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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

If this sounds straightforward, it wasn’t. The relentless rain occasionally washed away a studio, and because of the extreme humidity, Ward had to pack his equipment each night in airtight boxes with moisture-absorbing silica. And his subjects were hardly cooperative: “The frogs were bouncing from one place to another, including my camera lens and face,” he says. “The lizards ran lightning fast, and the mice could jump four feet in the air—plus they bite.” To provide images that scientists can use for description and classification, he took several photographs of each specimen. Next, he connected his digital camera to a laptop computer and showed the images to the biologists, which allowed them to adjust the subject’s pose—turning a snake, for instance, to show more of its underside so a key set of scales could be counted.

 

Yet Ward, 27, who is completing a master’s degree in ecology, wants his photographs to have value beyond science. “By capturing the essence of a life-form,” he says, “I’m hoping to motivate people to conserve it and its habitat before it’s too late.”

 

Luckily, it is not too late. Thanks to the country’s relative wealth and low human population—1.2 million people—Gabon still has more than 70 percent of its forest cover. In the Gamba Complex, the oil industry (which has operated here for more than 40 years) has helped protect the region’s species and habitats by keeping out hunters and loggers, says Dallmeier. (The Shell Foundation and Shell Gabon are supporting the five-year, $4 million project.) And, he adds, “there’s a real conservation momentum in Gabon today.” Last year, for example, President El Hadj Omar Bongo, 67, set aside 10 percent of the country’s land area in 13 new national parks.

 

But Gamba’s oil supplies, the source of about half the nation’s wealth, are beginning to dry up. To maintain the country’s comfortable standard of living—one of the highest in sub Saharan Africa—government leaders may feel pressure to open up the region’s forests to commercial loggers, who already operate nearby. Dallmeier hopes the project can rally support for conserving the Gamba Complex.

 

That, in fact, may be the most vital reason Dallmeier asked Ward to come aboard. “Scientific reports cannot convey the beauty and complexity of a place,” he says. “These images can.”

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