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Gabon's Great Leap
Photo: Photographer Nicolas Reynard
Photographer Nicolas Reynard
Last fall photographer Nicolas Reynard trekked through Gabon's new national park system, where lush forests hide Africa's largest concentration of undisturbed—and camera-shy—animals. Could these parks change the face of ecotourism and preservation in the Congo Basin?

When French photographer Nicolas Reynard and writer Tom Clynes set out to test drive three of Gabon's 13 new national parks for "The Gabon Experiment" (check out the September 2003 issue or our excerpt), they expected dozens of close encounters with the forest's denizens of hippos, elephants, gorillas, and mandrills. With a stable government and 11 percent of the country's land area set aside for the parks, Gabon is uniquely positioned to become the ecotourism capital of Africa. But unlike its savannah counterparts, the Gabon experience has few guarantees, as Reynard and Clynes soon discovered.

"You can know where animals go, you can wait for them, but they could very well decide to go to a different spot—they're animals, they do what they feel like doing," says Reynard, who has gone on assignment to such diverse locales as the Amazon and the Arctic Circle. Ten days spent slogging through unrelenting mud and rain made the prospect of any face-to-snout encounters seem slim, if not impossible. Soon, however, the two became wise in the ways of the jungle: "Tom and I understood that this story was not something where you could just go in and immediately shoot," says Reynard. "Instead we had to earn the story by learning where to look, watching where the wind is blowing, and reading the jungle like a book."

Ultimately, the last days of the assignment proved exceptionally rewarding—if an early morning wake-up call from a buffalo and an encounter with a startled elephant can be deemed rewarding. "In the end, the photography and reportage was so incredible," says Reynard. "It's absolutely true that the game is not completely played until the last minute."

Photograph courtesy Tom Clynes

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September 2003

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