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Ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures worshiped the Resplendent Quetzal as a deity. To harm the bird would result in the death penalty. One of the last remaining refuges of this endangered species is a cloud forest in El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve, which straddles the Sierra Madre Mountains in the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico.
Some years ago, cloud forests became recognized as the most threatened ecosystems on the planet, making up just 2.5 percent of the world’s tropical forest area. Last April, El Triunfo became the focus of the first Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition, or RAVE.
Cocreated by Patricio Robles Gil and the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP), the idea is for a team of high-profile photographers to travel to a threatened area for a short period of time. They photograph the biodiversity as well as the scenic beauty, and return with an in-depth portrait of the conservation issues facing the region. Based on that visual and written material, a campaign develops to help conserve the area through fundraising events and general efforts to promote awareness.
Robles Gil, the founder of two influential conservation groups in Mexico, has long worked to preserve ecosystems across his homeland. The idea for RAVE began in the late 80s when Robles Gil would send teams of photographers to cover different regions in Mexico because he didn’t have enough time to document everything. A group would go for a few days and return with the imagery needed to launch an effective campaign.
“There are not many nature photographers in Mexico, and I was doing a lot of traveling every year. Between that and working in my office in Mexico City, finding time to get the material needed to launch a campaign was difficult. So I started thinking of inviting more photographers.”
Robles Gil went to El Triunfo with a group of photographers for another project in the early ’90s. But the group was unsuccessful in capturing some of the endemic bird species, like the quetzal and the Horned Guan, that make the reserve so ecologically important. Years later, his unfinished business there was part of the reason why it was chosen for the first RAVE.
Exploring El Triunfo
Covering 460 square miles, El Triunfo is one of the largest and most well preserved cloud forests in Mesoamerica. It’s home to 24 percent of the animal species registered in Mexico and more than 2,000 types of plants, including trees that grow up to 200 feet. In short, one of the most important and extensive ecosystems in Mexico is facing severe environmental threats that include illegal logging, agricultural expansion and plans for a road that would divide the reserve in half.
Joining Robles Gil were ILCP fellows Jack Dykinga, Tom Mangelsen and Florian Schulz along with Fulvio Eccardi, whose early work in this area pushed nongovernmental organizations, governing bodies and other agencies to declare El Triunfo a biosphere reserve in 1990. He now serves as the vice president of El Triunfo Conservation Fund. A crew of cameramen, writers and technical assistants accompanied the group.
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.
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.
The RAVE team is composed of an elite group of photographers. Each artist concentrates on the area of photography he or she is best known for, including macro, used in the image above.
This was a diverse group of photographers who came from different cultural backgrounds, generations and styles of photography. So Robles Gil was concerned that those differences could get in the way of their goals in El Triunfo. Luckily, that wasn’t the case.
“I think that sense of purpose sort of bound us together,” explains Dykinga, who stuck to his expertise of shooting large-format landscapes of the old-growth forests. “The whole idea is that the issue is more important than the ego, so all of that stuff was shoved aside, and we just focused on the cause.”
Dykinga also concentrated on capturing the streams and rivers that flow through the reserve, because water is another critical issue. As one of Mexico’s highest-precipitation areas, El Triunfo’s streams irrigate the coast and heartland of Chiapas, supplying fresh water to the entire area. Additionally, the reserve acts as a sponge that traps and releases rain water. This, in turn, nourishes the rivers and streams that feed into a complex of dams, which supply 40 percent of the hydroelectrical power in Mexico.
Along with the ongoing campaign and money raised for El Triunfo, the big-picture concept behind RAVE is catching on. Two more expeditions were completed over the last year. The first was to Balandra, which is located off the Gulf of California near the Baja peninsula in Mexico. It’s one of the last untouched places in the region, but is not an officially protected area. Thanks to the RAVE taken there in September, the local government is looking into an initiative that would protect it. The next trip was to the Bioko Island off the coast of Equatorial Guinea in Central Africa. The goal there is to call attention to the many endangered primates that inhabit the island and begin a large-scale conservation effort.
“Documenting a place to try to transform the way people see it is the highest calling of nature photography,” says Dykinga, who was also on the team that went to Balandra. “It’s for that love of place and the love for the cause that you give back, even though there isn’t a whole lot of commercial value.”
For more information about RAVE, visit the International League of Conservation Photographers website at www.ilcp.com.