The good life © Daniël Nelson

The good life © Daniël Nelson

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year: lives like ours

Travelling deep into Republic of Congo's rainforest, Dutch photographer Daniël Nelson was on the search for endangered Western lowland gorillas.

After four hours of trekking he finally caught up with his subjects.

With one arm slung over an African breadfruit, leaning back onto the leaf-strewn rainforest floor, Caco seems at ease with his photoshoot.

But capturing the Grand title-achieving image, The good life, was no simple task. Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017 winner Daniël Nelson tells the story behind his photograph.

Passion for nature

Ever since a trip to Zambia at the age of six with his father, Daniël's fascination and passion for the natural world has only grown. 

He says, 'I have always had an interest in wildlife. I was very young when I started nosing through National Geographic and other wildlife magazines.

A monkey in a tree in Republic of Congo

From a young age, Daniël has expressed his passion for nature through photography © Daniël Nelson

'I learnt quickly that photography is an effective way to showcase nature. From that vacation onwards I devoted much of my energy to photography, and since then I have been on many other trips.'

Daniël was trekking though Odzala National Park in Republic of Congo when he snapped his entry to the Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year 53 competition.

'It took four hours of following a group of gorillas before we found them, and although they are a habituated group, it took a while for them to get used to our presence. '

A moment with Caco

After half an hour with the gorillas, one individual in particular seemed to become accustomed to the photographer's presence.

The rainforest of Republic of Congo

It took four hour of trekking through dense rainforect before Daniël was able to catch up with the Western lowland gorillas © Daniël Nelson

'This was my first time in the park, but the researchers told me that this individual is a young male nicknamed Caco.'

According to one of Odzala's rangers, Caco is a nine-year-old gorilla that may be preparing to leave his family soon, often being found away from the group. Upon leaving he will become a solitary silverback, but in eight to ten years he will have started his own group.

'He was lounging on the forest floor eating an African breadfruit - its relaxed and human-like posture intrigued me, so I took the photo,' says Daniël.

'The gorilla shows very human-like qualities. It is leaning back with its hand covering its lunch, and is looking at the camera in an intrigued manner. For me this image highlights two main qualities: the connectedness between the gorilla and its surroundings, and the alikeness between gorillas and people.'

But capturing this thought-provoking moment with Caco was no easy feat. The sheltering rainforest canopy of the gorilla's home blocked a considerable amount of light.

'The biggest challenge for me was to work with lighting. Rainforests are dark because of cloudy skies and dense canopies, which forced me to photograph with low shutter speeds. 

A Western lowland gorilla

The Western lowland gorilla population in Odzala National Park is often studied by researchers © Daniël Nelson

'The issue with this was that all the pictures I took turned out blurry. My winning image was one of five images that day that were not blurry.'

Facing up to threats

Western gorillas (Gorilla gorilla) are a critically endangered species, listed as such since 2007 by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The Western lowland subspecies is threatened by not only poachers but also non-human factors such as diseases.

Daniël says, 'People tend to think that all risks towards animals come in the form of human activity, but in truth there are many other factors.

'Before poaching was present, gorilla populations could rehabilitate from epidemics such as Ebola. But now with such low numbers, an Ebola outbreak could wipe them out altogether.

'After huge conservation efforts, the bushmeat trade in Central Africa has finally started to decrease for gorillas. But now many other problems have arisen such as deforestation, disease and climate change.

'What ultimately needs to happen is for gorilla populations to stabilise again to ensure that dips in population will not wipe them out.'

A Western lowland gorilla peeking out from behind a tree

To prepare for his trip Daniël packed a wide range of lenses so he could photograph the gorillas, no matter their distance from him © Danël Nelson

Gorillas living the good life

But hope is not lost for gorillas. Measures are being enforced to keep them safe. The photographer suggests that national parks, strict monitoring programmes, ranger patrols and income from tourism are all ideal means to help protect them.

'All too often our natural world gets illustrated as a forlorn and endangered world, and although this is true in many ways, it is also important to document positive stories,' says Daniël.

One adult and two young gorillas in the rainforest

Protecting gorillas from poachers and deforestation could ensure that when populations decline due to disease and other natural factors, they are able to rebound again © Daniël Nelson

'The gorillas in Odzala are truly living a "good life" because they are among those that do not have to worry about the presence of poachers. I hope that my image inspires people to appreciate conservation efforts and sustain them in future times and that they see the beauty and happiness in nature.

'I hope that the interrelatedness between us and these primates help the viewer see how fragile gorillas are, and that they are reducing in numbers at a fast rate.'

Future photography plans

Before he begins attending university, Daniël has embarked on a large-scale photography project that will see him travel across Africa for eight months, using only public transportation.

The award winner hopes that his latest expedition to Africa will see him find new conservation stories to tell © Daniël Nelson

He explains, 'The project is to traverse the African continent, from Morocco to Cape Town, in search of conservation stories. I chose this trip because I feel that Western and Central Africa are underemphasised.

'Like with Caco, this region contains many conservation stories that are yet to be told, and many of them are positive.'

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