Why and How Photographing Gelada Monkeys In Ethiopia
Gelada are monkeys that live only in the highlands of Ethiopia, where we had the chance to observe and photograph and some of them. They are very interesting animals to photograph, because their attitudes and expressions are very close to those of human beings. In addition, they are very aesthetically beautiful with their imposing manes and pink chests.
We spent several days in Ethiopia photographing some of them. We have never felt such closeness to an animal. While we were photographing gelada, we had the most intense experience that we have had in wildlife photography.
Gelada are only found in Ethiopia
The gelada is only found in Ethiopia. The last census indicates a population of about 50,000 individuals. These monkeys live high in the cliffs where they hide at night to avoid predators. Photographing them is difficult because their dwelling places are not easy to access. They are quite rare and rather timid, especially in the presence of their young.
Gelada live in small groups. Each group is composed of a male, several females and their young. We saw groups of 20 to 30 individuals. Males are unable to reproduce until they are about 8 or 10 years old. Females are sexually mature at 3, and can have a baby at 4.
Gelada are herbivores. To feed, they gather grass in their hands before moving it gently to their mouths. This gesture, as well as their other movements, is pretty amazing. Their gestures are very close to those of humans.
Very anthropomorphic apes
What immediately struck us when we observed gelada was how similar their behaviors are to human behaviors. We have already mentioned the delicate manner in which they feed. The way that they looked at us while we were photographing them suggested that they fully understood what we were doing there.
Their eyes were full of curiosity and surprise.
Observing the life of a group of gelada is like observing a miniature human society. There is a group leader. He is a large male who protects and manages the colony. He takes care of the females who take care of the young. Tasks are shared and strongly prioritized. The leader must also fight other males who try to seduce the females. The females do not hesitate to leave the group if they think that the leader is too old.
Young gelada are like real children. They only enjoy playing together. They bicker and shout, and if there is conflict, they are quick to find their mother’s comforting arms.
We were surprised by the sounds that the gelada make. We had the impression of hearing sounds made by humans. It sounded to us as though the animals were speaking a real language. It was a big surprise.
One of our best encounters with an animal
One of the best encounters with wildlife that we have had happened during a photo session when we were looking for a group of gelada. One day, we left very early in the morning, before sunrise. We wanted to surprise the monkeys by climbing up the cliffs. Usually, they come out of the cliffs as the sun heats the atmosphere.
That day, we saw no monkeys for two hours. The group had moved the previous day. We decided to keep looking anyway.
We walked along the top of the cliffs contemplating the rift valley, over six thousand feet below. This walk was a wonderful time of solitary contemplation. The Ethiopian highlands are an invitation to introspection.
The temperature rose from 10 to 25 degrees Celcius (50 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit).
Suddenly, just at the corner of a gravel path, we saw a male gelada sitting on a stone. He was contemplating the rift valley. He did not move. He just looked into the distance, with one arm beside his body and the other resting on his leg. Time stood still. The only motion came from a light breeze that moved the leaves of the bushes around us. The gelada was thoughtful. He seemed to be enjoying the scenery in front of him. No doubt he was wondering about the meaning of his life. At that moment, we believed that some animals may have the exact same questions that humans do. We had no doubt that he was enjoying that morning that looked like the beginning of the world.
Quietly, and without making any sudden movements, we set up our tripods to capture this scene. We would not have disturbed this magical moment for anything in the world. After a few minutes, he turned toward us. He watched us with an air of saying, "I also can think and appreciate what is given to me".
Slowly, he turned and moved along the cliff.
We remained stunned and silent for several minutes after this gift of contemplative humanity.
A good guide is essential
Observing and photographing gelada requires a good guide who knows exactly where to find them. At night, they sleep in steep cliffs that are several hundred yards high. These cliffs are their best protection against predators, such as leopards. They are located very high up on plateaus which can only be accessed on foot.
These cliffs are very long. Only an experienced guide who knows the ground well knows where a group spent the night. The groups of gelada are very mobile. Over the course of a day, they may move several hundred yards in order to find more food.
When we go to Ethiopia, we always use a local guide who knows the area and the habits of the monkeys. On our first trip, we only used the general guide who looked after us throughout the trip. He was not able to find the gelada.
Always leave a way of escape when approaching gelada
When photographing gelada, it is crucial to always leave them an exit so that they can escape if danger threatens them. We were able to get very close to some groups without disturbing them, even though we were always visible, with our tripods at the lowest position. We even sang without disturbing them. However, we once moved to get a better light and blocked the exit to the cliff. The whole group disappeared in seconds. Then we understood that it is always necessary to leave them the well-known exit.
Other groups did not tolerate our presence. Each time, there were young present. The mothers are very protective. The safe distance is always at least 60 to 80 meters (180 to 240 feet). If we got any closer, they called their young to climb on their backs, and escaped by ways where we could not follow.
The best technique: backlighting
The best way to photograph gelada is to use backlighting. Their very long hair creates very artistic iridescent effects. To get the light behind your subject, you have to move around the subject to find the best light. It is not always easy, and you have to be very careful not to obstruct their exits.
When photographing gelada, it is also important to pay attention to the environment. They are herbivores that feed in grasslands or near small bushes. You must be careful not to include disruptive elements, like dead branches or trees that are in poor condition, in your scenes. Gelada are such beautiful animals that it would be unfortunate to make them unsightly by including damaged natural elements.
Photographing gelada is a unique experience for a wildlife photographer. They are not easy to find. A photographer must make a long trip to observe them. But with a good nature guide, it is possible. Gelada are such anthropomorphic animals that it is easy to create good photos as long as you know the right time of day to photograph them and how to use good lighting.