Daniël Nelson had been hiking through the rainforest in Odzala Kokoua National Park, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), for four days when he chanced on Caco. “I’d walked for five hours through dense and humid jungle,” he remembers. “After finding tracks and stalking the group, we strategically moved in front of them, then sat and let the gorillas Stumble upon us. Most just walked past, others stopped and stared. This particular group was habituated, so they didn’t see us as a threat.”
The young Dutch photographer was in Odzala in 2015 with his parents, who share his passion for travel and wildlife. “I knew that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip. We had specifically chosen to visit the Republic of the Congo because of the western lowland gorilla. It is less documented than the mountain gorilla in Rwanda, so I knew I had an amazing opportunity to raise awareness for this species.”
Daniël was just four metres away from the creature when he took The Good Life, the shot that would win him Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017. “Caco was bolder than the other gorillas – he did not move when I approached. Instead, he continued eating his African breadfruit.” Using a Canon EOS 6D, Daniël shot the picture at 1/30sec at f/6.3, ISO 800. “My shutter speed was low because of the dark conditions. The gorillas moved quickly, making most my images blurry. Caco gave me time to position myself and take a sharp picture.”
Although his subject was willing, the environment was tough. “The thick canopy stopped a lot of the light. Many shots had twigs, leaves or shrubs blocking the subject,” says Daniël. “I took around 500 pictures that day, but only a handful turned out good.” He picked this one because of the “spirit and expression” it portrays. “There’s a lot of positivity in the picture, despite the critical condition of the species. I think people relate to Caco. He is a young teenage boy relaxing on the forest floor while enjoying lunch. The human-like traits hopefully make people empathetic to the subject.”
Now 18, Daniël began taking pictures more than 10 years ago. “I was very young when I started nosing through National Geographic and other wildlife magazines. At the age of six my father decided to take me to Zambia, so I could see wildlife in reality. From there on in I grew more and more passionate about the natural world – I quickly learnt that photography is an effective way to showcase nature. I devoted much of my energy to photography and, since then, I have been on many other trips. Each time I become more creative and innovative.”
In the future, Daniël wants to build a career as a professional photographer, after taking a university degree (probably in environmental sustainability). “What fascinates me about wildlife photography is its ability to convey a message. It can be used to showcase the beauty of nature or to raise awareness of an issue. It influences people that never witness wildlife themselves, or whose knowledge of wildlife is confined to that around them. Growing up in Amsterdam, I loved to watch Steve Irwin or David Attenborough uncover the natural world. My knowledge of nature was little, but through film and photography I learned about the world beyond my own city.”
There are many conservation stories yet to be told.
Having just finished secondary school, Daniël is currently part-way through an eight-month journey from Amsterdam to Cape Town. “I took the train to Spain, a ferry to Morocco, then travelled all the way to Senegal through Western Sahara and Mauritania. I am now in the Casamance in southern Senegal and will go into Guinea Bissau next week,” he says. “Western and Central Africa are underemphasised. As with Caco, this region contains many conservation stories that are yet to be told.”
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