Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014: my year as a wildlife photographer in 12 images

January. Red deer stags on a winter twilight - Abruzzo, Italy

Although this image has been actually taken on the last day of the year 2013, the great situation of that evening and its unique atmosphere have convinced me to visit that area almost every day since for the whole January. My hope then was to photograph wolves in the same weather conditions... but this had to wait much longer than expected and I had to be content "just" with red deer and wild boars instead. Nevertheless, I knew this would have been a great year anyway!

February. Sun rising behind frozen forest - Abruzzo, Italy

On a frosty February morning, while exploring with my camera an old beechwood in the Abruzzo National Park I got struck by the marvelous fringe the rising sun was creating behind some old trees living on a ridge. I stopped and started taking pictures of the situation. One hour quickly went by and I started realizing I was freezing. Yet, I had "metabolized" the situation and changed perspective. Eventually my persistence paid off when the sun poke through the trunks and its rays appeared as glowing stars. I am working on a long-term project for a book on beech forests in the Central Apennines and this was a nice image to put aside.

March. Mount Velino at sunset - Abruzzo, Italy.
A sudden drop in temperatures and atmospheric pressure. together with an unexpected spring snowfall created the conditions for a unique light. I chose Mount Velino, the mountain that is closest to my place and to my heart, as a subject; picked a high viewpoint and set up my camera to witness one of the most memorable sunsets of my whole life. A reminder that knowledge of a subject or a place and understanding of light might allow us to get the most out of an unexpected opportunity.

April. Slender-horned gazelles browsing a Retam shrub - Great Eastern Erg, Tunisia
Last spring, after a short trip to Georgia, I listened again to my desert "call" and went to Tunisia to pursue one of my wildest dreams: to search for and photograph one of the rarest mammals of Africa, the beautiful slender-horned gazelle, also known as "Rhim". Once widespread across the sandy habitats of the Sahara, this species is now critically endangered and its numbers unknown. Look well at this image, one of the few out there depicting the Rhim in the wild: increasing illegal hunting and ongoing habitat destruction in fact might cause this graceful and amazing species to vanish in just a few years! In April, I have also had the honor to receive the 1st place award in the "Nature" category of the World Press Photo contest for an image depicting a sad fennec fox illegally kept in captivity. Now, more than ever, it is important to draw attention towards the issue of the conservation of the Sahara species and habitats!

May. Fog and beech trees  in Campo Felice - Abruzzo, Italy
2014 has marked also the launch of "L'Altro Versante" (www.laltroversante.com), an ambitious long-term photographic project which I am sharing with two friends and great nature photographers, Maurizio Biancarelli and Luciano Gaudenzio, and which is entirely devoted to document the last wild corners of our country in the pursue of the "true Italian landscape". We will cover hundreds of locations across the whole Peninsula, but actually working close home and in places often overlooked, such as the Campo Felice plateau, does represent the real challenge and can deliver the greatest satisfactions.

June. Roe deer. Abruzzo, Italy
Returning home from the desert, I was involved in a filming production focusing on the nature of the Abruzzo National Park. It has been a pleasure to spend so much time in one of the places I love the most in the entire world. During the weeks of work, I have watched and photographed bears and wolves, wildcats and woodpeckers. Still, one of the most pleasant memories comes from an early morning encounter with two roe deer. I was laying down in the wet grass to remain concealed. The animals were grazing the fresh spring grass covered in dew and raised their heads every now and then to check a third deer which was moving at the forest rim. 

July. Apennine chamois - Abruzzo, Italy
Last July, I have headed for the altitude plateau of the Majella National Park, in Eastern Abruzzo, on a mission for "L'Altro Versante" project. I had expected flowers and summer, but instead I found myself in a true Mediterranean tundra, with a grey sky, strong chilly winds and extensive snow patches. I liked the almost monochromatic patterns of bright limestone rocks and the dark tones of the clouds. I did not expect any wildlife at this altitude nor was I prepared to photograph it. So, when I stumbled across this lonely Apennine chamois along a ridge I was climbing, all I could do was to frame and photograph it with the wide-angle lens I had in my hands. The resulting picture is one of my ever-favorites of this subject and reminds me of the saying that "the best lens for the situation is the one you have in your hands at that moment!"

