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Category Archives: Expeditions

Sawubona meet Reneé

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Knock, knock… Oh that’s just me coming out of my deep closet and scarily thinking about how, what and when to blog.

Never thought massaging a turtle’s neck could be so mutually beneficial!
Having recently spent 5 weeks on the coral reefs of Belize with the MAR Alliance NGO, it was a total pleasure to both work with the local people and get to know the reef as well as we did. We ended up tagging sharks, (more to come) and turtles to try to understand more about their movements and abundance. Yes, we are a professional photographic team but at the end of the day nothing excites me more than being out there with the animals and hopefully making a difference towards protecting our planet. Believe me, camping out on the beach of an uninhabited island (apart from a ranger’s station) snorkeling in warm, crystal clear, turquoise water with nurse sharks and rays and ending the day in the company of new friends is pure heaven.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”.

African Proverb

Goodbye, totsiens, Hamba kahle – until next time…

Reneé Bish

Photo Power

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A long time ago, before Pete Oxford Expeditions and over a period of many years Pete and I led dozens of trips to India. It remains our favorite country to visit. India, we always say, is a photo a minute. The colors, the people and the sheer exotic nature of the country is overwhelming. It is an assault on the senses at every level. Not knowing exactly when we might return always leaves a sense of emptiness until those tickets are bought once again giving us something to look forward to. Apart from the riot of color, design and humbleness of the people the wildlife too is exotic and abundant. In a land where the vast majority of the people are vegetarian the various cultures show great respect for their wildlife. There are no kids with catapults target practicing on little birds as one might find in Africa or South America, instead temples and shrines are built to worship rats, monkeys and birds. Some human interactions that have ingrained themselves in my memory however include our visits around the Calcutta flower market. Firstly we would always pause at a look out point where an untouchable shoe-shine man had staked out his turf.

Every visit we watched as higher castes would walk up to him, whereupon he would bow his head, not daring to make eye contact, they would pick up his brushes, use his polish and carry on their day with no remuneration to the man. On one occasion we went to the man and engaged him in conversation. He was nervous but accepted our gesture. And shined our shoes. We took his photo, paid him and left to the flower market, a veritable sea of humanity and chrysanthemums. At the flower market too we took many photos. The following year our shoe-shine man was there again. This time we approached and offered him his photo, printed and plastified to withstand the hardships of his life. The reaction was absolutely overwhelming. I swear he had never known such a joyous moment. It was an incredibly touching reaction to such a simple act. Likewise, again in the market, armed with a stack of fifty or more such images we gave each of our guests a pile of photos. The mission was to distribute them to their likeness. It was madness. When people who had never before seen a photo of themselves caught on to what was going on we were all physically grabbed (in the nicest possible way), or led by the hand to find their friends whose images we had captured the previous year. Everyone knew everyone else in the market it seemed and before we knew it all photos had been distributed correctly. I cannot describe the outpouring of emotions from both sides. The photos connected both cultures in a much more powerful way than we had ever imagined and it became one of our defining moments of the power of the image. A premise we still maintain today in our work in conservation.

 

Reneé Bish

If a Huao falls in the forest, does anybody hear?

