That feeling when you look out your window and suddenly realize that the board game you’re living on is being played by a maximizer.
This wolf would like you to know that, on November 8th, 1519, Cortés reached Tenochtitlán, which was the midpoint of an invasion that killed thousands of natives and nearly one thousand of Europeans.
This wolf would also like you to know that on November 8th, 1520, Danish forces executed 100 Swedes.
The latter is called the “Stockholm Bloodbath” but the former is most often called “discovery”.
This wolf doesn’t understand humans.
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.