August. Wild boar in summer pasture. Abruzzo, Italy
I have spent the whole months of August and September looking for wolves in the mountains of western Abruzzo, where on the previous years I had collected enough information to know the movements of at least two packs. I expected to find a pack with the pups of the year, but it has unfortunately taken me weeks and more than 35 excursions with no outcomes to finally be able to locate them. In the meantime, of course I have encountered many other animals, last but not least this big wild boar male. On a warm evening it was crossing a summer pasture that showed the typical nitrogen-tolerant vegetation of grazed areas: a humble subject in a humble context, yet a pleasant scene to witness and a even nicer memory to have frozen with my camera.

September. Wild Italian wolf - Abruzzo, Italy
Things cannot always go wrong! Last September, in fact, after so many weeks of nothing, I have finally located "my" pack of wolves and could follow and photograph them over a few days. The many images taken don't give justice to the emotions I experienced in those moments. Wolves are addictive: once you get some, you want more and more of them! I would like to know where are they now and what are they doing, but I can only gather some sparse information and get an incomplete scenario. Nevertheless, it is an enriching activity and thus my work that started five years ago goes still on and I hope to be able to show you the results of it already in 2015!

October. Red fox in old beechwood - Abruzzo, Italy
In Italy wildlife is usually skittish and I am used to patiently stalk and photograph animals just from a certain distance. Sometimes, though, things turn around and it is the animal to stalk and approach me. Like this awesome and very curious red fox male, which simply appeared out of nowhere as I was walking through a nice beechwood with some friends on a grey October day. He first sniffed us, then our backpacks and eventually it hung around a little bit allowing us to take some truly memorable images. These are really magic moments, when somehow the barrier between us and them animals feels temporarily vanishing. Always in October, but with a different fox this time (another threatened fennec from the Sahara), I walked on stage in London to receive an award as category winner at the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition and be able, once more, to raise awareness about the pet-trade and the critical issues affecting the desert wildlife.

November. Juvenile Parson's chamaeleon - Eastern Madagascar
November has seen me working on a long assignment for the National Geographic Magazine together with my friend and amazing photojournalist, Christian Ziegler, to document chameleons, their biology, their habitats and the issue menacing their conservation. Madagascar is the center of diversity of this animal group and home to almost one hundred species: the range of characteristics and the variety of adaptations is simply astonishing. Nevertheless, the future of these animals is far from being secure. In fact, due to deforestation and land exploitation, just 7% of the original forested surface is now left on this island.

December. Mainarde mountain range and the Matese massif - Molise, Italy
This is the last image I want to share with you here. It has been taken from a ridge in the Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park and spans over the mysterious Mainarde mountain range in the foreground and down until the Matese massif. It has been taken on a mission for the project "L'Altro Versante" (the "other side") and I picked it for this blog as it includes many "other sides" in itself. With it, I would like to wish you a happy, healthy, peaceful, successful and wild 2015, with the invitation to always look on the "other side" of things and to nurture that curiosity that keeps us discovering and learning.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Wilderness book of the month #4 - July 2014

by Jack Turner, University of Arizona Press (1996)

From the back cover: "If anything is endangered in America it is our experience of wild nature--gross contact. There is knowledge only the wild can give us, knowledge specific to it, knowledge specific to the experience of it. These are its gifts to us. How wild is wilderness and how wild are our experiences in it, asks Jack Turner in the pages of The Abstract Wild. His answer: not very wild. National parks and even so-called wilderness areas fall far short of offering the primal, mystic connection possible in wild places. And this is so, Turner avows, because any managed land, never mind what it's called, ceases to be wild. Moreover, what little wildness we have left is fast being destroyed by the very systems designed to preserve it. Natural resource managers, conservation biologists, environmental economists, park rangers, zoo directors, and environmental activists: Turner's new book takes aim at these and all others who labor in the name of preservation. He argues for a new conservation ethic that focuses less on preserving things and more on preserving process and "leaving things be." He takes off after zoos and wilderness tourism with a vengeance, and he cautions us to resist language that calls a tree "a resource" and wilderness "a management unit." Eloquent and fast-paced, The Abstract Wild takes a long view to ask whether ecosystem management isn't "a bit of a sham" and the control of grizzlies and wolves "at best a travesty." Next, the author might bring his readers up-close for a look at pelicans, mountain lions, or Shamu the whale. From whatever angle, Turner stirs into his arguments the words of dozens of other American writers including Thoreau, Hemingway, Faulkner, and environmentalist Doug Peacock. We hunger for a kind of experience deep enough to change our selves, our form of life, writes Turner. Readers who take his words to heart will find, if not their selves, their perspectives on the natural world recast in ways that are hard to ignore and harder to forget."

