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Portraits in the Wild

In an unexplored region of Africa's Atlantic coast, an innovative photographer captures Gabon's bountiful wildlife

There is a special place in africa where elephants, chimps and forest buffalo walk on white sand beaches and hippos swim in the sea.

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But that’s not all that’s remarkable about this stretch of Gabon’s coast. As the last undeveloped slice of Atlantic coastal plain bordering the continent’s vast equatorial rain forests, the region, known as the Gamba Complex, is a biologically rich mosaic of forests, savannas, lagoons, lakes and beaches that, until recently, was virtually unknown to science. Says Francisco Dallmeier, a biologist with the National Zoo’s Monitoring and Assessment of Biodiversity Program, “The Gamba Complex is unique in the world.”

 

Dallmeier, 50, leading an international team of 46 scientists from the Smithsonian and other research institutions, has been working since 2001 to identify every plant and animal species that inhabits this 4,247-square-mile region—from leopards, gorillas and giant canopy trees to frogs, beetles and orchids. Herpetologists, for example, have discovered in the Gamba Complex as many types of reptiles and amphibians—159 species—as had previously been found in the entire 107,066-square-mile country. Fish experts, the first ever to survey the area, have found 70 different kinds of freshwater fish, more than were recorded in a similar study of an area five times bigger in the Republic of the Congo. In a single week at just one 16-square-mile site within the Gamba Complex, botanists found some 140 tree species, at least 3 of which grow nowhere else in the world but Gabon.

 

To present this extraordinary biodiversity in a creative new way, Dallmeier enlisted Florida-based photographer Carlton Ward, who spent a total of seven months accompanying the researchers on six expeditions to Gabon. Working alongside the scientists from before dawn to way past dusk, he took some 10,000 photographs of nearly 400 different species of plants and animals.

 

Ward’s compelling images are far from the workmanlike shots of dead specimens that typically appear in scientific papers and textbooks. To photograph birds, he created a 10 foot by 4 foot by 4 foot enclosure of white nylon, complete with perch; for all other creatures the scientists brought in, he rigged up a tabletop “studio” inside a tent. Ward lit the scenes with strobe lights and posed the animals in front of black velvet to, as he says, “draw attention to the animals themselves.”

 

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