Into the Gran Caldera de Luba, Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea

January 3, 2013

Into the Gran Caldera de Luba

In a week I leave for Equatorial Guinea, where I will spend two months trying to film primates on the southern part of Bioko island, off the coast of Nigeria. I am jumping on board the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Project’s Scientific Expedition of the Gran Caldera de Luba. It feels so far away from me right now. I have been home for the holidays and am enjoying time with my friends and family, eating so much good food I don’t know how I’ll be able to hike for three straight days through the jungle – or survive the switch to a diet of rice and beans!

Justin Jay – the filmmaker behind our project – and I will meet for the first time in the Frankfurt airport. Justin and I have been independently producing natural history films on a skeleton budget for the last several years. We believe we’ll be able to make a high-quality film with the incredible advances in consumer technology.

Our main cameras are DSLRs. Justin has a Canon 7D and 60D and I have a Panasonic GH2. I can’t imagine trying to have made my mark as a budding filmmaker in the pre-digital age; with our full 1080 HD cameras, and a wide range of lenses, we’ll be able to film for hours for the price of the cameras and a few SD cards. My favorite lens is a fixed, low-light 20mm pancake that creates a shallow depth of field and really sets out subjects in front of a mottled rain forest background. I also have up to 600mm of range to get the drills and red colobus from far away.

We also have bought a few Go Pro Hero 3s. Since they are so easy to whip out we will use them as our POV and “diary” cameras, always having them ready to capture our misadventures and to record the challenges we face. The Go Pros also are great time-lapses, and I’m sure I’ll throw it into some spontaneous situations to try to get a shot, like attach it to branches and hope a drill or red colobus climbs by. We can control the Go Pros wirelessly and stream the footage they capture to our phones or laptops for accurate camera traps. They are also going to capture our glorious quad-copter shots!

With Justin’s TurboAce X830s quad-copter we are hoping to get flyover shots of rivers, waterfalls, canopies, and even cool shots of ourselves hiking. The wet weather could ruin these lofty goals, but a few shots from a remote-controlled quad-copter would really set our film apart, and it’s an addition of gear that costs less than it would to rent certain lenses on fully-funded projects – let’s just hope we don’t crash it!

We are arming up with an assortment of tree climbing gear, hammocks, knives, rope, gilley-suits to turn invisible if we come across some drills to film, tape, bungee-cords, and an arsenal of fasteners. I’ve been proudly breaking in my snake-proof and water-proof boots, and dyeing my clothes to blend in with the forest. We’ll carry a bunch of weight in batteries, flashlights, headlamps, and tripods, and have to waterproof everything for the trek.

Once we get everything ready we still aren’t guaranteed to see our subjects. We are prepared for many challenges, situations and redundancy plans, and now must focus the mental preparation for the endurance and patience we’ll need to be able to use everything we’re carrying.



An adventure to find the Bioko drill

An adventure to find the Bioko drill

In December of 2011 I was looking for an adventure. My wife Shalynn and I had spent the last year rotating between short-term jobs, staying at friends’ and parents’ houses, and reliving the memories of our 6-month backpacking trip through South America. I was also nearly finished healing from my long battle with leishmaniasis, and I wanted to get back out there. A full life is one that challenges and excites you – the experience of the journey always outweighs the potential sacrifices and misadventures of traveling in exotic areas to tell stories. Shalynn found a volunteer position monitoring leatherback sea turtle nesting in a place we had never heard of – Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea. She also found a film project based with the volunteer opportunity. I wrote the filmmaker, Justin Jay. She wrote to the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Project. We were too late to join, however, and regardless, my leishmaniasis wound was starting to get bigger again…

The year 2012 ended up being a glorious adventure; after submitting to two rounds of parasite treatment, I followed Shalynn to Costa Rica, married her in the best day of my life, and moved to Washington D.C. to start a new life and career together. I then emailed Justin Jay to see how his film was doing.

Justin has spent the last two years filming a baboon-like monkey called the bioko island drill (Mandrillus leucophaeus poensis) on the small island off the armpit of Africa. He initially traveled to Bioko to study the leatherback sea turtles (in the same program that Shay found) but in his free time he wandered off the beach and into the rainforest. The rumors about this “ghost of Bioko” intrigued Justin to put his wildlife tracking skills to the test: he sought the elusive drill. He found scat, footprints, and discarded fruits, but it took him two months before he could reliably find a group of drills and follow their feeding corridor. Justin then became the first person to film this species in the wild.

The soft silver fur and red and purple genitals of the drills stand out in a lush, green riverside. Justin filmed mothers feeding their young, groups of drills eating and playing, and a solitary male who was limping, his arm wounded from a poacher’s snare.

Most people of Bioko have never seen a drill alive. Their flesh is prized as a luxury item: bush meat. Offshore oil has brought increasing wealth to the island – now more people can afford to buy the meat of drills, pangolins, palm civets, and other wild animals. Wildlife populations cannot sustain this increased hunting pressure: palm civets (a small wild cat) are now extinct on the island, and drill populations have plummeted. Over the last three years over 4,500 drill carcasses have been sold in the Island’s illegal bushmeat market located in the capital city of Malabo. The drill’s range has decreased by more than half since 1986. New roads threaten to increase access to remote areas, potentially allowing poachers to hunt drills more extensively.

Justin devotes his life to save the drills from extinction: he hopes that through his films, Bioko islanders will learn to value their unique wildlife and forests. In December 2012, Justin finished his first film – a documentary showing the drill’s role within the Bioko island ecosystem. The film screened in Equatorial Guinea’s capital of Malabo to great success, and it has aired repeatedly on EG’s only television channel. Not only does it show exclusive footage of the species, but it also teaches the viewers about the drill’s plight and urges them to change their social norms for what constitutes acceptable cuisine.

When I reached out to Justin in November 2012, a year after learning about his film project,  he invited me to become a part of the Drill Project. We are leaving for Bioko Island on January 7th, where we will join the yearly scientific expedition of the Gran Caldera de Luba. The Bioko Biodiversity Protection Project (BBPP) surveys the southern forests of the island to establish mammalian population numbers, and Justin and I will be going off on our own to film drills, red colobus (one of the most endangered species of primate), and the beautiful landscapes of an untamed wilderness. Our film will be a mix of a conservation message, a natural history film about the drill, and a character-driven, “making-of,” film about the difficulties and resolve inherent in a new generation of wildlife filmmaking.

We have never met in person, but will soon spend two months together hiking, filming, and working within a photography hide. We will backpack with students from the United States and from the local Universidad Nacional de Guinea Equatoriana. There is no guarantee we will find the drills. We must cross rivers at low tide or else they will be impassible. Justin hears the Caldera is full of green and black mambas. The stage is set for an unforgettable adventure.