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Yesterday we received news, from friends in the Yasuni National Park and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, that a Huaorani Indian had been speared to death by the Tagaeri. Sound familiar? Probably not. Most people, I am sure, have never heard of the three key words in the opening paragraph above, namely, Yasuni, Huaorani and Tagaeri.
The Yasuni has (at least in many taxa) been scientifically documented to harbour more species per unit area than anywhere else on Earth. A bold statement but it is truly a place that needs to be seen to be believed. Situated in the east of Ecuador, Yasuni is a lowland, primary, Amazonian rainforest. A place I first had a relationship with nearly 30 years ago and have been in love with ever since. It’s where I first met Reneé, where we later married, where we have God children and where I have been driven to help protect, through imagery and story telling since we published our first book on the region back in 1995.
In many cases there is a ratio that works that what we have in Yasuni in one hectare, there is the equivalent in the entire USA and Canada combined. Firstly remember that a hectare is a mere 100 x 100 meters – say the floor of a football stadium or a city block perhaps. What I mean by this is that, for example, in 1 Yasuni hectare there have been recorded more than 650 tree species yet only about 560 in the whole of USA and Canada. 1 Yasuni hectare has 100,000 insect species, about the same as USA and Canada. Or, for example in 1 Yasuni hectare were found 87 amphibian species, more than 3 times the whole of Western Europe. The park itself has some 600 bird species while 925 or so are reported from the USA and Canada. You get the idea!
Within the park and biosphere reserve live the Huaorani. An ancient tribe of true forest people ( see my earlier blog , (add the link for the alone in the forest blog) They are incredible in their environment and understand their forest home like no other. They hunt monkeys using a poison-tipped dart, magically puffed from a blow-gun in a single breath. They run barefoot into a herd of wild and dangerous peccaries, to spear one with an ironwood spear and carry it home, tied like a backpack, to feed the family.
When the missionaries arrived in the 1950’s and saved their savage souls, the Huaorani were missionarized, paving the way for the Amazon to be opened up without the fear of being attacked by the new ‘friendlies’. Oil companies, loggers (mostly illegal) and colonizers poured into the forest using the rivers and newly constructed oil roads as conduits to push ever deeper into the interior and reap their rewards. Or, put another way, set the Yasuni on its path of destruction. On finding missionaries one Huaorani leader, named Taga, was astute enough to visualize the grave changes that lay ahead. He fled, deeper into the forest, with his followers. Followers of Taga are known, in the Huaorani language, as Tagaeri. They continue to live their traditional lifestyle in an ‘uncontacted’ state of voluntary isolation.


We know of the existence of another, similar group, in the same area, also in voluntary isolation, the Taromenane. It seems they are of somewhat different roots as their language differs widely from that of the Huaorani. One Huao friend of mine described that during a chance encounter he had with the Taromenane that “They open their mouths but no words come out.” Translated it means that he could not understand them when they spoke!
In today’s Yasuni the pressures continue. Roads are the single biggest curse to the forest. Roads always bring people! There is not one oil company, foreign or national, that is using ‘Best Practice’ within the National Park and biosphere reserve, i.e. not one that is using the ‘Offshore/Inland’ model of roadless technology to mine the oil. The latest threat is that new oil concessions are being dished out to Chinese state-owned oil companies to repay the megadebt that Ecuador now owes their country. This surely signals the end of the-beginning-of-the-end and takes us closer to the end-of-the-end. The most biodiverse place on Earth swallowed by human greed on my watch? I’m just glad I’ve got no kids to answer to!
As for the Tagaeri and Taromenane, little do they know that they are soon to see their first Chinaman. What they do know already is that they are being pressured from all sides. Unscrupulous loggers, it is reported, have even paid the ‘tame’ Huaorani to hunt them down and massacre them in their homes to clear the way. They feel pressure from encroaching oil camps, logging camps, colonizers and even, to a lesser extent, eco-tourists.
Would you defend your right of abode if you were being systematically squeezed off your territory or land, I ask? Many would say yes. So, I ask the question again. Sound familiar? Yep!
Pete Oxford

A Galapagos Adventure Like None Other

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November 11, 2016

It wasn’t that long ago that I was visiting the Galapagos Islands for my second ‘trip of a lifetime’. Last June I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the islands for the second time in a year, though this time was so much different than the first.

In June I visited the islands under the guidance of Pete Oxford and got to experience them as much more than a tourist, and more like a local. Having been a founding member of the Naturalist Guides Association in the park and lived on Santa Cruz, Pete introduced me to the islands and the exotic animals that live there as one might introduce a close friend. I was amazed by the intimate details Pete provided on any given animal’s behaviour and the natural history of the islands we set foot on.

While I was only in the archipelago for 10 days I walked through colonies of frigate birds and colourful boobies, swam with a Galapagos shark (and lots of other species), sealions, marine iguanas, turtles and schools of colourful fish and was able to visit with the giant tortoises and endemic finches that brought Darwin’s name to the forefront of science. Like me, you too might have these things on a mental checklist for when you make it to the Galapagos. However, I’d like to share with you that as satisfying as it is to be able to say you did or saw all these things what makes a trip to the Galapagos truly special are the small details – the ones that aren’t in the travel books. For example, laughing while a frigate bird attempts to build a nest from unconventional material (see one of our past blog posts), being shocked as rays leap out of the water; displaying a new behaviour, experiencing the difference first hand (or I should say foot) between red, white and black sand between your toes. Perhaps the most memorable for me was spending over an hour with a flightless cormorant couple while the male retrieved seaweed from the ocean to help his partner build a nest.