Well, this is an easy one... I wanted, in fact, to preserve this title for a future post, when I would have maybe lacked of time or ideas, and not "burn" it so quickly... But after reading it for the third time, I couldn't wait any longer. I say this because if there is a truly good wilderness book out there, then it is surely this one, and the fact that it now comes in its fourth edition proves I am right. I will never be thankful enough to my friend A. Antonucci, who first introduced me to Turner's writings (besides many other great books...) and let me thus discover this gem of nature literature. 

But beware, this is not just a nice book and a pleasant reading. In his eight provocative essays, Jack Turner - philosopher turned mountain guide, confronts us with a crude reality. Wildness (a more complex term than wilderness), through management, definition and abstraction is almost ceasing to exist in our contemporary world. With a book that more than a series of essays, sounds like a manifesto, the writer casts a passionate invitation to reflect on the disappearance of first-hand experience (contact) between humans and the wild as the main weakness in the conservation movement. And he manages to argument this with a highly stimulating writing, which are extremely well articulated and always supported by a rich bibliography. The prose is never boring, as one might expect but, on the contrary, eloquent, passionate, gripping and sometimes even moving. Such kind of writing is rare nowadays.

"The easiest way to experience a bit of what the wild was like is to go into a great forest a night alone. Sit quietly for awhile. Something very old will return."

If you have never experienced "the wild", I am afraid this is a difficult book to understand. But if you have the heart for these things, these words will make you thirsty for some real nature experience and wanting to get out and walk immediately. Turner's words spoke to me with an eloquence I had rarely found before and, if, only here and there (Leopold, Abbey, Peacock, Bass, Snyder, Lopez, Meloy, Hainard) in the vast sea of wilderness literature. Never before I had found so much truth in just one title. There is material to reflect on anything. On conservation biology, on wilderness management, on language, even on nature photography! It made me reflect on my conservation fundamentalism; on my personal spiritualism; on my devotion to certain wildlife species or mountains; on my need for the unpredictable and ever-changing; on my political choices; on my vegetarianism...
Besides being so beautiful, this book is therefore somehow also disturbing, since it will stir all your beliefs. Now, more than ever, one sees the mistakes and short perspective the environmentalist movement has been until now partly guilty of. There is a need for a new language and deeper interaction, if we want to save the "Other". The answer might seem revolutionary, but it is already in our genes, since it is as old as we are.

"To construct a new conservation ethic, we need first to understand why we impose a human order on no human orders. We do so for gain, the gain being in prediction, efficiency and, hence, control. (...) So we fight to preserve ecosystems and species, and we accept their diminished wildness. This wins the fight but loses the war, and in the process we simply stop talking about wildness."

Turner's message is so true that I am very glad he wrote this book. Surely, it would be worth taking the time to translate it also in other languages. So, once again,  don't get discouraged by this American-centered book: you will find some universal food for thought in it!

*Linking to Amazon is only for practical purposes... you'd better look where to purchase these books elsewhere!;-)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Wilderness book of the Month #3 - June 2014

I know I am terribly guilty: it has been in fact more than ninety days since my last "wilderness book" post and it feels bad not having been able to keep up with the promise of a title/month. Still, as you know, the life of a wilderness photographer is a highly unpredictable one and, sometimes, good intentions should be those that count... ;-)
Anyway, here we go again and, to make up for the long absence, I present you a very, very good book!

Wild Ones: A sometimes dismaying, weirdly reassuring story about looking at people looking at animals in America*
by Jon Mooallem, The Penguin Press HC (May 2013)

From the back cover: "Journalist Jon Mooallem has watched his little daughter’s world overflow with animals butterfly pajamas, appliqu├ęd owls—while the actual world she’s inheriting slides into a great storm of extinction. Half of all species could disappear by the end of the century, and scientists now concede that most of America’s endangered animals will survive only if conservationists keep rigging the world around them in their favor. So Mooallem ventures into the field, often taking his daughter with him, to move beyond childlike fascination and make those creatures feel more real. Wild Ones is a tour through our environmental moment and the eccentric cultural history of people and wild animals in America that inflects it—from Thomas Jefferson’s celebrations of early abundance to the turn-of the-last-century origins of the teddy bear to the whale-loving hippies of the 1970s. In America, Wild Ones discovers, wildlife has always inhabited the terrain of our imagination as much as the actual land.

