By Michael Mellini
For his latest edition of National Geographic Live, Emmy Award-winning cinematographer Bob Poole brings audiences inside Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, where he documented one of the world’s largest conservation projects. Poole joined Ship to Shore Productions at the Chicago Athletic Association hotel to discuss his incredible work. As a sponsor of National Geographic Live, CAA hosted Poole during his stay in Chicago. In April, CAA and National Geographic live will welcome photographer Carsten Peterwill to town. For tickets visit here.
Michael Mellini: Why do you enjoy working in Africa?
Bob Poole: My parents moved to Africa when I was three years old. They were in the Peace Corps and just nuts about nature, and afterward my father started working in wildlife conservation. We grew up in Kenya around wildlife, so it sort of rubbed off on me and my sister [Joyce Poole], who is one of the foremost elephant zoologists in the world. Africa is enormous and tremendously diverse. Everywhere you go is completely different from other places. So much of the wildlife I grew up with is disappearing. I’ve worked all over the continent in remote corners, places like the Congo, Sudan, Mali and Chad, as well as the more standard spots like Botswana and Tanzania. All those jobs sort of led me to Gorongosa in Mozambique.
MM: Why was Gorongosa’s story of such strong interest to National Geographic?
BP: Gorongosa was one of Africa’s greatest national parks, just a tremendous place with tons of wildlife. Then war broke out in the area for almost 30 years. It was terrible; over one million people were killed by the end. Mozambique became the second poorest country in the world and the wildlife almost completely disappeared. An American philanthropist named Greg Carr created a public/private partnership with the Mozambique government to help fund the restoration of the park through a 20-year program, which I joined in 2008, two years after its founding.
MM: As a filmmaker, what kind of work were you doing while in the park?
BP: A lot of it was figuring out where things you would want to film actually happen. There are pretty much no roads in the park except for a network of a few trails, so there’s a lot of exploration involved. It’s difficult because the animals there don’t completely trust us. It’s not like in the Serengeti where you can walk up and easily film amazing stuff. You have to work really hard to get the images you want.
MM: Do you have a favorite species to track?
BP: The elephants are particularly special. There used to be more than 4,000 in the area, but their numbers were knocked down to about 200. The ones that are left don’t like people and are very aggressive. We’re making friends with them, but, again, it’s difficult.
MM: You’re often out in the field for days, weeks, months at a time trying to capture a single image. How do you pass time while waiting for the best shots?
BP: You would think sitting and waiting for things to happen would be really boring, but it never is. I spent six weeks in a tree once and never got bored. There’s always something going on. You don’t go sit in a tree somewhere unless it’s in a remarkable place. I always find something to look at or to try and film. When you sit quietly and look around, it’s amazing the things that suddenly appear that you never realized were there.
MM: The conservation efforts in Gorongosa have been incredibly successful. Does that give you hope for other troubled areas?
BP: It was truly extraordinary to witness how much the wildlife came back, and this shows us just how resilient nature really is. When I first visited Gorongosa you couldn’t see much wildlife, and then it just came booming back on its own. The most notable species was the waterbuck. Then I started seeing all these other species returning like the antelope. Some species, like lions, haven’t recovered quickly, though, so there are now big efforts to help restore those populations. I had seen other areas in Africa that had been destroyed as well, but now you wouldn’t recognize them as anything other than total wild African bush. You start digging around and suddenly find out the place used to be a bean or cotton farm that was abandoned, but then the wildlife just came back. During the 1960s and ‘70s it was a different place. If you left the edge of any town in Central or East Africa you encountered wildlife, and that’s not the case anymore. Africa is going through difficult times with an exploding human population taking up a lot of space that was once wild. There are new generations with no connection to the wildlife or the experience their parents had with the land. There’s hope for the future though.