Photographing Endemic Wildlife of North Sulawesi

The Airbus A320 arced around massive cumulous clouds in early hours of dawn as we made our approach into Manado's Sam Ratulangi International Airport. As pastel lights illuminated the sky the landscape emerged below, dense forest highlighted by dozens of symmetrical cone-shaped mountains. These volcanoes are owed for supporting Sulawesi's natural diversity – rich soils provide a home to hundreds of unique species of flora and fauna.

Manado was a brief stopover for less than 24-hours en-route to Gorontalo, which was the focal point of our whole trip. Landing in Gorontalo the next day was a different experience entirely. People were more laid back at the rural airport; we quickly retrieved our photography gear and boarded hired vehicles to head west. The four hour drive took us through small villages in the mountains and sweeping vistas dotted with rice paddies and fields of maize.

Arriving at the forest reserve of Nantu, we quickly tossed our bags at our village homestay and geared up for our first trip into the jungle. Each photographer on our five-member team carried multiple cameras, tripods, trekking gear, and a gaggle of lenses. We walked about a mile down a dirt road to the outskirts of the village, crossed through a giant field of corn, and came face to face with our river crossing. The river was slow thanks to two days without rain and, making quick work of it, we made our one-hour trek through the jungle to the mud pit where we would spend the waking hours of our next three days.

Babirusa literally translates to "pig-deer" in English, which sums up exactly what these bizarre creatures look like. The North Sulawesi babirusa is a vulnerable species endemic to the region. When we arrived at the mud pit, we immediate lay eyes on a large male with two sets of giant protruding tusks. Watching a group of photographers struggle to throw their gear together was a sight to be seen… we managed to fire off some quick shots before the animals realized we were there.

Nantu is one of the only places in the world to reliably see these animals. We were fortunate enough to spot a few groups on their daily visits to consume the salty deposits in the mud pit, though, despite nearly 20 hours of patient waiting behind our custom-built hide, we only got about 20 minutes to photograph these animals. I'm happy to say, those 20 minutes made the whole trip worth it and we captured some amazing images to take home with us.

The remainder of the trip was spent visiting natural landmarks surrounding the Manado area. We spent four days photographing endemic species at the Tangkoko National Park in coastal Bitung, the highlight of which was the Celebes-crested macaque. This monkey is critically endangered but can be observed in the protected park. Some troops of these incredibly intelligent monkeys have been known to interact with people and sometimes enjoy casual walks on the beach. This trip to Sulawesi was one that I will not soon forget – if it isn't on your bucket list yet, I recommend you put it near the top immediately!

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