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  Field Notes From
Africa's New Parks

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From Photographer

Michael Nichols

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photograph by Mark Thiessen


Africa's New Parks

Field Notes From Photographer
Michael Nichols
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    I needed to get as close as possible to get good pictures of the elephants, so my friend Sofiano and I found a tree near their waterhole and built a platform there. I thought, Wow, this is fantastic! I'm going to get some great pictures. But the elephants realized something had changed. They could smell me.
    One evening a big dominant male came over to the edge of the river.  All I could see was this giant trunk sticking above the trees pointing right at me. It was signaling that it had spotted me.
    It was getting dark and time for me to make the hour-long walk to camp. Normally I wouldn't go back alone because of the danger of running into an elephant or gorilla, but no one else was around. So rather than be foolish, I decided to just stay in the tree, especially since the elephant was still waiting for me to come down. I waited about two hours until I heard Sofiano; the researchers had sent him to get me. I climbed down, the elephant stormed off, and we got back to camp. It was a scary but cool experience.

    After every project you walk away and say which part was the worst. For me the worst was when one of the researchers, Ann Louisa Kilborn, died in a plane crash during the time I was in Gabon. She had been studying the Ebola virus that had broken out among the gorillas of that region, and she really had a handle on it.
    We've had a lot of accidents, which continues to be the worst thing about working there. As long as we are using airplanes for science or photography, it's worthwhile. But when you start using them for taxicabs, it gets dangerous. The planes aren't maintained that well. In fact they're often flying with only one engine or in stormy weather. We don't have enough money in conservation to maintain all these airplanes, so taking a little bit longer to get somewhere is better for us than flying solely for transportation as Ann Louisa did.
    And now we've lost this incredible veterinary researcher. She was doing important work. It's a tragic loss for the conservation movement.

    When Secretary of State Colin Powell visited, I got his photograph with Mike Fay. I was the only photographer allowed to have access, and all the news people got very upset, saying, "Why is National Geographic getting access? This is something we need to put on the wires immediately."
    I'm not a news photographer. And I'm not comfortable photographing famous people. But Colin Powell obviously respected Mike and me because of the hard work we've done in the forest. And even though there was an entourage and a huge amount of security, he was really accessible.

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