The journey is framed by the stories of three modern-day endangered species: the polar bear, victimized by climate change and ogled by tourists outside a remote northern town; the little-known Lange’s metalmark butterfly, foundering on a shred of industrialized land near San Francisco; and the whooping crane as it’s led on a months-long migration by costumed men in ultralight airplanes. The wilderness that Wild Ones navigates is a scrappy, disorderly place where amateur conservationists do grueling, sometimes preposterous-looking work; where a marketer maneuvers to control the polar bear’s image while Martha Stewart turns up to film those beasts for her show on the Hallmark Channel. Our most comforting ideas about nature unravel. In their place, Mooallem forges a new and affirming vision of the human animal and the wild ones as kindred creatures on an imperfect planet.
With propulsive curiosity and searing wit, and without the easy moralizing and nature worship of environmental journalism’s older guard, Wild Ones merges reportage, science, and history into a humane and endearing meditation on what it means to live in, and bring a life into, a broken world."

Once again, my partner L. Pater has to be considered responsible for this reading, as "Wild Ones" had been her great present for my 2013's birthday. She bought the book even before it had been released!
As the title says, this is an American-centered book, but the observations and reflections in it have the broadest validity. With a gripping prose that surely grows from a vast and serious research and first-hand journalism, this book is one of the greatest reportages on the environmentalist world that I know. Articulating important concepts such as the shifting baseline syndrome or other aspects of the behavior of humans devoting their life to the environmental cause, this book truly deserved the award of New York Times Notable Book of 2013. I now like to quote their review: "Ambitious and fascinating... [Mooallem] seamlessly blends reportage from the front lines of wildlife conservation with a lively cultural history of animals in America... This is not a book about wilderness; it’s a book about us." --New York Times Book Review
Yes, this is not a book (just) about wilderness; it's a book about us. And if you want to understand what motivates some people to fight unrelentingly for the environment or what makes some abandon their cause for a pessimistic vision, this text will surely help.

*Linking to Amazon is only for practical purposes... you'd better look where to purchase these books elsewhere!;-)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Wilderness book of the Month #2 - March 2014

Ecocriticism (The New Critical Idiom)*
by Greg Garrard - Routledge, 2011 (first edition 2004)

From the second edition back cover: "Ecocriticism explores the ways in which we imagine and portray the relationship between humans and the environment in all areas of cultural production, from Wordsworth and Thoreau through to Google Earth, J.M. Coetzee and Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man.
Greg Garrard’s animated and accessible volume traces the development of the movement and explores its key concepts, including: pollution; wilderness; apocalypse; dwelling; animals; earth.
Featuring a newly rewritten chapter on animal studies, and considering queer and postcolonial ecocriticism and the impact of globalisation, this fully updated second edition also presents a glossary of terms and suggestions for further reading in print and online.
Concise, clear, and authoritative, Ecocriticism offers the ideal introduction to this crucial subject for students of literary and cultural studies."

To be honest I haven't read this second, promising, updated edition, and at least a couple of years have passed since I read this book in its entirety. Still, the read represented such an objective and generous source of information and ideas that I kept thereafter looking up for quotes and definitions. I must thank my partner L. Pater for passing this book to me.
Either if you want to enrich your environmental vocabulary or develop a more critical (indeed!) look at environmentalism, if you are keen on understanding the visual power of the panda on the WWF's logo, or if you look for the origin of  popular, yet mysterious words such as wilderness or pastoralism, for example, this is the book for you.
Of this book I especially like the very objective point of view, which, for a change, can give environmentalists room for a different perspective, while reflecting on topics that are often taken for granted. It will surely provide some prime "food for thoughts" to all the (ok, nerdy) environmental culture enthusiasts, like me.
Here a few lines from the beginning of the chapter on wilderness: "The idea of wilderness, signifying nature in a state uncontaminated by civilization, is the most potent construction of nature available to New World environmentalism. It is a construction mobilized to protect particular habitats and species, and is seen as a place for the reinvigoration of those tired of the moral and material pollution of the city. Wilderness has an almost sacramental value: it holds out the promise of a renewed, authentic relation of humanity and the earth..."

