I wanted to go see the mountain gorillas because they are critically endangered. There are no mountain gorillas in zoos (just lowland gorillas which, to be fair, look almost exactly the same). So the only way to see them is to travel either to Virunga or to Bwindi (where I went). The good news is that the mountain gorilla population is growing – up to 1,000 individuals.
However, the bad news is that they are a mountain species and, as the climate grows warmer, mountain species tend to adapt by moving further up the mountain. Because mountains grow narrower as they go up, this concentrates the population near the top, where there is more competition for resources. If the warming continues, even the tops of the mountains can become uninhabitable for species adapted to different conditions and they die out entirely. A similar process was responsible for the recent extinction of the Bramble Cay melomys in 2016.
The populations of all other great apes – with the exception of humans – are declining. While there is no reason to think that this gorilla is aware of the plight of his species, it certainly looks as though he is.
One thing we forget, living as most of us do, in a rapidly expanding zone of ecological devastation, is how many insects there used to be in the world. Whenever I traveled in the jungle, I’m reminded that for most of humanity, we’ve had to share space with critters we consider pests. However, I grew up and live in the Midwest, so I’m pretty used to mosquitoes and ticks. So when I hit the jungle, it’s more “oh yes, this again” and less “what fresh hell is this?”
It’s to the point where, whenever the guides to impress upon me how bad the mosquitoes are, I’ve been surprised, instead, at how light they are. To date, the worst mosquitoes I’ve ever encountered have been in Minnesota and Manitoba. (The worst may have been at Banning State Park this summer.)
What I forget about, though, is how much insects will show up in photos. Every time the gorilla moved, a swarm of little insects would fly up. I had to toss a large number of photos because one of more insects were preventing me from seeing the gorilla’s eyes.
The tour group consisted of a small group of tourists, a guide, my porter, and a guy with a machine gun that trailed us. They explained that sometimes the gorillas got violent, and it was necessary to have protection along with us.
In US dollars, a typical Ugandan family (two parents, six children) needs $3,240 to $5,100 per year to survive.
A photographer traveling to see the gorillas, would need a good camera body, a backup body, a long lens, and a wide lens. Bonus points for a macro lens and, if you’re weird like me, an infrared camera and an ultraviolet camera. It’s not unusual for someone to be carrying upward five years of a family’s salary in gear alone in order to see the gorillas for one hour.
Shortly after we got back, an American woman was kidnapped from a national park in Uganda and held for ransom.
The guns were not for protecting against the gorillas.
The thing you never think about with respect to animals is how each species smells fundamentally differently. We use terms like “musky” to describe it, but each species has its own smell. Unfortunately, because English lacks the words to properly describe it, all I can say is that the gorillas smelled gorillay in a way that chimps and orangutans do not.
When you read a lot of early natural history you notice that a lot of explorers comment on how “human” the great apes are. (They also say the same thing about the native human civilizations in the area, because colonization sucked.) The explorers comment on how kind the apes are to one another. How both the male and female parents share the parenting duties. How patient they are with one another, and how they work through their issues instead of going straight to savagery.
Looking at them with modern eyes, though, it’s striking just how different from humans they are, mostly because of how kind they are to one another. How both sexes share the parenting duties. How patient they are with one another, and how they work through their issues instead of going straight to savagery.
When I go on a big trip like this, I try to pre-plan as much as possible. I think about the lenses I need, the camera bodies. I think about the power requirements, to bring the adapters I need to charge up everything over night so I’m ready to go in the morning. (This is a bigger deal in Central America where I do macro photography all the time and need a ton of flash – not as big a deal here.) I also think about the travel issues and all that could possibly go wrong.
I also, inevitably, miss things. On this trip, they canceled one leg of my flight home. Normally, this is just a matter of a phone call – but even though I had AT&T and Google Fi, my phone didn’t work there. Moreover, the hotel phone didn’t work either, and I had to borrow a friend’s phone to get a hold of the airline to figure out what I had to do. Of course, after the initial issue had been addressed, I figured out that I could go into my phone’s settings and select a different local carrier that had a different arrangement with AT&T and was able to get it to work.
Regardless, I now travel with one phone that doe AT&T and Google Fi and another one that’s on the Verizon network. Both are also now capable of doing wifi calls (though that’s usually not of good enough quality to be stable when you’re out in the wild / lands of extreme poverty). I also have, in theory, an all that ties phone calls into my satellite system, but it has never worked very well, so I’ve largely stopped trying to make it work.
I took my infrared camera with me to the gorilla hike, mostly because I had it. I didn’t really expect it to be such a good choice. Almost all of my favorite photos from the trip were in infrared.
The physical challenge of walking on the mountain was more than I had expected. I’ve hiked in a lot of conditions and, while I’ve never really been all that physically fit, I am in better shape than I used to be and it was still hard for me. Part of this is the elevation. Part of it is that I am always exhausted by the time I get to where I am going – even when I try to allocate time to rest and recover. In this case, though, a big part of it was that we walked for a few hours to get to the gorillas and then had to stand on fresh (slippery) vines on the side of a steep incline. I only actually fell once, but it felt like I was just about to fall on many occasions.
I am glad that I hired a porter to help me carry the gear, but when it came to the actual photography, I was carrying the cameras and lenses that I needed. They’re heavy for walking, but not so bad for standing.
I’ve been sitting on this photo (and others in the set) for over a year because I kept wanting to take the time to do a “proper” write-up of my trip to Uganda to see the mountain gorillas. Well, that never happened and these photos are now blocking two other major animal trips, one major non-animal trips, and a good dozen or so little trips over the last year … so I’ll just be posting a few photos along with a few observations.
First, I want to thank my friend Eleanor for inviting me along to what wound up being my first trip to Africa. I don’t think I would have done it without her invite.
Second, I want to mention that if you – like me – had largely only traveled to the tropics in Central and South America, and expected Africa to be like that, it’s really not. Africa has had a *much* longer history of human habitation and it shows. The poverty issues are very similar, as is the climate – so buildings are similar and people live similarly, but where there are large pockets of wilderness throughout Central and South America, there is very little of that where I’ve been in Africa, and what I did see seemed to largely be reconstructed and then preserved which, from an ecological perspective, is significantly different from the restoration and preservation process that I saw in Costa Rica and Peru.
I’ll have a lot more to say on this when I get to the Madagascar photos. For now, just enjoy the gorilla.
While I would prefer that wild animals not have to live in captivity, I support zoos because, first there’s not a lot of wild left and second, this bird would not survive in the wild.
You can make an argument that this bird shouldn’t survive and that evolution punishes accident-prone individuals in the same way it does genetics that don’t fit the environment. However, you can also make an argument that humans are altering the environment more quickly that evolutionary processes can adapt and that without a compensating mechanism, we will lose the majority of our biodiversity.
Both arguments are true. Only one applies to our lives and the lives of those we care about.
This frog is already tired of pumpkin spice and wishes that people would just make their coffee the traditional way – grinding the coffee cherries into a paste, combining it with animal fat, rolling them into balls, and then drying them for easy transport.
The wall is porous and low, doing a poor job of separating the turtles on one side from those on the other. However, it does meet its purpose of allowing the turtles who built the wall to feel they are better than the identical turtles on the other side.
This is another plant that is extinct in the wild. Though, unlike animals, plants can be easier to manage in captivity (or, as horticulturists call it, “in cultivation”), and has since been re-introduced.