Long-tailed Macaques

Long-tailed Macaques
Long-tailed Macaque (Macaca fascicularis)

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ubud's Sacred Monkey Forest, Bali

Receiving more than 15,000 visitors a month, and located in the middle of one of the most commercially saturated areas of Bali, Ubud's Sacred Monkey Forest can be easily dismissed as just another tourist trap. However, an early morning visit before the crowds arrive can provide a surprisingly interesting wildlife experience, set in the unique atmosphere of Balinese hindu temples.

The Forest complex belongs to the village of Padangtegal, which has been all but engulfed to become a suburb of Ubud, a bustling town of 30,000 that's one of the main cultural and artistic centers of Bali, and a big tourist destination. The entrance, located at the end of the aptly named Monkey Forest Road, opens everyday at 8:00 am, for a 20,000 rupee fee (roughly US$2). It gives access to a 27-acre densely forested park with paved trails leading to the village's pura dalem or death temple, a typical Balinese walled compound that contains the cemetery and the cremation area. A stream cuts through a small but scenic gorge, and is canalized to provide water to a small bathing temple, used for purification rituals.

 Long-tailed Macaque, young adult male.

Covered in moss and in places overgrown by the lush vegetation, the temples in the Forest look deceptively old; although it is known that the forest has been held sacred and contained some sort of religious site since the 15th Century, the structures that can be seen today are relatively recent. The volcanic rock widely used in Bali as building material is cheap and easily carved, but deteriorates quickly under the tropical climate and has to be renovated frequently. There are many interesting, often strangely unsettling sculptures around the temples and all over the forest, depicting both the benevolent and demonic forces central to Hindu beliefs.

 Statues around the Death Temple.

The monkeys in the forest are Long-tailed (also know as Crab-eating) macaques, Macaca fascicularis. This is a widespread, mostly forest-dwelling species found in most of Southeast Asia, with as much as ten different subspecies showing considerable variation in color and size throughout their range. The ones in Bali belong to the nominate subspecies, M. f. fascicularis. Adaptable and resourceful, they thrive in degraded and humanized habitats as long as there are some trees left, and often live close to people. They often inhabit swamp and seashore forests and are very good swimmers, able to dive for crustaceans, clams and small fish.

The Balinese people have a mixed attitude towards macaques. In Hindu traditions they act as an ambivalent force, with both good and evil monkeys appearing in the Ramayana epic poem and other ancient lore. Here in the forest, where they are believed to keep evil spirits away from the temples, they are revered, pampered and fed; but as soon as they leave the sacred grounds and start raiding paddy fields and farms, they are considered vermin and dealt with accordingly.

Monkeys are fed in the early morning by the Forest staff, who are very smartly-dressed villagers from Padangtegal. Staff members seem to genuinely care about the monkeys' well-being, they know individuals within the different troops, and will warn visitors if they feel they're bothering them. They also keep the place and the temples spotless.

 The Forest staff seem to know many of the individual macaques well, and have a touching relationship with some of them. This "mad" female looked like she'd suffered some accident or disease that left her face damaged and deformed. Her behavior was strange and violent, and other macaques avoided her. Staff members in charge of feeding seemed quite fond of her, and played a sort of mutual teasing game where she'd put up a ferocious performance and the guards acted scared before "surrendering" a banana. I saw this little ritual on the two mornings I spent at the Forest.

I saw the macaques being fed mostly sweet potato, which they seem to relish, as well as the proverbial bananas. Food is kept in locked cages overnight, and monkeys wait nearby to be fed in what seems an established and accepted routine. There are small stalls by the Forest's entrance where visitors can buy bananas and peanuts to feed the monkeys; a few large, aggressive males wait by the trail and will attempt, often successfully, to rob tourists of all the food they've bought at once. Groups of smaller individuals gang up on visitors, grabbing anything they may considered edible or just fun to snatch from their backpacks. Stretching things a little, it all looks like a nice little racket, the food sellers teaming up with the rogue monkeys to rip off unwary tourists. Other than that, most macaques ignore people and mind their own business, providing a very nice opportunity to watch and photograph their behavior.

 "I wonder where those monkeys are?"

One thing that surprised me about Long-tailed macaques is how similar males and females look. Past a certain age, old males can get quite bulky and are easily distinguished, but in younger adults facial features are remarkably alike, both sexes having bushy beards and mustaches, and only the nipples give away non-breeding females. Personally I find them quite handsome (as far as macaques go), much better-looking than the famous and so-much photographed Japanese macaques.

A male grooming a female.

The macaques breed year-round, and females can be seen carrying young at different stages of growth. Like most macaques, they are born covered in black hair, which they keep until they are about 6 months old. After that, they have black in their heads only, and after their first year their color becomes similar to that of adults. Nursing lasts for an average 9 months, although the little ones start to forage on their own when they're 3 months. Females become sexually mature between 3 and 5 years, but don't attain full adult status within the troop until they give birth for the first time. Males reach maturity around their fifth year, and may grow to weight more than 12 kg.