*Linking to Amazon is only for practical purposes... you'd better look where to purchase these books elsewhere!;-)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

My little "heart of darkness" - part three of three

Images and words ©Bruno D’Amicis/www.brunodamicis.com

One day we decided to go further. A shepherd, in fact, had talked with us about a cave which, according to him, the lions used as a den and had offered himself to accompany us: it would take almost five hours of walk from Adjo, he said.
Barefoot and with a spear in his hand (a two-meter-long metal rod crushed and sharpened at the tip), he preceded us with a light pace. We followed him and got again into another gorge, down a steep path that ran along one of the walls. From there you could see well our goal: a sort of gigantic grassy "terrace", partly covered with large trees, which interrupted the long rock wall. On the cliffs above dozens of white slick denounced the presence of a large colony of vultures. Such a place would have suited well even a Tyrannosaurus rex, I thought.
Although my skepticism was chronic, I pondered on the lightness with which my fellows managed such a visit to the very home of the lions. I was wondering if that was something appropriate. Anyway, after what had been one of the most strenuous walks of my first 35 years of life, we reached the edge of the terrace. There we stopped to eat and rest. The shepherd said that we had to climb on the trees and, at sunset, the lions would have come out. So we did, waiting in vain until sunset and beyond: nothing. It was late and I suggested to return. I didn't feel at all comfortable: we were all alone, in the alleged lion area, with just a lamp among four, at more than two hours walk from the nearest settlement and without any equipment to deal with the night. Crazy stuff. We walked our first steps and into the light beam I saw it: a beautiful big turd, exactly like the one of a cat, just fifty times bigger and full of cow hair and bone fragments. A shiver along my back. It was then that we heard the first ROAR: a male lion was calling from two to three hundred meters from our position. I was afraid.
We had to move quickly to reach a safer place where to spend the night and so we took up a hard and almost onirical march into the most complete darkness, embraced by the velvet warmth of the African night, which was seasoned by a big chirping of insects, the distant laughters of hyenas and the roars of that damn’ lion.
I put all my trust in the shepherd, who seemed so confident: I followed him for what seemed like an endless journey through the night, while “we penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness". So I felt, in fact: like Marlow, the protagonist of Conrad’s novel.

We crossed again the deep rocky gorge climbing this time along a different trail and on the other side, finally there was our “salvation”: a small farm. There, greeted by the friendly owners, we lit a fire and, eating enset bread and drinking fresh milk (welcome, diarrhea!) we discussed until late sharing the too many emotions of that evening. When we laid down, wasted, to sleep the one next to the other, it seemed to hear him: the ROAR was not far away. I felt like a Pang in my stomach and I groped in the darkness for the gaze of my friends. We heard it all again two, three more times. Believe me, that has been a long night ...
The next day arrived way too slowly for my taste and I had enough of it. I wanted to go back home and end it there, but we still had to spend one more night at Adjo and wait for the driver to come from Bonga and pick us up on the next day. As we returned to the village in the afternoon, I have found dozens of vultures feasting on a dead horse. Not even ten metres from them, a group of children were attentively watching the banquet: luckily, I was no more the main attraction. Then, as the day was fading a rumor spread quickly: ambassa had just been spotted not far from the last houses. We ran there, me, the interpreter and half of the village. And there, on the edge of the forest, half hidden in the lush tropical vegetation, nodded a lioness, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
A vision so beautiful and unusual, which made me wonder if the painter Henri Rousseau had not already experienced something similar in his life. The lioness was huge. After moments of hesitation, I realized that I was not of her interest and, a little reassured by the presence of my companions, I started photographing, first taking a couple of portraits with a long telephoto lens, but, eventually changing to a shorter lens and moving closer. I widened the frame to place the lioness in the wonderful context. I continued shooting until it became dark, then mixing the light from the flash to a portable spotlight. The lioness has moved only once to lay down on a different spot. Finally, we walked away in silence: that was it.
The photographs taken that day probably represent the first visual document attesting the presence of these animals in the afromontane rainforest, at over 2,500 metres above sea level. But the grotesque aspect of this story is also that so much effort would eventually dissolve in just some fractions of a second.
Is there a moral to this story?
Let’s respect and start to believe paintings, fairy tales, rumors and songs, because we will never know where does hide "all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men." (J. Conrad)

And, in the meanwhile... in the jungle... the mighty jungle... the lion really sleeps tonight!


