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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

In The Clouds

A threatened cloud forest in Mexico is the focus of an innovative, new concept in conservation photography

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What resulted from the expedition were roughly 30,000 photos and 30 hours of video footage, already in use, to develop a strategic international awareness campaign on the conservation needs of El Triunfo. The project was sponsored by several organizations and, to date, has helped raise more than $500,000. The expedition not only has put a spotlight on this region, but also is helping to inspire similar projects throughout Mexico, where environmentalism is still a relatively new, yet growing, movement.

Figuring out the logistics of getting to the destination was challenging. With $500,000 worth of cameras, lenses, tripods and laptops in tow, they used 16 mules to transport the equipment on a six-hour uphill trek to the campground, located some 2,300 feet above their departure point.

Photographing the forest was also tricky. April was chosen as the best time because it’s the nesting season of the quetzal and other bird species. It rains more than 250 days of the year, sometimes up to seven or eight inches in just 30 minutes. So they had to go during the dry season, which meant fewer clouds and fog, almost no blooming orchids and bromeliads, and not many opportunities to capture insects and amphibians.

Nonetheless, they came back with photographs documenting 52 species of birds—nearly 18 percent of the total population—including 10 endemic and four charismatic species, a term describing those species that are often the focus of conservation campaigns because of their popular appeal.

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Also captured were five mammal, seven reptile and one amphibian species along with some insects. But just as important as the flora and fauna, the photographers were struck by the soothing mood of the forest and wanted to capture that as well.

“I’ve been to many places around the world and El Triunfo has this very unique sense of peace,” Robles Gil recalls. “The forest is very humid, yet it’s easy to walk inside. The singing of the birds in the morning is just amazing. You just enter into this peaceful state of mind. I think we all left feeling like we’d been somewhere very special.”

The Elusive Quetzal
A major highlight for almost everyone was photographing the quetzal—the team was fortunate enough to find three active nests. In A Field Guide to Mexican Birds, American naturalist Roger Tory Peterson calls the quetzal “the most spectacular bird in the New World.” With an iridescent emerald and golden green body, red belly and white under tail, the bird is the size of a pigeon, but its rich blue and green tail can extend to three feet.

Schulz spent a couple of days trying to capture the quetzal, shooting in a blind, and scored a perfect opportunity.

“It arrived right when the light broke. The feathers are so iridescent, they glow like gold, but they’re green,” he remembers. “I got lucky because, once the bird leaves the nest, sometimes it doesn’t return. Even if it does, the clouds can cause the sun to come down in a really hard contrast. But in this moment, a soft ray of light hit the bird just right.”

As the youngest in the group, Schulz was sent over to the other side of the mountain to capture the Cabanis’ tanager, another rare bird species. The bird is the size of a sparrow and lives in a particular valley.

“It was really windy that day, making the bird almost impossible to find,” he says. “For me, photographing the broad aspects, like the clouds, the mist and the birds, and getting those big landscapes were important because there are just a few bits and pieces of these cloud forests left in the world.”

Many Perspectives—One Message
While nearly all of them had a shot with the quetzal, one of the concepts behind RAVE is that photographers use their specialty, whether its wildlife, landscape, macro, etc., and focus on capturing that aspect. With several goals but no set plan, Robles Gil had to find a balance between making sure each photographer got to shoot what he found interesting, and simultaneously cover all of the angles needed to build a comprehensive report on the reserve.


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