Experiences like those I have already mentioned are possible with a little luck on any trip to the Galapagos. However, what allowed these daily unforgettable memories for me was travelling under the leadership of someone like Pete who knows the islands inside and out and spending as much time out in nature as possible. One thing that many people may not realize about the Galapagos Islands is that the park limits the time tourists are allowed on land so that the animals and plants experience minimal impact. Generally the allowed time is sunrise to sunset. However, that does not mean that if you visit the islands you will be on land this entire time; the tour companies set their own timelines. Since many tourists do not want to be up early or out late in most cases this results in losing some of the precious few hours one has in the Galapagos. If your goal is to get unique photos of the islands and the wild inhabitants of them then this can be heartbreaking. This was not the case when travelling with Pete Oxford Expeditions. This is also where we set ourselves apart from the other companies.

When I was there in June, Pete and I spent every minute we could out shooting from daybreak until sunset. That meant being all but alone on the islands for hours on end while the other tour companies still had their travellers on the deck of their ships. This led to us seeing natural behaviours not exhibited around crowds of people and getting to know the islands without feeling rushed. This too is the essence of the trips we plan at Pete Oxford Expeditions!

Wai Wai

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It was a place I never expected to reach. In the deep south of Guyana, while working on images for an aerial photographic book on the country, we took off from Dadanawa Ranch, once the largest privately owned ranch in the world and across the expansive South Rupununi savannahs to the edge of the rainforest. Flying further south, over a dense and pristine canopy of green, the massive palm thatched cone of the communal hut (benhab) of the Wai Wai stood proud above the foliage. Our direction of flight first took us over the now seldom used community center on the edge of a great bend in the Essequibo River offering a sense of serenity, calm and belonging. Where the human footprint still looked small against a backdrop of wilderness – rare sight in today’s world. We landed our chopper at Gunns, in the Konashen region amongst the community buildings. Now missionarised the Wai Wai are a small indigenous group of Guyanese Amerindians living close to the border of Brazil. The Wai Wai hold title to a now protected area of 2300 square miles and still retain a deep sense of cultural identity. Despite their western apparel and hunger for possessions from the developed world, they maintain a strong affinity with the forest, relying on it to provide food and building materials. Indeed, a privilege to visit such a remote community who have received few visitors but hope, one day, to host foreign tourists to be able to showcase the incredibly diverse fauna that includes regular sightings of jaguars.

Pete Oxford

Meet Pete

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OK, me next! I am a ‘hunt & peck’ guy on the keyboard and well renowned for having ‘sausage fingers’!

The shot above is at the house where Reneé (she was the one looking like Torpedo Woman with the whale shark a few blogs ago) and I spent a tad over two years living in a national park in South Africa recently. A truly wonderful experience where Hippy the hippo slept next to our bedroom every night and would sit  in the water a few meters away while we had a braai, apparently just looking for company. Where the elephants played most days in the water in front. Where lions regularly walked nonchalantly past the house  and where Lightning, a leopard I finally managed to habituate, would hunt in our yard and even sit on the same wall in the shot above! If anyone out there is interested I’ll show a couple of shots down the road of Lightning. The rumour in the park was that I was two-timing Reneé and that Lightning was my new girlfriend. Yes we were close, but…

On this particular day Piggy, a warthog who had no doubt that he was special, popped around for part two of the photographic course I was offering to the locals as part of our community integration policy. He passed the first course with flying colours (yes pigs CAN fly). By necessity this was a practical course only as Piggy had trouble gripping a pen between his cloven hooves.

 

Pete Oxford

 

The Pantanal – Reptile Heaven

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I have no idea why I am so fascinated by reptiles. I’ve been associated with them all my life. My first pet was a snake at a tender 4 years old. I am a director of the public Vivarium in my home of Quito, Ecuador, I am entrenched with the Orianne Society who are dedicated to the preservation of the Eastern Indigo Snake and on it goes.

So, when I walk into a drying pond, as I have done several times, in the Pantanal, to become surrounded by hundreds of Spectacled Caimans (like the one above), just a few feet from me, I get an overwhelming sense of peace, joy, fascination, awe and wildness – but not dread. It’s therapeutic and, I believe necessary to our psyche. They are indeed remarkable creatures and survive in their many hundreds of thousands in the Pantanal, Brazil, one of the great wildlife areas still left on the planet. When they go on to catch a graphically marked armored catfish and pose with it a couple of meters from me then I love them even more! Watch out for me guys, I’ll be back in September!!

