Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

Trip Report
Rwanda's Mountain Gorillas -
Our 50th Trek!

February 2009

A baby mountain gorillaon its mother's back; Prosper, Mary, Joe, and Jospeh at our 50th Celebration; a chewing silverback.

.Since 2003 we've been traveling to Rwanda to photograph the magnificient Mountain Gorilla, one of the world's most endangered and certainly one of its most charismatic primates. This year we were delighted, and proud, to conduct our 46th through our 50th trek, an accomplishment that has never been achieved before. Other photographers, we were told, have done as many as 35 treks, but no one has brought groups of 5 or 6 other photographers with them, and the Park personnel truly appreciated the publicity and financial support we've been able to provide. Knowing what great good the Rwanda staff at Volcanoes National Park have done here, we are more than happy to have helped!

Photographing mountain gorillas can be chancey and tough, as the gorillas can be anywhere, and the weather can be quite varied. On any given day one might experience heavy downpours, or light mists, or beautiful, mammal photography-friendly cloudy bright light, or contrasty brilliant sunshine. The gorillas may be in the farm fields outside the park boundary, or deep in a shadey bamboo thicket, or, rarely, high up a thick tropical tree or in a bamboo nest, or, ideally, in a forest clearing. We've always done 5 treks so that our luck should provide one great day -- with gorillas in the open and in great light. This year, we had our most challenging and difficult shooting.

Silverback and black-back portraits.

Resting in a bamboo day bed; feeding; snapping vines; peeking through the leaves.

A baby climbs a tree in the forest; a mother and baby feeding on a eucalyptus tree outside the forest; and stripping off bark.

A young gorilla feeds on a thistle stem; a silverback walks through the very dim forest at a very slow shutter speed.


Although we never suffered through a rain storm while photographing, we did have heavy clouds move in on several of our shoots, where even shooting in relatively open conditions were taxing, requiring slow shutter speeds. On occasion we had our subjects in deep forest, and on those days we pushed our creative envelopes as we used extremely slow shutter speeds to capture our images. On some occasions we really pushed that envelope, panning at these slow speeds as a gorilla walked passed, but some of those shots ended up to be among our favorites.

While these treks were very important for us, marking this monumental milestone, and the shooting was tough, we did obtain some wonderful images. We've only had gorillas out in the farm fields on two other occasions, and both Mary and I may have shot BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year contenders on that shoot. We had some great experiences with young gorillas, and with babies, and some wonderful observations of gorillas building nests, including a huge silverback that climbed a bamboo and made a nest twenty feet off the ground. That's noteable because silverbacks are supposed to sleep on the ground, and only females and young gorillas climb into trees to build their nests. This one, obviously, didn't read the same books I did!

One of my favorite subjects, shot with a G10 PS camera! My friend, after I showed him a pose.

Taking a break from his sewing machine, we get a 'thumbs up.' A Tutsi dancer.


We always take some time to travel into the countryside to photograph the people as well, and that's always fun for us, the group, and the people we work with. This year we brought along a small Canon printer (not supplied by Canon!) and each evening I'd make some postcard-sized prints to give to our models the next day. They loved it, and as you might imagine, it also paved the way for everyone wanting to have their picture taken.One of our favorites was an older man sitting in the wispy smoke of a make-shift shoemaker (a previous photo subject who recognized us from last year, and wanted his print). After we delivered the shemaker's photo the older man was happy to become a model, and he was an absolute natural. It's almost funny, in retrospect, how this very photogenic man would pose, moving his eyes, slightly tilting his head, moving his hands just so -- we was just so good I smile as I write this.

Joseph, from Primate Safaris; Prosper, Head Warden Volcanoes NP; Anaclid, Assistant Warden;
Mary, Joe; and Alex, our Primate Safaris guide.

Our group, with the park and tour company personnel, and our gorilla trekking guide.

The highlight of our visit, this year, was the wonderful celebratory party the Chief Park Warden, Prosper, and his second-in-command, Analek, our main gorilla trekking guide, our long time Rwanda guide and friend, Alex, and the manager of the hotel we've used since we started doing these trips, Bryan. We had a great meal, many speaches and toasts, dancing and song from the local dance troup, and just a great time. It was especially meaningful as all but one of our fellow trekkers this year had been with us and the gorillas at least once before, so Kathy, Ellen, Libby, Sarah, and Bill were all veterans. Libby's husband, James, joined us for the first time, but as he was a veteran of so many Kenya and Tanzania trips, it was as if he'd also been here before.

Our group photographing a gorilla family that had wandered outside of the park boundaries and into the farm fields;
Joe in the field; Mary learning how to string corn cobs with a Rwandan instructor

Alex gave us these T-shirts to mark our 50th trek, and we wore them a field on our last trek.

While 50 treks for the two of us represent 100 hours of filming mountain gorillas, and probably represents the most diverse portfolio of gorilla images of any photographer or photography team, we're not through with the mountain gorillas! The experience is so wonderful, the conservation dollars generated so well spent, the park management so agreeable, and the people and the countryside so photogenic, we simply can't wait to return. Unfortunately, our schedule for the rest of 2009 is too busy this fall to allow us to return, but we will be doing our 51st- through who knows how many? - trek again in the fall of 2010. Perhaps you'll join us!


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