We are in the middle of a major worldwide extinction event, with vast numbers of plants and animals disappearing because of habitat loss and the pressures of climate change. But there are still places where even endangered animals continue to thrive. Such a place is the Community Baboon Sanctuary in Belize. This non-government sanctuary was created in this small Central American country nearly 20 years ago, a private effort to slow – or stop – the disappearance of the Guatemalan Black Howler Monkey (known locally as the “baboon”).
When I first came here in the late 1990’s, the monkeys were still rare, and becoming more so. But in a few small villages, landowners made a simple bargain; they agreed to protect forest corridors and avoid cutting trees, leaving a home for Howlers. On a global scale, the area was small, some 20 square miles. But in the intervening decades, the monkey population has multiplied many times over. Now there may be as many as 500 animals, living wild and free, in this island of protected forest.
I went back last week to see how they were doing, and to try and get pictures of this primate – still rare everywhere else in its range. Almost from the moment I arrived, I could hear monkeys. Not just one or two, but multiple groups calling from virtually every point on the compass. Howler Monkeys announce their territories with their powerful, coarse howls, and by the sound of it, there were scads of them. As strict vegetarians, howlers don’t need much land, just a variety of trees and fruits to feed their families. In fact, I spent a week with a single, small troop of four monkeys, and they never wandered more than a few hundred yards in any direction in that time.
To get this shot of a foraging female, I had to overcome the dappled light so typical of the rain forest interior, a chaos of light and shadow that is nearly poisonous to photography. To overcome that unappealing light, and highlight the monkey’s feeding, I put on a flash.
If it seems counter-intuitive to use a flash in the middle of the day, I can say that it is one of my most effective tools for all my rain forest photography. The trick, of course, is to dial back the strength of the flash (using exposure compensation of -1 or 1.5 stops) so that it does not entirely overpower the ambient light, but simply fills in the deep shadows (a real problem with an all-black animal!). This creates a quality of light that appears largely natural, but in fact is a carefully-balanced mix of ambient and artificial. The flash also allowed me to stop the animal’s motion in the dark forest interior, creating a picture that would have been largely impossible with natural light alone.
Photo technique aside, the pleasure for me in this picture is simply capturing a rare animal in a private moment, wild and unafraid, and most important…thriving.
Guatemalan Black Howler Monkey, Belize
© Kevin Schafer 2014