Published: August 2008
Bioko Island Journal
Text and photograph by Joel Sartore

Joel Sartore, with three other National Geographic photographers and a crew of students and scientists, spent two weeks on this speck of land documenting the region's rich array of wildlife. Below are some of the notes Sartore took in Equatorial Guinea, including its capital city, Malabo—the center of a thriving bush-meat trade.

New Year's Day. KLM flight 42. Minneapolis to Amsterdam.
Currently somewhere over Greenland.

I've been dreading this day for two months. But then I dread leaving on any international assignment. Will I get sick, or hurt, or killed? More pressing, will I take good enough pictures to stay employed?

When I get to the airport, I feel like one of those cowboys you see on the back of a bull. Waiting for the gate to swing open, they clench their jaws and stare down at their hand, tied with a thick rope and now inseparable from the animal. They're all grimace–wound tight, fearful, worried, desperate. That's me.

But I always get on that plane and do what I'm asked to do. And then I'm home again, just a middle-aged father, thinking about that last adventure while taking out the trash on a cold Nebraska night. And usually I'm glad I went.

But this time, well, there's plenty to be nervous about.

My destination is the city of Malabo on Bioko Island. On a world map it's a speck of land off the west coast of Africa, part of Equatorial Guinea. Malabo's been called the Auschwitz of Africa for all the genocide that took place when the ruling tribe, ‘The Fang' took over in the mid-1970s—one-third of the population either fled or was killed. The place has never recovered.

Once there, I'll stay for a couple days in a tent on a soccer field that belongs to an oil company. They say they'll have food, drinking water, and guards to protect the gear—and us.

Three days from now a boat will haul me, three other NG photographers, and a crew of students and scientists to the far side of the island. They'll drop us off on a black sand beach at the base of a volcanic caldera, where the steep and rugged terrain has so far shielded most of the flora and some of the fauna from humanity. The goal is to photograph monkeys, some of the rarest in Africa. Easier said than done though. These primates have been hunted for years.

I don't see how this will work. We'll be there for only a couple of weeks, and that's not enough time to get Geographic-quality images. There are no excuses at National Geographic. There's no explaining away why the frames aren't there, no matter how little time we have. It's all got to be great, every time, or else.

We are part of a RAVE, or Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition, a new concept in shooting the world's last, best places. The idea is to send in a team of environmental photographers to both shoot and publish quickly, before a place and the creatures within are lost forever.

Our shooters include Tim Laman, a lanky Ph.D. from Harvard who's one of the best primate photographers in the world. At 46, he fires ropes into trees using a bow and arrow, then hauls himself up to build platforms high in the canopy. Seeking eye-level shots, he'll sit there for days if he has to.

Next is Christian Ziegler, age 35. With mouth agape and steamed round spectacles, he is Dustin Hoffman in Papillon. From atop a mountain of gear (his round-trip excess-baggage fees routinely top $1,000), and in a German accent, he'll explain his battle plan: camera traps, blinds, patience. He'll make something out of nothing. He always has.

Ian Nichols is also on board. Son of the legendary photographer Nick Nichols, Ian is tall, smiles a lot, and is extremely attractive to most of the women he meets, and even some of the men. At 26, Ian is easygoing and works at his own pace. If he can be laid-back and still make the pictures, power to him.

And then there's me, a butterball who doesn't like to travel and still eats chocolate cereal for breakfast. I'm good at being physically miserable though, so I'll work the beach and coastal forests, with its heat, sand flies, and mosquitoes. Once in place, I'll cease being nervous and get to work, concentrating on wrenching every image from the surroundings.

Open the gate. I'm ready.

January 22, 2008. Swiss Air flight 277.
Over North Africa.

My first day in Malabo
Today I got punched in the mouth by a monkey. It was a drill, actually, the largest primate species on Bioko Island. A hunting orphan, he'd been welded into a rebar cage behind a small café. I leaned in too close to get a photo, and he tore up my mouth with one jab. It served me right. The café's owner had recently died. There are no zoos around to take drills, and because they're an endangered species, they can't be exported without major paperwork. I have a feeling this drill may end up being eaten.

On day three, after a three-hour ride on an oil company boat, a Zodiac ferried us to shore. The group split up, with Ian and me going to a makeshift camp along Playa Tortuga, or Turtle Beach. It was more remote than the other beach camp, so we figured our odds would be better for primates there. We were wrong.

The rain forest is always a dark place, but here it was extra dark, with thick clouds constantly looming. This place gets 11 meters of rain per year. And the primates? They'd been heavily hunted, and while good densities remain of seven different species, all are frightened and quickly run away. Ian's camera couldn't handle the dark, and he turned to other subjects after a few days. My new Nikon could shoot in the gloom, but couldn't make monkeys sit still. They screamed out alarm calls and crashed away from branch to branch faster than I could run after them.