Monday, February 3, 2014

Wilderness book of the Month #1 - February 2014

If somebody would ask me to point out what is the main source of inspiration for my profession of wildlife photographer, I wouldn't hesitate and name literature, both fiction and non-fiction, instead of other photography or any other form of art. The freedom words give to talented writers and thinkers in order to express the subtle feelings elicited by nature and animals, articulate their reflections on the world and describe fleeting situations is unsurpassed in my opinion by music and visual arts.

As a wilderness "book-oholic" with an ever-growing collection, I have my little circle of similarly-affected people with whom I share the latest releases and virtually unknown highlights. Way too often, we have the feeling that so many incredible findings are appreciated just by a very small percentage of the population and, especially in the case of Europe in general and Italy in particular, those books get known only within a very limited entourage. Wether this happens because of a limited distribution or the barrier of foreign language (and because of the general lack of interest for nature), I often thought it would be worth to share authors and books that I've found exceptional and worth to be widely known. So, here comes the idea to name regularly on my blog a "Wilderness book of the Month". No matter if the book is twenty years-old or freshly published, French or American, writes about food culture or grizzly behavior, I hope to trigger your interest and create momentum for a broader diffusion of wilderness culture!

Wilderness book of the Month #1 - February 2014

Among Wolves: Gordon Haber's Insights into Alaska's Most Misunderstood Animal

by Gordon Haber and Marybeth Holleman - University of Alaska Press, 2013

From the back cover: "Alaska’s wolves lost their fiercest advocate, Gordon Haber, when his research plane crashed in Denali National Park in 2009. Passionate, tenacious, and occasionally brash, Haber, a former hockey player and park ranger, devoted his life to Denali’s wolves.He weathered brutal temperatures in the wild to document the wolves and provided exceptional insights into wolf behavior. Haber’s writings and photographs reveal an astonishing degree of cooperation between wolf family members as they hunt, raise pups, and play, social behaviors and traditions previously unknown. With the wolves at risk of being destroyed by hunting and trapping, his studies advocated for a balanced approach to wolf management. His fieldwork registered as one of the longest studies in wildlife science and had a lasting impact on wolf policies. Haber’s field notes, his extensive journals, and stories from friends all come together in Among Wolves to reveal much about both the wolves he studied and the researcher himself. Wolves continue to fascinate and polarize people, and Haber’s work continues to resonate."

Pardon my ignorance but I didn't know about Gordon Haber and his departure until I stumbled upon his great website: http://alaskawolves.org, and must thank my friend and fellow book-oholic Antonio Antonucci for recommending it to me. This book has been an incredibly pleasant read during a few days of flu and forced bed rest. Although it mostly focuses on Haber's research on wolves in Denali, Alaska, I believe his findings to be of broad interest for all the wolf enthusiasts around the world and his approach to be a very rare example of conservation commitment and scientific clarity. We should all pay homage to this great person and make sure his brave voice won't be silenced. I would like to quote his words at the end of the book, after Haber arguments his position against wolf exploitation: "(…) we are unknowingly destroying the very treasure on which we thrive and, in fact, depend. A sameness results with a numbing of the spirit, and we gradually lose our ability to marvel. The battle to protect wolves or a wild caribou herd, alligators or whales, or another tract of wilderness isn't a plot to lock wilderness and wildlife away. This battle really represents and attempt to ensure that we do not neglect some of our most basic non material needs. It is nothing less than a matter of helping ourselves toward full achievement of the human promise." In this dark age for wolf conservation across Europe and the whole world, I hope these beautiful words will echo in everyone's head.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