 Very young infants are covered in black hair.

As they grow, only the hair in their heads remains black.

"Gimme!" Young ones start foraging for their own food at around 3 months.

Plenty of food and an easy life: older males can get quite bulky.

From a photographer's point of view, it's in the early morning when the forest and the macaques are at their best, but the tree cover is so thick that at that time light is very dim; almost all of these images were shot at ISO 1600. Later on, if it's sunny the light becomes the usual nightmare inside a dense forest, with stark contrast between shade and light patches, and after 9:30 it's almost impossible to shoot anything without getting a bunch of brightly dressed tourists in the background. However, the macaques are great photo subjects, especially mothers with their young, and their totally relaxed attitude towards people allows for some very nice images. Some of the best opportunities were provided by the macaques entering the water in the ponds and canals, searching for food bits but also apparently just for fun. Unfortunately, the dark conditions made it very difficult to capture movement.

 Statues provide an very photogenic setting for the macaques.

The temple buildings and the statues are interesting subjects by themselves, and they provide a  great setting to photograph the macaques. Monkeys hang out all over the temples, where their presence is welcome and they feel totally at home. Watching them playing on the moss-covered walls reminds of Kipling's Jungle Book episode in which Mowgli was kidnapped by the Bandar-log, although in the book monkeys were the bigger and stronger Hanuman langurs. 

 Climbing vertical walls is a learned skill: mothers helping their babies.

I haven't been able to find any information about the management of the macaque population within the very limited space of the Forest, other than figures showing a steady increase in their numbers since 1986; small wonder, given the absence of predators and the constant supply of food. There are nowadays more than 600 macaques in the 27-acre Forest, divided into four matriarchal troops. Females tend stick to their native group all their lives, whereas males may wander between different units depending on their status and female availability. Although the species is territorial, the overabundance of food and the general ease of life in the Forest seem to make things more relaxed, and ranges overlap more than they would in a wilder place. Fights do occur, but apparently they're rarely serious.

 A few macaques can be seen wondering the nearby streets in Ubud, but they don't seem to be a big problem, at least yet. In Singapore there are sterilization programs to prevent this species from becoming overabundant in the wildlife areas and parks; in other areas of SE Asia where their numbers become a threat to agriculture, they are simply trapped and shot. Long-tailed macaques have been the subject of an intense international traffic for biomedical research; an estimated 254,000 individuals were exported between 2004 and 2010, mostly between Indonesia and the USA. A marked decline is being detected throughout much of this species' range, and although not currently considered threatened, its status is being reassessed by the IUCN.

You can see more images at www.iyufera.com

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Consejos para fotografiar perros

Gracias a Internet, las redes sociales y la fotografía digital, los aficionados a los perros nunca habíamos tenido acceso a tantas imágenes de ejemplares. No hace tanto tiempo (o al menos eso nos parece a los más viejos), para ver fotos de perros hacía falta rebuscar entre los pocos libros y revistas disponibles en España dedicados al tema, o en los archivos fotográficos de los que eran todavía más viejos que nosotros.

También todos hacemos más fotos que nunca. Las cámaras digitales compactas y los teléfonos móviles nos permiten llevar el equipo siempre encima, y aprovechar cada vez que tenemos un perro delante. Sin embargo, a menudo el resultado no es tan bueno como quisiéramos: un perro imponente que hemos visto en una reunión o un parque nos sale en la foto pequeño, cabezón, o borroso. O nuestro perro, que nos consta que es precioso, parece otra cosa una vez vemos la foto en pantalla grande…

Como fotógrafo semi-profesional, me he permitido escribir algunos consejos sencillos para mejorar nuestras fotos de perros. No se pretende aquí conseguir imágenes de concurso o de calidad profesional (que ya tengo suficiente competencia), sino mostrar al perro que fotografiemos de la mejor y más fiel manera posible.

La primera norma, la más elemental, y con la que más rápidamente mejoraremos nuestras fotos es también la más sencilla: ponte a la altura del perro. O sea, agáchate y que el objetivo de la cámara esté al mismo nivel de sus ojos. Cuanto más pequeño sea el perro, más habrá que agacharse. Y si quieres fotografiar bien a un cachorro, prepárate para arrastrarte por el suelo. Una vez puestos a su nivel, la mejor forma de mostrar la anatomía de un perro de cuerpo entero es de perfil; si lo fotografiamos de frente, que sea con un leve escorzo. O mejor aún, tomar una imagen de cada.

Aunque pueda tener su gracia, una foto desde nuestro punto de vista habitual no muestra bien la anatomía de los perros. Hay que agacharse.

