Photographing fast moving animals in tropical rainforests is never easy; with high temperatures and high humidity after rainfall. There are also assorted invertebrates waiting either to clamp their jaws into your flesh or leeches to suck blood, not to mention mosquitoes. Nonetheless, rainforests support such a rich and diverse flora and fauna, with exciting flowering plants that attract spectacular butterflies and well as colourful hummingbirds or sunbirds, that they never fail to lure me back.
Whilst I was working on my book Exploring Natural China, I earmarked a reserve within a tropical rainforest area in southern Yunnan to feature as one of the must see locations. Having visited twice before, I was confident I could get most of the species on my wish list.
The speediest way up to an area known as Wild Elephant Valley is to take the cable car. Each morning I rose early to make sure I was at the front of the queue. When my guide Sam, discovered from a ranger that a family of white-cheeked gibbons (Nomascus leucogenys) had been spotted with a newborn, I abandoned my wish list, so I could spend three whole days tracking back and forth across the forest in the hope of glimpsing the family.
You invariably hear the gibbons before you see them. Rustling foliage up in the canopy is a sure sign these natural gymnasts are on the move as they swing from branch to branch using their powerful arms with the four fingers curled around the branch like a hook. They can cover 12m (40 feet) in a single horizontal leap and even more if they drop vertically. Early in the morning, the haunting calls of the male-female duets are unforgettable.
These gibbons exhibit a strong sexual dimorphism.The adult males are jet black with white cheek tufts and a black head tuft; whereas the females have a golden coat with black eye patches. The babies are the same golden colour as their mothers, then the youngsters become black like their father. Later on, adolescent females develop the same coloured coat as their mother.
I spent most of each day trekking through the forest, gazing up to the canopy whilst hand-holding a camera, long lens and flash. Virtually as soon as it is born, the baby clings to its mother’s fur with long fingers on the end of spidery arms. Only when the mother rests on a branch to groom or feed on leaves, flowers or fruits does the youngster release its grip with one hand and turn its head to absorb the surroundings.
When the gibbons are on the move, a tripod was more of a hindrance than a help. All day long, I carried a Nikon D3 camera with an 80-400mm lens, with an SB800 Speedlight fixed to the camera to use as a fill-flash for animals backlit from gaps in the canopy and to add a glint to the dark eyes. Even so, it was necessary to push the ISO between 1,000–2,500 to gain a fast enough shutter speed (at least 1/500 sec) in the poor light beneath the canopy.
It was a hard grind hand-holding my camera at the ready all day, spending more time gazing skywards than down at the ground, but I knew this was a chance in a life time. The number of images taken each day was limited, but I was rewarded with several good sightings of the mother gibbon with her newborn baby, the male on his own and just once a good clear view of the complete family.
Loss of habitat has now reduced the status of this charismatic gibbon to a critically endangered level, so I shall always treasure the three days I glimpsed fleeting cameos of a high rise family. This more than compensated for losing a few plant shots.
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