My little "heart of darkness" - part two of three

Images and words ©Bruno D’Amicis/www.brunodamicis.com

Bonga. At 2000 meters altitude, the capital of Kafa is a maze of dirt tracks, which cross an undefinable set of brick, mud and metal buildings, all interspersed by banana and enset plantations. You breathe the smell of rancid butter, roasted coffee, smoke and spices. A few horthodox churches, three restaurants, two hotels (one serves also as a brothel), a hospital and a weekly market: here live about forty thousand people and at least as many heads of cattle, in addition to dozens of black kites, ravens, vultures and hadada ibises that take advantage of the situation. All around, at few kilometers of distance, lush and unwelcoming, the Forest.
To get there it takes a whole day by jeep from Addis Ababa. The road follows the ancient landscape of the Rift Valley and crosses (literally) dozens of villages, where the driver must carefully dodge chickens, cows and kids. You leave the asphalt to Jimma, a half of the trip; then it's all dust and sand until here. It seems that this will no longer be a problem: Chinese and Korean investment will bring soon the asphalt (and traffic) also to this final stretch.
From Bonga start all expeditions to the Kafa Region and, therefore, also my photographic adventures. Following a radial gradient, to get to the wildest areas, one need to overcome the patches where the axe, fire and livestock have made the forest back off. 

At the end of January 2012, having covered more or less all photo objects that my assignment required, I focused on the search for the alleged forest lions. Fresh information about livestock attacks that occurred near Adjo (a name that says it all...), a village situated over sixty kilometres from Bonga at the southeastern border of Kafa.
After nearly four hours of Land Cruiser and dirt roads, we arrived at this little group of houses scattered around a colourful circular building, halfway between a church and a tucul hut. Muluken, my young interpreter, told me that it was the palace of Habedagoda, local noble man and religious leader. The only truly recognized authority in that area, to whom we were supposed to ask informations and, more importantly, permissions to move in that territory. I, a farangi ("foreigner"), was announced and was asked to wait. Dozens of flies and at least as many pairs of staring human eyes were concentrated on me: I was definitely the event of the year for the villagers. I pretended to ignore that and looked up to the sky. Several African griffon vultures were soaring above us. After half an hour, I did enter the building round. Inside, apart from the darkness and a very strong odor, I saw that the walls were covered with old photos, fake flowers and portraits of Jesus.
Some men stood against the wall around an imposing figure sitting at a small table. White Nike sneakers, a red-green-and-yellow vest, a cream-coloured cowboy with "made in China" written in gold caracters on it; all under a black and gold cloak: Habedagoda leader shook his giraffe's tail fly swatter. An old spear was also standing against the wall. I was appalled and felt truly privileged to be there: a little like the poor brother of Indiana Jones or a wanna-be Claude Levy-Strauss of the third Millennium! 

I was invited to sit down (at a distance from leader) and I was offered coffee. After a few moments of embarrassment, Habedagoda began to ask me questions in dialect kafinho: he asked me about everything, including my monthly salary and the eye color of my girlfriend, and the interpreter had to translate our entire conversation. We explained to the chief our mission and he confirmed that He was nearby and had killed several cows. He spoke with great respect and with a bit of awe. (Do note, that nobody in Ethiopia would ever dare to utter the word "lion". It would be a blasphemy, as this is a legendary and highly respected animal: it is ambassa, "king", and appointing him would be enough to draw his rage.) Then, Habedagoda generously offered us hospitality and help, a high quarter of cow (which I politely declined) and two village hunters as guides. This provided that, every night, we would report a detailed account of our excursions. I understood he liked me and even dared to take some shots with my camera. That morning, nobody mentioned if what we were doing was dangerous or not.

And so began our search for the lions, carried out in a very unorthodox way. Instead of scanning the landscape from the comfortable seats of a Land Rover driven along dusty roads, in fact, we went backpacking, beating the steep slopes of the area. For five days, we roamed the silent forests, crossed turbulent and foaming streams, by walking (me crawling) on super slippery tree trunks put crosswise, and sweated the proverbial seven shirts.

And, again, spectacular rocky gorges and thick prairies of yellow grass that arrived to the chin (perfect for a lurking lion, for instance): my guides kept saying "we are very close", "here they have been seen a week ago" and "look here, the grass was crushed by one of them asleep." Instead of a safari in Africa, to me it looked only like the umpteenth (and useless) hike in the footsteps of the bear in the Abruzzi mountains and smelled stench of failure. Luckily, the monotony was sometimes interrupted by cries of a family of blue monkeys, the fleeting vision of a turaco or the stabbing bites of giant ants. 

Every night, as we returned exhausted to the village, in addition to fatigue I was also responsible for entertaining the chief, reporting faithfully all the events of the day and waiting for its approval and that of our faithful "audience". When, late in the hour, I would eventually walk into my tent, I was happy because I could finally be all alone … (to be continued)