Hello again everyone! The last few days have been quite an experience - for fans of bullet points, this is what has been happening:
If you would like some more detail, please make yourself comfortable and read on... the grooming session is optional...
A crested black macaque relaxes on the beach for an early morning grooming session
You join me in North Sulawesi where I am spending a few weeks with my good friend Harry Hilser to experience some of the frontline conservation work that goes on to save one of our planet's many Critically Endangered species, the Sulawesi crested black macaques (or yaki, as they are known locally). The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List identifies them as such because they have shown a population drop of between 80-90% over the last 30 years - this is a truly alarming figure, and the last few individuals are clinging to survival in the remaining forest patches. Harry is the field project manager with Selamatkan Yaki ('Save the crested black macaque') which seeks to spread word of the yaki's plight and inspire everyone from local children to government officials to pull together to reverse the recent trends.
A group of yaki make a charge across the beach in a show of muscle. The social dynamics are complex with such gregarious animals, and scuffles are common
We ventured to Tangkoko National Park where three distinct groups have been identified. Our guide, Samuel, has lived around this forest all his life and has an uncanny ability to locate the animals in an area that I could have wandered aimlessly in for days without even finding my own feet. We set off in the soft pre-dawn light and straight into the forest, where barely a glimmer of sky shows through the canopy - even with today's camera equipment, light is still a fairly essential requirement, but as I ticked my shutter speed ever slower, we came across a group of monkeys moving with a very definite purpose. They were on their way to the beach. Perfect! Clear space, light, and an all important breeze to slow my continuous over-heating problem! The following three hours were among my favourite experiences I have ever had, as the yaki accepted our presence and allowed us to go quietly about the business of making images.
Mutual grooming is a great way to secure bonds in the group, and also feels pretty good!
I have never experienced such touching moments with a wild animals before, it was a trip that I will never forget. The knowledge that this species is on the brink of survival somehow makes it so much more poignant - as with many of the species I will be visiting on this trip, nobody can yet say how their future will pan out.
A beam of sunlight catches a female's face as she looks to the canopy
Their main threats include the bushmeat trade and, of course, like so many other species, the relentless march of deforestation. Shrinking forests and easier access to previously impenetrable habitats are challenging the survival of many species on the edge, and the yaki are no exception. Yaki has become a delicacy to be enjoyed during religious festivals, and it's popularity on the dinner table has increased unsustainably over recent years. Groups like Selamatkan Yaki are doing everything they can to slow their decline, but, like most conservation work, the work that needs to be done far outstrips the essential financial support that is sadly lacking. The survival of any species shouldn't depend on how many numbers we throw at it, but this is now the situation we find ourselves in.
A well earned break from foraging
I find it so hard to simply take images of animals, knowing that every photo I take may be capturing some of their last moments with us on this planet. I can't help but get swept away in their story and intwined with them as individuals. I try and make my words here uplifting, full of the spirit of the wildlife I see and my experiences with it, but sometimes it tears at my heart when I can see the storm clouds gathering on the horizon.
There is a beam of light though. As I type this, the sun is literally shining through a gap in a dark sky over Manado, through the Selamatkan Yaki office window and into the room. People are waking up to the need for conservation, both locally and internationally, and pulling together to make sure that these brilliant animals can continue their journey with us. By clicking any of the links featured here, you too can help to educate the world about the wonderful characters that are yaki.
Thanks once again for reading my thoughts, I promise to bring you some more photos in the next day or so - my processing queue is a long one, but I know that there are some more good ones in there, just waiting for me to chisel them out - check back soon!