(Here I reproduce an article I just published in Wildlife Photographic eMag, which you can download here https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/wildlife-photographic-photography/id668779090?mt=8 )
I approach nature photography with two main goals in mind:
• To capture and portray a sense of place.
• To convey a sense of intimacy to the viewer in a way that confronting a photo is the closest he or she can get to being there without actually being there.
So when I first approached Sierra de Bahoruco, this was my mind set and pre-established goals … but that would soon change as the need to communicate a sense of urgency and commitment to the conservation of such a place took over.
Sierra de Bahoruco is an important part of the history of Hispaniola (the Caribbean island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic). These mountains, reaching nearly 9 thousand feet at Pic La Selle, served as a hideout for the indigenous Taíno as they tried to escape the cruelty and bloodshed that the Spanish colonisers brought with them. The Sierra is specially known as the safe haven chosen by Enriquillo (a Taíno chief originally named Guarocuya), who fled there to defend himself and his people from the Spaniards for over ten years, making him the first Amerindian rebel of the continent. Later, the same mystical mountains protected the African slaves as they rebelled against the French and Spanish colonial oppression on both sides of the island. Since 2004, Sierra de Bahoruco, with its 270 thousand acres, became the largest terrestrial protected area of the Dominican Republic, serving as a refuge to most of the island’s unique biodiversity, but if the trend continues, not for long. Unfortunately, no one is listening to its desperate calls.
Separated by a gruelling 4 to 5-hour car ride to Santo Domingo, with no major urban centers nearby, Sierra de Bahoruco is a good example of out of sight, out of mind. Since the park’s boundaries on the ground are non-existent, claiming a piece of land on this unguarded territory and leasing it to the long queue of landless and desperately poor Haitian farmers goes usually unnoticed. Likewise, bribes to border and forests guards for looking the other way when trees are turned to gigantic charcoal ovens are commonplace. Although illegal, the charcoal trade provides income to many in this poor region, since it is the main cooking fuel in Haiti and some rural Dominican communities. Thus, under the indifference of the Dominican authorities, a lot of Dominican farmers and entrepreneurs have plundered the Sierra’s unique forests, resulting in widespread erosion of its steep slopes, leaving its limestone rock substrate exposed after a few harvests.
In terms of bird conservation, Sierra de Bahoruco holds a privileged spot and it is a must see for all bird scholars and enthusiasts. This national park provides a habitat for 28 of the 31 species of endemic birds, and hosts 32 of the 34 birds with restricted ranges on the island. These include the Black-capped Petrel, including its the only known nesting ground in the world, the rare Bay-breasted Cuckoo, the La Selle’s Thrush and the largest population of Hispaniolan Crossbills in Hispaniola. Other endemic and endangered birds include the boisterous Hispaniolan parakeets and parrots, the spectacular Golden Swallow, the White-winged Warbler and the Western-chat Tanager. The Sierra is also a very important destination for 31 species of birds that migrate from North America during the winter, including Bicknells’ Thrush, an endangered songbird with approximately 90% of it’s entire population believed to winter in the Dominican Republic.
For wildlife photographers, Hispaniola presents a true challenge. Contrary to other continental destinations, as an island it has less species, with most being extremely hard to photograph. The forest is dense, the light gets hard and harsh pretty quickly and birds -with some exceptions-, are shy and weary. Besides hosting most of our endemic bird species, Bahoruco also offers chances to photograph our two endemic terrestrial mammals; the Hispaniolan Solenodon (Solenodon paradoxus) and the Hispaniola Hutia (Plagiodontia aedium), and countless endemic reptiles, amphibians, plants and fungi.
I’ve been photographing Sierra de Bahoruco for a few years now but I still feel I’ve only dipped a toe into this enchanting mountain chain. For my last visit, I hired local guide Nicolás Corona in an attempt to find and photograph the elusive Solenodon, an iconic creature never seen by the majority of Dominicans due to its nocturnal habits and shy nature.
That morning I left before sunrise in a 6-hour drive from Santo Domingo to Pedernales, a little border town in the southern part of the Sierra that I would be using as base camp. Until this trip, I had always focused on the north side of “La Sierra”, as we locals call it, usually setting base in Puerto Escondido, where Kate Wallace runs the only birding lodge in the country. Then, I would be driving up to Zapotén to spend the night in a tent near a ranger station. However, this time I would explore the south, staying at one of the small hostels in Pedernales and covering about 100 miles and 20 hours each day.
When I finally got to Pedernales it was already 2pm ( I had made a previous stop at Caamaño National Park to photograph Burrowing Owls) and the day was hot and humid. The thermometer marked 103ºF when we left the beach at Cabo Rojo, but 45 minutes later, after driving through dry,semi-dry, moist and cloud forests, I reached the Sierras vast pine lands, the temperature had dropped down to 64ºF.
As I kept driving we entered a patch of forest that had been completely burned. Nicolás explained that in early January there had been a fire that burnt for more than a week, in his opinion it was intentionally caused in order to clear land for illegal farming. As a thick, eery fog settled in, I thought of the lush cloud forests which once stood here and wondered if I’d ever see them again or if I could spare some of them elsewhere in Bahoruco from this fate. I’ve never felt so sad facing something so beautiful.
For the next three days I went up and down the Sierra looking for birds during the day and mammals during the night, running into tarantulas, painted snails and all kind of orchids while doing so. The beauty and richness of this place has no comparison. This is the unexpected Caribbean, one filled with life and diversity, one begging to be saved, one that has seen history go by and that has suffered in the name of civilisation since Christopher Columbus set foot in this island in 1492.
As I packed my gear the last day of shooting I knew something had changed inside me and that I was forever bound to this place, and as I closed the trunk of my car and looked up one last time before driving back to the city, I promised to do everything in my power to spread the word and encourage other nature lovers to visit and protect the magical forests of Sierra de Bahoruco.