Doing it for Rwanda’s gorillas

The story of Joe and Mary Ann McDonald; the American couple whose life is devoted to safari photography
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The story of Joe and Mary Ann McDonald; the American couple whose life is devoted to safari photography

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.

Leading and facilitating photo tours, safaris and workshops, Joe and Mary Ann travel extensively. Typically, in a year, the couple traverses as many as six different continents!

One of their favorite safari destinations is, yes… Rwanda. No other African country have they visited as this one. The sworn nature lovers flew into the country last Sunday, with a delegation of six. They have been staying at the Gorilla View Lodge in Musanze, like on all their previous visits.

Perhaps for the name, McDonald, some people had been led to link this couple to the famous American fast food chain, McDonald’s. I was one of them, and soon as I heard the rumor, was off to the Gorilla View Lodge, amidst a heavy downpour.

Getting at Gorilla View Lodge and finding out that this couple had nothing to do with McDonald’s (the food) was not the end of the story. It was the beginning of another, perhaps more interesting one; the story of Joe and Mary Ann McDonald.  

So far, the couple has made a record 70 mountain gorilla treks in the Volcanoes National Park in the Northern Province, the biggest number of treks to any national park they have visited.

And still they are counting. Their target is to visit the park 100 times, filming and taking pictures of the amazing tropical landscape and mountain gorillas. That is 30 more treks on the cards.

The couple flew back to Kigali yesterday (Saturday), after five days of trekking. They jet out of the country today (Sunday). Joe and Ann write extensively about their wild safaris on their website, www.hoothollow.com.

Their very first trip to Rwanda happened in 2003. “Now, tens of treks later, 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,” they reveal.

At present 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. This makes the mountain gorilla population an endangered species.

And this precisely explains the McDonalds’ deep obsession with gorilla tracking in Rwanda:

“One of the highlights for Mary and I, was being recognized by our guide, Alex, and the superintendent of Volcanoes National Park for our efforts to promote tourism in Rwanda. Alex, in a small ceremony, presented us with Rwanda flag pins, making us ‘ambassadors’ for the country. We were honored, because our own commitment and bond to Rwanda is great. We’re 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,” Joe contends.

“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,” he adds.

“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.

JOE McDONALD

He has been photographing wildlife and nature since 1966, starting with images of pet turtles, lizards and snakes he made in high school. At this time he was already selling photos to the US National Wildlife Federation.

Since then, Joe has been published in most natural history publications in the U.S., including Audubon, Bird Watcher’s Digest, Birder’s World, Living Bird, Natural History, National and International Wildlife, and many more.

He is the author of seven books, A Practical Guide to Photographing American Wildlife; The Wildlife Photographer’s Field Manual; The Complete Guide to Wildlife Photography; Designing Wildlife Photographs; Photographing on Safari, The New Complete Guide to Wildlife Photography, and African Wildlife; A Portrait of the Animal World.

Joe 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. He is 60 years old.
 
MARY ANN McDONALD

Mary Ann has been photographing wildlife and nature professionally since 1990, after attending a photo workshop run by Joe, her future husband. Since then, she has been published in most American natural history magazines.

She has penned 29 children’s books covering a vast range of subjects; Leopards, Grizzly Bears, Woodpeckers, Flying Squirrels, Cobras, Boas, Pythons, Rattlesnakes, Jupiter, Cows, Horses, and Sunflowers. These text and photo books are all illustrated with the couple’s own photography.

In 1994 Mary won two first place awards in the prestigious BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition. Her two winning entries were photos of the fighting flying Great Egrets, a rarely photographed action, and Noon, a tigress in India.

She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology, and did medical research at the Hersey Medical Center in Pennsylvania. 

She is 56.

 

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