In case of "bad monkeys," I'd brought plan B: a portable photo studio including lights, a small generator, and a backdrop. I'd also brought some glass and silicon caulk in order to make an aquarium or two. The idea was to gather up the little stuff (frogs, lizards, fish, bugs) and do detail shots of them in nice light. I'd do anything to keep from being skunked.

Every day was a sweat-filled struggle to find things to shoot. To keep intestinal worms at bay, we'd drink iodine-laced water that tasted like a swimming pool. Sometimes a guide and I would hike all day looking for monkeys, always to no avail—but at least we were trying. Another time, we swam to get into a coastal bat cave. You had to go at low tide, and even then you had waves hitting you above the waist. One day there were sea turtles hatching on the beach, which beat the hell out of having to shoot our camp dinner again—always sardines and cubed Spam.

And then it was over. Or that's what I thought.

We returned to Malabo by boat, then drove across the island to spend the night at a research station. On the return, my driver and I were stopped at a military checkpoint, one of three along our one-and-a-half-hour route. This checkpoint, the most remote, was known for being the most dangerous. True to form, the lead soldier was drunk and got belligerent when I told him I had no alcohol to give away. Becoming more and more enraged, he wouldn't let us pass. He began to alternately yell at and interrogate the driver. The other soldiers circled our small car, griping AK-47s. They were boys, really, with zero expression on their faces. One was wearing an iPod. The boss eventually woke up in his chair in the background, shouted to them to let us through, and fell back asleep. The soldiers looked disappointed.

As you approach civilization, the first thing you notice is that the forest starts to thin. There's a burning smell, then you see the wounds. Bulldozers and chain saws have been here, leaving enormous scars, stripping away the foliage. Soon there's no green at all, just dirt and shacks. Garbage is strewn about, most of it plastic, but also hulks of old cars and the occasional dead dog. Nobody is smiling as you drive past. I wouldn't either.

Malabo is a city adrift, mostly without power or sewers or clean water. Grocery shopping at night means you intermittently stand still among strangers, unable to see the chocolate cereal on the shelf in front of you as you wait for the lights to come back on. Credit cards are useless. Sporadic stoplights and untrained drivers constantly yield wrecks.

My last day in Malabo
This morning I went to the bush-meat market. I’m from Nebraska, and I’ve seen butchering. This was different. Here were baskets of hornbills, tables covered with pangolins, pythons, brush-tailed porcupines, and rats. I’d seen snares set everywhere in the forest; this was their harvest. A small blue duiker lay bound and alive. The woman selling it yelled when I brought the camera up to my face, so I took three shots from the hip using a trigger on the bottom of the camera, coughing each time to hide the sound of the shutter. Slaughtered animals would eventually be carried over to metal tables where men would torch the hide or feathers. The whole place smelled of burning hair. I bribed the torch men to let me shoot; a four-dollar phone card bought me half an hour.

A law passed in 2007 made it illegal to kill, sell, or consume primates in Equatorial Guinea. But with a desperately poor populace and a single monkey selling for $200 or more, how can this hold? As I stood in the market, one of the torch men motioned to a big male drill, about the size of my four-year-old son. The dead animal’s hand was held in the flame.

It looked just like mine.

I'm 45 years old now, and have been shooting since I was 19. But as I've aged and seen more of how the world works, I've grown more cynical. The question in the back of my mind is always the same: Will we make it? Will we preserve the remaining wildernesses that clean our water and air? Can we save the rain forest? The seas? Is there enough thoughtfulness within us to save ourselves in the long run? After three weeks in Africa, I'm doubtful.

We may win some battles, but we're losing this war. There are far too many of us, often poor and hungry, and nobody ever starved to save a forest—or a monkey. We are insatiable. I fear we'll use up everything, everywhere, until it's all gone.

But today in the Gulf of Guinea, on this one island, it's true that the number of primates in the market has decreased since the hunting ban. It's also true that this article in National Geographic will bring attention to a place that nobody has ever heard of, and that, in turn, may be enough to get the government of Equatorial Guinea to really protect the place. So in a big way, this is a positive story, one that's so needed now in a weary world. But as always, nothing is clear-cut, and we don't know how anything will turn out. And that's inconvenient. We like our dramas to be resolved in one sitting.

Just before flying out, I asked Tim Laman how he mentally deals with the environmental devastation he sees constantly and increasingly around the world. He smiled and explained that this is our time. Most of the world's biodiversity still remains, and so it's more important than ever to do everything we can, wherever we can, to save it, now. He said this RAVE is a perfect start.

He's right, of course. This is our time. Surely with this work, here on Bioko Island, we can fix this.

In other words, it's all up to us.

Now that makes me nervous.