooms.

In bars and restaurants, Ricketts elected not to reduce capacity but will require patrons to be seated in groups of eight or fewer — which means no standing-only crowds to watch Husker games on TV this fall.

Those changes, which become effective Wednesday, align closely with distinct rules in place in Lancaster County, which was alone in not moving to Phase 4 of Ricketts' reopening plan last month.

Phase 4 eliminated virtually all coronavirus-related restrictions except for a 75% capacity limit on large indoor events.

Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird said Lincoln remained in Phase 3 because officials closely monitored several variables in the coronavirus spread, not just hospital capacity.

“We’ll be making some minor adjustments. But, in large part, I think we're coming closer together as a state and a county as a result of the governor's kind of reversal of some of the Phase 4 that he had implemented in the past," Gaylor Baird said.

The Lincoln-Lancaster County COVID-19 risk dial remained in the elevated-orange level after a week that saw 457 new cases and five deaths.

Two deaths — a man in his 80s who had been hospitalized and a woman in her 90s who was in a nursing home — were announced Friday, raising the local pandemic death toll to 35. An additional 87 cases increased the county’s figure to 7,912, with 3,439 confirmed recoveries.

Lincoln Public Schools reported eight positive cases in seven schools Friday — Beattie (2) and Sartoga elementary schools, Lincoln East, North Star, Southeast and Southwest high schools and the Donald D. Sherrill Education Center.

Over the past three weeks, 40.6% of all new cases have been in the 30-59 age group.

Officials on Friday said much of the spread statewide is coming from small gatherings — people having friends over on a Friday night, kids’ parties, sleepovers, groups of students riding in a car together — and urged Nebraskans to avoid the three C's: crowded spaces, confined spaces and close contact.

Ricketts continued to oppose mask mandates in place in Omaha and Lancaster County, saying he worries they’ll breed resistance and prefers educating people on the importance of wearing them — and following the three C's.  

Lawler said just 10%-20% of people infected are responsible for the vast majority of cases in “superspreading” events and that the coronavirus is frequently spread by those who have no symptoms. He added that studies have shown that in some institutions where people consistently wear masks, the chance of transmission is 3 to 5 times lower.

“We know the virus can spread silently, in schools or in other crowded situations or even in families, and because people don’t develop symptoms, they don’t realize they’re sick, they don’t go get tested and so this creates a situation where the virus can spread dramatically across the community before we even know it’s there.”

State Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said schools are, overall, doing a good job of following protocols and it’s making a difference, but it won’t be sustainable without community members taking similar safety measures and students following protocols outside school walls. And not all schools are doing what they should.

Blomstedt said for example, in Alliance, where there have been recent outbreaks, school officials have been reluctant to enforce mask requirements.

“It’s really important they pull together, and I guess my message will be there will have to be some formal kind of work to make sure they’re getting in alignment,” he said.

Top Journal Star photos for October

Early votes flood system

More than 22 million Americans have already cast ballots in the 2020 election, a record-shattering avalanche of early votes driven both by Democratic enthusiasm and a pandemic that has transformed the way the nation votes.

The 22.2 million ballots submitted as of Friday afternoon represents 16% of all the votes cast in the 2016 presidential election, even as eight states are not yet reporting their totals and voters still have more than two weeks to cast ballots. Americans' rush to vote is leading election experts to predict that a record 150 million votes may be cast and turnout rates could be higher than in any presidential election since 1908.

"It's crazy," said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist who has long tracked voting for his site McDonald's analysis shows roughly 10 times as many people have voted compared with this point in 2016.

"We can be certain this will be a high-turnout election," McDonald said.

So far the turnout has been lopsided, with Democrats outvoting Republicans by a 2-1 ratio in the 42 states included in The Associated Press count. Republicans have been bracing themselves for this early Democratic advantage for months, as they've watched President Donald Trump rail against mail-in ballots and raise unfounded worries about fraud. Polling, and now early voting, suggest the rhetoric has turned his party's rank and file away from a method of voting that, traditionally, they dominated in the weeks before Election Day.

That gives Democrats a tactical advantage in the final stretch of the campaign. In many critical battleground states, Democrats have "banked" a chunk of their voters and can turn their time and money toward harder-to-find infrequent voters.

But it does not necessarily mean Democrats will lead in votes by the time ballots are counted. Both parties anticipate a swell of Republican votes on Election Day that could, in a matter of hours, dramatically shift the dynamic.

"The Republican numbers are going to pick up," said John Couvillon, a GOP pollster who is tracking early voting. "The question is at what velocity, and when?"

Couvillon said Democrats cannot rest on their voting lead, but Republicans are themselves making a big gamble. A number of factors, from rising virus infections to the weather, can impact in-person turnout on Election Day. "If you're putting all your faith into one day of voting, that's really high-risk," Couvillon said.

That's why, despite Trump's rhetoric, his campaign and party are encouraging their own voters to cast ballots by mail or early and in-person. The campaign, which has been sending volunteers and staffers into the field for months despite the pandemic, touts a swell in voter registration in key swing states such as Florida and Pennsylvania — a sharp reversal from the usual pattern as a presidential election looms.

But it's had limited success in selling absentee voting. In key swing states, Republicans remain far less interested in voting by mail.

Meanwhile, Trump was outraised by Democratic challenger Joe Biden in September and is being outgunned financially by his rival with just weeks to go until Election Day.

Trump's campaign, along with the Republican National Committee and associated groups, raised $247.8 million in September, well short of the $383 million raised by Biden and the Democratic National Committee in the same period. Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh tweeted that the Trump effort had $251.4 million on hand at the end of September, compared with $432 million for Biden.

Also, Trump went after his opponent's family and defended his own struggle to contain the pandemic Friday as he fought to energize his sagging reelection bid in the nation's Sun Belt. With Election Day looming, Biden pushed to keep voters focused on health care in the Midwest.

Trump was campaigning in Florida and Georgia, neighboring states he carried four years ago and must win again to extend his presidency. His decision to devote Friday evening's prime-time slot to Georgia in particular highlighted the serious nature of his challenge in the 2020 contest's closing days: Far from his original plan to expand into Democratic-leaning states, he is laboring to stave off a defeat of major proportions.

In Florida on Friday, the president derided the Bidens as “an organized crime family," renewing his daily claims about the candidate's son, Hunter, and his business dealings in Ukraine and China.

More to the point for Trump's Florida audience, he spoke directly to seniors who have increasingly soured on his handling of the pandemic.

“I am moving heaven and earth to safeguard our seniors from the China virus,” Trump said, using his usual blame-shifting term to describe the coronavirus. He also offered an optimistic assessment of the pandemic, even as a surge of new infections spread across America.

Biden opened his Michigan swing at a suburban Detroit community center.

“He's living in a dream world,” Biden said of Trump's rosy predictions of the pandemic. The former vice president then turned to the Trump administration's court fight to overturn the “Obamacare” health coverage law — including its protection for people with preexisting conditions — without having a replacement plan.