La siguiente no siempre es tan sencilla: ten en cuenta la luz. Si hace sol, procura tenerlo a tu espalda. Pero cuidado, no intentes forzar al perro a mirarte cuando el sol le está dando en los ojos: le obligarás a entrecerrarlos, y su expresión perderá con ello. Otra buena razón para mantener el cuerpo del perro de perfil.

Hay que recordar que las cámaras de fotos apenas registran los medios tonos; o sea, que las sombras aparecen más negras de lo que las vemos al natural, y si fotografiamos al perro contra un fondo brillante, solo saldrá su silueta. Si hay sombras, procura que no caigan sobre la cabeza del perro.

La mayoría de nosotros hacemos fotos con cámaras compactas o incluso con teléfonos móviles. Estas cámara suelen tener lentes zoom con un rango de entre 24 y 100 mm. Si hacemos la foto a 24 mm, es decir, sin usar el zoom, obtendremos un efecto “gran angular” que distorsiona la imagen, haciendo que el perro parezca cabezón. Lo mejor es alejarnos un poco y usar el zoom hasta una distancia focal de 50 mm en adelante (50 mm es el equivalente aproximado a la visión natural del ojo humano).

 El gran angular distorsiona la imagen: el perro aparece cabezón.

Los perros que no están acostumbrados a posar (o sea, casi todos los que no son “de exposición”), por lo general posan fatal cuando intentamos forzarles a ello, dando lugar a la típica imagen de dueño sujetando el collar o tirando hacia arriba de la correa, y el perro encogido y con el rabo entre las piernas. Es mejor tener un poco de paciencia y vista, y pillar al perro en una posición más natural. Un perro siempre tendrá mejor aspecto suelto, pero obviamente eso no siempre es posible. Si debemos fotografiarlo atado, dejemos la correa lo más suelta que podamos.

No siempre es necesario que el perro mire a la cámara, o que tenga expresión de atención; los perros con orejas cortadas o erguidas ganan al estar atentos, pero las razas con orejas caídas suelen tener mejor aspecto con ellas en reposo. La expresión “mirando al horizonte” puede dar mejor resultado.

Si queremos que el perro ofrezca su mejor expresión, debemos procurar que salga con la boca cerrada. Si enseña la lengua, que sea del todo, con la boca abierta; los perros mostrando la lengua a medias suelen salir con cara de tonto, lo que resta seriedad a su expresión. 

¡Hay que acercarse! Muchas veces, especialmente cuando el perro está en acción, no nos damos cuenta de lo lejos que está, y de lo pequeño que va a salir en la foto. En nuestra mente, la acción y el movimiento magnifican la escena, incluso viéndola a través del visor o la pantalla de la cámara; pero la foto no capta más que una pequeña mancha que se pierde en la distancia. Esto ocurre muy a menudo al hacer vídeo. 

 Hay que acercarse... aunque asuste.

Lo contrario también puede ser un problema: a veces encuadramos al perro de forma demasiado apretada, sin dejar lo que los fotógrafos llaman "aire" alrededor del perro. Esto puede dar cierta sensación de agobio a la imagen, incluso hacer parecer al perro más pequeño de lo que es.

Tengamos en cuenta el fondo que se encuentra tras el perro al hacer la foto: que ofrezca un buen contraste con el color del perro, y que no contenga elementos que distraigan la atención del sujeto principal. Un perro negro contra un fondo oscuro (incluyendo la ropa de quien lo sujeta) no se verá bien. Un perro atigrado oscuro contra un fondo oscuro verá desdibujado su contorno. Un perro blanco contra una pared de cal, también. Cuanto más lejos se encuentre el fondo del perro, mejor; así saldrá difuminado.

 Al ser de colores muy parecidos, el contorno del perro se pierde contra el fondo.

Cuanto más contraste haya con el fondo, mejor.

Conviene evitar hacer fotos de perros en césped, a no ser que éste esté recién cortado. La hierba alta oculta los pies del perro, y lo hace parecer paticorto y más largo que lo que es en realidad.

Con frecuencia nos gusta hacernos fotos con nuestros perros, o mostrar a otros dueños con los suyos. En esos casos, es mucho mejor que la persona aparezca agachada junto al perro. Si sale de pie, hará que este parezca más pequeño, y le restará importancia, desviando nuestra mirada hacia arriba.

 Daremos más protagonismo al perro si nos agachamos junto a él (foto: Ignacio Nuevo)

Y si es inevitable que el dueño esté de pie, centrémonos: recordemos bajar nuestro punto de vista y enfoquemos al perro, que es lo que importa. 

Es evidente que no siempre es posible seguir todas estas reglas; muy a menudo nos encontramos con perros en situaciones que no lo permiten. La exposiciones, reuniones de dueños, o incluso los encuentros en ciudad o en un parque rara vez ofrecen las mejores condiciones. Pero procurando recordarlas y poniendo en práctica las que podamos, nuestra fotos mejorarán considerablemente.

Todas las imágenes ©Ignacio Yúfera, excepto donde se indica.