Pete Oxford

One more reason to travel

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There are many reasons for travel but this time, for us, it was something new. Pete and I have lived in Ecuador now for 30 and 24 years respectively and we have known our best friends, Tom and Mariela, for almost that long. Much more parochial than us in their travel, they have seldom ventured to foreign shores. Recently they visited with some news. After a routine medical check up Tom was diagnosed with a leaky heart valve and needed surgery urgently for $250,000+ in the US, where he was a citizen, but with no medical insurance. It was a budget which blew that idea out of the window OR, $25,000 here in Ecuador but with a minimum of a 10% risk of dying and no fixed heart operating team (but he was told that they could cobble one together). Stuck between a rock and a hard place I made a suggestion. As a trained nurse in my previous life and having been in a hospital in India, on the point of death by all accounts, with Cholera, I recounted the tale of my unbelievable medical care and how impressed I was. I ventured an alternative. To our surprise, Tom went for the idea. Now suddenly, Pete and I felt responsible so decided to help guide them through the chaos that is the India we love so much and we booked tickets too. Having phoned a good friend in India for a reference for a cardiologist, then haggling for emergency visas, a week later we were en-route to Delhi! Mariela’s 50th was celebrated at 30,000 feet at the back of the jumbo drinking champagne with our new friend Christine, a truly benevolent flight attendant and before we knew it, Tom was in surgery! The care was fabulous and the equipment as modern as anywhere. The surgery team was a highly practiced unit, and performed a slew of such operations on a regular basis! Worse than we thought however the valve had to be replaced not fixed and Tom now is part pig! No more eating pork in that household. Recuperation time was 3 weeks, so having satisfied ourselves that all was well and it was only left for Tom to take it easy we set off in the interim to visit a remote head-hunter tribe in the far north east of India. Back in Delhi, after our sojourn, with a now perky Tom we decided he was fit enough to take him south to the Taj Mahal to sight see. Hence the classic tourist snapshot above to prove that he was there (wheelchair and all). The joys of medical tourism, Tom gets a new heart valve, a look at one of the seven wonders of the world and it only set him back $13,000 (excluding airfares)!! I guess that’s one way to see the world!

~Reneé Bish

Anticipating Jaguars!

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OK, I know its not until September this year but already I’m getting excited about my next trip to the Pantanal in Brazil.

When I first used to go, some 10+ years ago not many foreign visitors were to be seen.

Having got to know the area well I was called in, by the same operator we still use today, to try to photograph wild jaguars that his team was seeing in a new area he was operating in from a floating hotel on the river! The guide and I traveled, we calculated, more than 1000 km on the river over many days, scouring the river banks. We hardly saw another human soul but the wildlife was spectacular. For fun, in my head, I would count the number of caiman I saw. I always got to 500 before lunch and would stop counting! Giant otter families were common, as they still are, along with a host of birds, from the huge jabiru storks, to fish-catching hawks, toucans, macaws and herons. Capybaras are common, sitting stoically on the sand banks, scanning, like us, the scene for jaguars.

On that first jaguar trip I saw 7 individuals which, for the time, was unheard of. I took the images to National Geographic Magazine where the editors began by not believing they were wild animals (Most previously published jaguar images, posing as wild, were actually done in the Belize zoo!). Indeed the magazine had had a photographer for months trying to photograph them, only succeeding, I believe, with a single individual at night using a camera trap. They snapped up my images even producing a fold out double page spread. I later also learned that I got the cover, in at least one region, when a friend in Spain mentioned it to me by chance.

Jaguars are now commonly spotted (excuse the pun) and visitors are often able to spend quality time with them at a sighting. By now I have personally seen a score or more of different jaguars and come away with some once-in-a-lifetime memories. The big one, the sighting that still eludes me, is to watch a jaguar take down a large caiman in the water. (I did watch an adult female chase a skink all the way down a sand bank into the water once but it wasn’t quite the same!). I am just itching to get back there, to South America’s greatest wildlife spectacle and hoping that this year will be it! Care to join me?

Pete Oxford