Portraits of Diversity

In an unexplored and biologically rich region of Africa, a pioneering U.S. photographer captures a treasure trove of tropical life-forms on film

10-01-2004 // Laura Tangley

Photographs by Carlton Ward, Jr.

 

Portraits of Diversity magazine layout - lizard and kingfisher
 

THE FIRST TIME photographer Carlton Ward visited the African country of Gabon, he gazed at a perfect white-sand beach on the Atlantic Ocean and imagined he could be back home. "It looked a lot like Florida," recalls Ward.

That was before he saw a hippo swimming in the sea and elephants, chimps and forest buffalo walking along the shore.

Ward, an eighth-generation Floridian, had come to Gabon with an international team of 46 scientists organized by the Smithsonian Institution. The researchers' goal was to identify every species that inhabits the country's Gamba Complex, a 4,247-square-mile region where intact tropical rain forest runs all the way down to the ocean—the only place like it left on the continent. To create a photographic record of the plants and animals the biologists encountered, Ward spent a total of seven months accompanying the researchers on six expeditions.

 

Portraits of Diversity magazine layout - beetle
SPECIES uncovered in the Gamba Complex include this Lucanid stag beetle (above), the green bush viper (previous pages, top) and the white-bellied kingfisher (previous pages, bottom), one of 455 bird species the biologists encountered in this unexplored region where rain forest meets the sea (left). 
 

It was the first time this biologically rich mosaic of forests, savannas, lakes, lagoons and beaches had ever been throughly surveyed by scientists. Team leader Francisco Dallmeier, a biologist with the Smithsonian's Monitoring and Assessment of Biodiversity Program, says the Gamba Complex is "unique in the world." Understandably, he and his colleagues launched the project—funded by The Shell Foundation and Shell Gabon—with high expectations.

They were not disappointed. In a single week botanists, for example, identified some 140 tree species—at least 3 of them found nowhere else on Earth—in one 16-square-mile study site. Ichthyologists found 70 species of freshwater fish, more than had been encountered in a survey of an area five times larger in the Republic of the Congo.

To capture images of this rich diversity, Ward worked alongside the scientists from dawn to dusk, making some 10,000 photographs of nearly 400 plant and animal species. More extraordinary, his images are works of art that look nothing like the workmanlike photos of dead specimens usually published in scientific reports.

 

Portraits of Diversity magazine layout - clawed frog

THE FRASER'S clawed frog is just one of 73 frog species identified in the region, at least 5 of which are thought to be new to science. Overall, herpetologists discovered 159 kinds of reptiles and amphibians in the 4,247-square-mile Gamba Complex—as many as had previously been found throughout the entire 107,066-square-mile country. Frogs were challenging subjects, says Ward, "bouncing from one place to another, including my camera lens and face."

 

Ward's task was difficult, to say the least. Faced with nearly constant rain, high humidity and the occasional flood—which required all equipment be packed in airtight containers each night—he designed and constructed field "studios," positioning his subjects in front of black velvet and illuminating them with strobe lights, a challenge given that the creatures were very much alive.

His results proved invaluable to the scientists. But they also had another purpose. "By capturing the essence of a life-form," says Ward, "I'm hoping to motivate people to conserve it and its habitat before it's too late." Luckily, it's not too late. Thanks to the nation's relative wealth and low human population—under a million people—Gabon still has 70 percent of its original forest cover.

But Gabon's oil supplies, the main source of its wealth, are beginning to dry up. To maintain the country's standard of living—one of sub-Saharan Africa's highest—government leaders may decide to open the Gamba Complex to commercial loggers, who already operate nearby. Dallmeier and Ward hope their project, including the photographs, will inspire them to protect the region instead.

 

Portraits of Diversity magazine layout - tree snake angola bat

UP CLOSE and personal with a frog-eating tree snake, Ward created an artistic portrait that also has value to science. Placing snakes on sticks the reptiles could wrap around or dangle from, he connected a digital camera to a laptop computer and showed scientists images taken from different angles. If the researchers needed to see more of a particular characteristic (such as a set of scales that would help identify the species), he allowed them to adjust the subject's position.

AN ANGOLA fruit bat hangs in a position it naturally would assume while resting in the wild. To photograph bats and birds, Ward, who also has graduate training in ecology, constructed a 10-foot by 4-foot by 4-foot studio made of white nylon and containing a perch placed in front of a black velvet background. Getting his subjects to pose in the right place took "lots of patience and encouragement," says the photographer.

 

Even a few hard-core scientists have been inspired. Says Belgian herpetologist and project participant Olivier Pauwels, "Carlton's work has made me see reptiles in a completely different way: as the beautiful animals they are, not just specimens to put in museum alcohol jars."

Laura Tangley is a senior editor for this magazine. Carlton Ward, Jr. is currently photographing endangered desert elephants in the Sahel region of Mali.

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