Field Diaries: Andrew Walmsley in Sulawesi - part three

16 May 2014 posted by: Rosie Pook, WPY Comms Officer

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In the last post of this series, Andrew looks back on his time documenting Indonesia's endangered primates, including the dramatic rescue of a Sumatran orangutan, and a particularly moving encounter with his much loved Sulawesi crested black macaques. Has Andrew's time spent in Indonesia made a difference? What impact can wildlife photography truly have? Read on to find out.

 

What a trip this has been, I have recently returned to the UK from two months in Indonesia spent studying and photographing the region's endangered primates. My hard drives are chattering loudly to each other as I pore through the screens of images that are now triple-backed up. I've got cataloguing to do, keywording, processing; there's sensor dust to be removed from some of them, and will I ever find a white balance value that makes photographs shot under the canopy of leaves look normal? Answers on a postcard, please. All the while the shrieks of cicadas have been replaced by the dull drone of the washing machine meticulously rinsing the last vestiges of forest mud from my trousers.

So, what have I achieved in these past couple of months? As a photographer, it is sometimes very hard to quantify exactly how your work makes a difference. I mean, I've handed over thousands of images to the small groups of dedicated scientists and conservationists who run the projects, and I know that they will be useful to them for their social media campaigns and in their school programs. I'm not sure, though, whether my time spent squatting in thorns chattering with monkeys, searching for that elusive 'perfect shot' - if such a thing even exists - has helped conserve them. But I can tell you why I hope it does, and why this sometimes absurd and unpredictable career is one that I refuse to give up on.

 

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Andrew spent a month in Sulawesi, documenting the outreach work of NGO Selamatkan Yaki

 

In the end, it all comes down to connection. Wildlife photographers get out of bed only in the hope that their work will inspire empathy and understanding in whatever crosses their lens that morning. My thought process goes as follows: if, despite being itchy, smelly and exhausted, I'm still motivated to haul myself out of bed at 4 in the morning to spend time with my simian cousins, maybe my pictures will inspire a connection when viewed in an environment devoid of whining clouds of mosquitoes.

Today, photographers are covering stories that we, as a global society, must take note of and fast. Flipping through deceptively beautiful photos of the Canadian tar sands and the bloodstained ivory trade amongst last year's WPY winners, to those of the ever-expanding palm oil plantations and refugee orangutans currently sitting in my processing queue, I am struck with how important it is to keep telling these stories. We have to start caring.

A couple of weeks into the project I visited Sumatra, to work with the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS). The destruction of the orangutan's natural habitat to make way for oil palm plantations has resulted in the primates' refugee status.

On 15 April 2014, the Orangutan Information Centre's (OIC) Human and Orangutan Conflict Response Unit (HOCRU) rescued an orangutan from a habitat no longer safe for him to continue living. I was there to document it. The orangutan was taken to the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program's quarantine facility, where he remained for 30 days before being relocated to a new forest home. Photographs of the orangutan's medical treatment and preparation for release appeared in publications around the world, meaning the story reached millions, showing the importance of images in the future of wildlife conservation.

 

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Every now and then, nature offers us a golden chance to create a connection. Back in Sulawesi my last hour with the funkiest of all monkeys, the Sulawesi crested black macaques, was one of utter heartbreak but also one in which I realised how important my presence could be.

As I sat amongst the leaves watching the monkeys file past me, I noticed a young mother at the back of the group whose gait was hampered: it seemed she only had three legs. Then I realised her right hand was holding the body of her baby to her chest. Normally, young macaques grip firmly to their mother's belly when the group is on the move, but this wee boy had to be carried - he had passed away in the night.

 

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Following at a distance, we caught up with her and sat down at a respectful distance. As I watched her cradle and hug the limp little body of her son, I had to wipe the tears from my eyes to check that my camera was still in focus. She sat alone for what felt like an eternity before an older female came to her side and placed her hand on her shoulder. She didn't look up. A few minutes later, a young male came to see what was happening, gently trying to touch the infant, but the mother locked eyes with him and repeatedly pushed his hand away. He sat down and began to groom her; she lowered her gaze back to her son's body and didn't look up again.

 

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It was at this point that we had to leave - our permit was up. Looking back up the hill as we walked, I could still make out the three of them sitting under the forest's glowing green ceiling.

It was then that I realised the purpose of the project. I would tell the story of a species group that feels emotion identical to ours. The unconditional care given, the pure, unmistakable grief experienced by the macaque mother, and the empathy displayed by the troop means that we can no longer view animals as unfeeling and inanimate. We can no longer stand back and watch as creatures, almost identical to us, suffer at the hands of man.

I have never seen animals grieve quite so candidly. In a world where widespread apathy allows horrific crimes against wildlife to be committed each day, the raw emotion of such an encounter is impossible to ignore. My hope is that these images will help tell the macaques' story, and in turn protect their future.

Back at my kitchen table, the warm May sun is streaming in, highlighting the dust on my screen. The washing complete, my trousers should now, according to the box of detergent, smell like a 'summer meadow.' Hmmm. More presentable to strangers' noses, perhaps, but I'll admit that I rather prefer the mud. At least the memories of my trip won't be washed away so easily.

 

ABOUT ANDREW WALMSLEY

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Andrew discovered an interest in photography while working in Wales in 2005 to compile a photo ID catalogue of a group of bottlenose dolphins; Andrew's interest was far more focussed on being with the animals and capturing images of their lives than doing the science. He then moved to New Zealand, cutting his teeth on the eclectic wildlife that inhabits the islands, and becoming particularly obsessed with the mountain parrot, the kea. This resulted in an article for BBC Wildlife, demonstrating how mutually beneficial it can be to form close partnerships with NGOs, allowing them to use images free of charge to spread their message and reach as wide an audience as possible.

Andrew's recent work primarily focusses on primate conservation issues. He has worked in Peru and Indonesia, photographing everything from lorises to orangutans, and is currently perfecting the techniques used by tree surgeons in an attempt to gain a monkey's eye view of the world.

http://www.andrewwalmsleyphotography.com/



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