Rwanda: 100 Days of Gorilla Tracking

Eleven years ago, in 2011, Mary Ann and John McDonald hardly knew that a sovereign state called Rwanda existed. Only with the aid of American newspapers and online travel articles did they acquaint themselves fairly well with the country and, more so, its immense tourism endowments.

Talking of tourism endowments, the couple’s interest was specific and well-defined: gorilla tracking.

Against this background, the couple made its first trip to Rwanda in 2003. Mission: gorilla tracking and photography. Nine years on, and the sport of gorilla tracking has become almost more than just a mere hobby of the couple’s; it’s an addiction!

What else would one say of a couple that has so far made a record-setting 75 gorilla treks in the deeply endowed Volcanoes National Park in the Northern Province? And that’s not all. Anne McDonald remarked thus after their latest trek, which ended last Friday: “We felt one time was not enough, so we decided to come very often and our 75th visit is not the last. We will keep coming until we reach a hundred times and above.”

For his part, Joe McDonald said: “Tens of treks after our first expedition in 2003, we can honestly say that the magic hasn’t disappeared, the excitement is still as great, the experience still as unique and wonderful as it was at our first trek. We can’t wait to return and continue our experiences in what may be the most intimate and rewarding wildlife experience in the world today.”

Joe and Mary Ann McDonald are the most popular and active husband-wife nature photography team in the US today. The couple spends at least half of each year in the field, leading photo safaris to Africa and other remote destinations.

The couple spends most of its time leading and facilitating photo tours, safaris and workshops across the globe. Typically in a year, they cover at least six different continents. And Rwanda is by far the dearest to them among all places they have been to.

“There is no other place in the world where you can be so close to large wild animals and yet still be safe. These are animals that could take one’s head off but they are gentle,” remarked Joe as the couple concluded their latest expedition on Friday.

There was a triumphant and heroic mood in the air as locals gathered at the bottom of the Volcanoes Park to meet and greet the couple. The couple was bedecked in traditional Rwandan garb, in which they were crowned as a sign of their majesty in a small ceremony.

This particular visit was the third this year alone. On each of these visits, they bring a long at least six new tourists, who they offer practical skills in gorilla photography. “We basically get people through websites and articles, we invite them and we come together to share experiences of the wild. As they come they get hooked and some have returned on their own,” remarked Anne.

Touring aside, the couple is carrying out research into the life of the rare mountain gorilla species. They have collected numerous pictures, documenting gorillas’ lives.

Part of the reason for this particular undertaking is the fact that at present, the mountain gorilla is an endangered species. There are about only 720 mountain gorillas left in the wild, most of them concentrated in the rugged mountain slopes of five dormant volcanoes preserved by the Volcanoes National Park. Rwanda’s share of the mountain gorilla population is the largest, with over three hundred primates, while the rest are scattered between the DRC and Uganda.

“Gorillas are so big, so powerful and so gentle. Their strength is the most interesting; how they break bamboo and how they climb the mountain. Gorillas in Rwanda are so special and deserve visiting,” remarked Joe, adding; “We are so impressed with the country, how much progress it has made, how friendly the people are, how wonderful the roads are and, of course, how spectacular the gorilla photography is. The experience of trekking is fantastic, and the people are always so warm and friendly that you know that your tourist dollar, your business and visit, is appreciated.”

Joe contends that; “The shooting is one of the most moving and exciting experiences you’ll ever have. It’s exciting, intimate, and you’ll never suspect an hour can go so fast, or that so much can be crammed into that one hour.”

The photos they capture appear regularly in calendars and publications of the National Wildlife Federation, World Wildlife Fund, and numerous other companies globally.

Joe has been photographing wildlife and nature since 1966, starting with images of pet turtles, lizards and snakes he made in high school. He is 60 years old, and holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology, plus a Masters in Media degree. He taught high school biology for 6 years before completely devoting his time to photography.

His wife Ann has been photographing wildlife and nature professionally since 1990, after attending a photo workshop run by Joe, who would become her future husband. Since then, she has been published in most American natural history magazines. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology.

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