Photographing gorillas in the jungle
Text and photos: Kaisa Sirén
What can one expect of a photo, when you mix an utterly harsh light, insanely dense jungle, dark animals positioned against the sky, and occasional tropical showers? These were the very challenging photography conditions in the home forests of gorillas in the Republic of Congo.
At the same time, observing these primate relatives of our was a breathtaking experience. Last fall, these encounters with our close relatives were the utmost highlights on my trip to photograph gorillas: I was able to see these gentle animals eye to eye and read their faces for expressions and, above all, feelings.
The gorillas live deep in the jungle, and the only way to get to them is on foot. Sometimes you have to walk for several hours before the gorillas show up. I had thought, that seeing them at all would not be so sure, but now I understand that they will be encountered on almost every tour because the gorilla watching tours are so well organised, and the guides know where the gorillas are at different times.
On all the tours the rules were the same. When a group of gorillas is encountered, visitors can spend only one hour with them. We were not allowed to go closer than seven meters to a gorilla, but sometimes they themselves came close enough to be touched. In that situation one has to keep a straight face and not look the animal straight into the eyes.
The environment where gorillas live varies in different countries. For instance, mountain gorillas live in a very challenging terrain. But it helps that in Rwanda and Uganda visitors can hire a porter, which I would recommend. Even if there was not much to carry, the porter would help the visitor on the slippery, muddy, and steep trail.
Each one of the gorilla watching tours was different with its own challenges for photography. Usually the gorillas were curious and came close enough for a close up, but quickly they took off into the jungle. Also, it was difficult to get a several individuals in one picture.
Because of the obscuring vegetation I chose manual focus. I used mostly the 100-400mm lens and an 1.4x extension tube. It was surprisingly dark on the floor of the rain forest, and I would have liked a larger aperture than f4. Mostly the body of the camera worked well in the moist conditions, although quite a bit condensation happened in the lens during our last tour.
Eye to eye
My most impressive experiences came in the Republic of Congo amongst the Western lowland gorillas. There is only one gorilla destination in that country, namely the Odzala-Kokoua National Park, where gorilla watching tours have been conducted only during the past four years. That is why these gorillas are still interested in people.
We left for this tour at six o’clock in the morning with the gorilla tracer Zephries leading the trek. Because Odzala is still a relatively unknown destination, my husband and I were the only tourists in this group during the entire 10 days. First, we walked on a two meter-wide cleared path for an hour. Then Zephries stopped to listen, and we left the path. With his machete he cleared the jungle for us.
After a while we encountered the gorillas’ camp. The ’beds’ on arrowroot leaves and the digging holes gave it away. Then we saw our relatives high up in the canopy. I realised with ’shutterspeed’ that getting photos of them would be difficult. If they did not come down from the trees, the back light would be awful, and if they did come down, the vegetation would hide them.
Right away the gorillas started to stare at us as if assessing us. They were very curious which made them come down and closer to us. First we could not see them but only heard the bushes rattle and how the alfa male pounded on his chest. We heard a couple of roars and, all of the sudden, a pair of yellow eyes were staring at me at close distance trough the bushes. I let the shutter run and just tried to focus through the leaves.
Mountain gorillas in Rwanda
Tourism and gorilla watching tours affect the gorillas’ well being and facilitate a better future for them. First, tourism creates employment in the area and second, it has changed how the locals think about the gorillas. Even poaching is now rare.
Gorilla watching tours have been arranged in Rwanda since 1975. They take tourists to observe 12 different gorilla communities. The tour is very exciting as well as arduous. The mountain gorillas live at the elevation of almost 3000 meters, and getting to them serves as a good ’morning exercise’. For a photographer, the best place in the line of tourists is in the front, which guarantees the best visibility for photo ops.
Meeting the gorillas in Rwanda was very different from that in the Republic of Congo. In Rwanda, it was possible to get close to them and it was exciting to sit a few meters away from a 200 kilogram alpha male, who concentrated on munching bamboo and seemed not the least bit bothered by us. Also in Rwanda, the actual photography was a bit easier because the distance was shorter, the vegetation was not so dense, and there were no problems with moisture. The animals were really close to us but they were not frightening. On the other hand, the greater number of tourists and the lesser degree of intense contact with the animals made the experience ’weaker’ than in the Republic of Congo.
Overall, it was an amazing experience to be with these relatives of ours for even that one hour. In deed, meeting gorillas in their own environment has been one of my most profound nature experiences.
Mountain gorillas in Rwanda
Western Lowlands Gorillas in Republic of Congo