Musical Explorer and Filmmaker
Photograph by Maria Stenzel
Joshua Ponte was a successful young English entrepreneur when, over breakfast one morning, his eye fell on a newspaper ad that said "Gorilla Reintroduction Program, Gabon." His life has never been the same.
Pursuing his passion for conservation, he moved to a central African forest where 13 orphaned gorillas were being studied. "Nothing could have prepared me for my first encounter," Ponte recalls. "I was walking through the forest and all 13 gorillas came wandering through the trees in a line, perfectly arranged from largest to smallest. They have the same twinkle in their eye we do, the same fingernails. And like us, each one is different—some are very affectionate, some mischievous; others are surprisingly terrible tree climbers. This program was a virtually unprecedented opportunity to observe them in the wild."
In 2002, the president of Gabon established 13 national parks to preserve the country's unique natural and cultural heritage, which includes Africa's largest section of pristine rain forest, more than 700 bird species, 190 different mammals, and a quarter of indigenous plant species found no place else on Earth. Ponte later joined the Wildlife Conservation Society in taking on the enormous opportunity and challenge the new mandate created.
"We saw the need for a communications unit to explain and promote the parks," Ponte notes. "The local people had no concept of conservation, yet overnight their government had cancelled enormous logging concessions, put their ancestral hunting grounds off limits, and paid a real economic price to safeguard these areas. What's more, locals weren't aware that their land and wildlife are among the most precious and unique in the world. Kids often asked me if we didn't have gorillas in England too."
Gabon's bold dream is to have an environmentally sensitive ecotourism trade that contributes to the national economy and to long-term sustainable development. Realizing that local support would be crucial, Ponte decided to take his message on the road to communities surrounding the parks. But his mission had another purpose as well.
Due to spreading development, ancient knowledge and cultural traditions are vanishing from even the most remote villages. Teaming up with Pierre Akendengue, legendary father of traditional Gabonese music, Ponte set out to film and record music, dance, and rituals on the verge of extinction. "I wanted to capture the broadest possible diversity of Gabon's 45 different ethnicities. We covered nearly 6,000 kilometers in five weeks and recorded more than 100 hours of material."
"Gabonese music is so complex and multilayered, both rhythmically and harmonically. The ethnomusicologist who accompanied us [Ivan Lantos] said he felt like a biologist finding a living example of an animal previously thought to be extinct. It's a raw, gutsy, hypnotic, incredibly emotional music."
Eager to share his discoveries, Ponte produced a double CD. One disc includes pure field recordings. The second features new music composed with international musicians in the U.K., based on Gabonese rhythms, melodies, and instrumentation—providing a cultural stepping stone between ancient and contemporary art forms.
In 2005 Ponte returned to Gabon, filming a diverse cross section of viewpoints including loggers, conservationists, Pygmies, hunters, oil companies, and politicians. These interviews, along with film from his earlier trek through the villages, will create a rare and revealing snapshot of tensions shaping Gabon today. Revenues from his projects will go to help Gabon's sustainable development and conservation efforts.
"Culturally, I'm fascinated to see people in places like New York or London seeking the very things Gabon's forest people have always had—a sense of community, better family values, more time, and a basic connection to the environment around them. A village chief I lived with told me, 'You have watches but no time; we have no watches but all the time in the world.' It's extraordinary that Gabon has survived as intact as it has—a total blessing for us and countless species of plants and animals that have shared endless millennia of evolution."
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In Their Words
It's extraordinary that Gabon has survived as intact as it has—a total blessing for us and countless species of plants and animals that have shared endless millennia of evolution.
Hear an interview with Joshua Ponte on National Geographic Weekend.
00:09:00 Joshua Ponte Audio
National Geographic Emerging Explorer Joshua Ponte was a successful young English entrepreneur when, over breakfast one morning, his eye fell on a newspaper ad that said "Gorilla Reintroduction Program, Gabon." His life has never been the same since. Pursuing his passion for conservation, Ponte moved to a central African forest where 13 orphaned gorillas were being studied. Boyd talks with Ponte about the joys and dangers of raising young gorillas.
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