Photographer who goes out on a limb to capture shots of world's rarest species

Belgian lives in tree tops for weeks at a time to get close to his subjects

Mark Hughes
Thursday 20 May 2010 00:00

Like most photographers Guido Sterkendries puts a lot of effort into getting the perfect shot. But other professionals might consider that taking pictures while dangling hundreds of metres above the rainforest floor is taking his art to the extreme.

For the past 10 years, the 47-year-old Belgian has photographed some of the world's rarest species while living up to two weeks in a specially constructed canopy in the tree tops of rainforests in Panama and Brazil. And he has been rewarded with spectacular photographs of never-before-seen species such as the tiny blue arboreal poison dart frog, howling monkeys and the near extinct golden frog.

Unsurprisingly the job isn't easy.

"The rainforest is a wild atmosphere where it's more than 90 per cent humidity so every time you go up in the canopy you're sweating a lot," he said. "It takes about 20 minutes to get to the top because you need to do it slowly and stop to look at the wildlife all around. You need to move carefully because there are lots of dangerous animals up there."

Sterkendries has witnessed the effects deforestation and pollution have on the brittle eco-systems. Targeting isolated and untouched areas in Brazil and Panama, he has ventured into some of the deepest and darkest territories on Earth.

"In Brazil, we were cut off from civilisation by 70 miles of rainforest, rivers and impassable terrain," he said. "The particular patch of Panama where I discovered the blue poison dart frog, was one of the most stunningly unspoilt patches I have ever seen. There weren't even any farmers in the area. It was so beautiful to see all this life undamaged."

With the help of local tribesmen, he finds the best place to set up camp, before using a combination of ropes and pulleys to erect the canopy.

Once at the top the danger is all too apparent. "You need to be focused on your safety and also your camera," he said. "If something falls down you never find it again on the ground. So you need to tie everything up properly. You end up looking like a salami."

But he is adamant that the results of his labour are worth the effort. "A strong photo can tell more than a thousand words," he says. "Not many photographers were able to bring out this ecological drama."

Among the photographs he has taken in the jungle, two stand out for him. "The jewel in the crown was of the blue arboreal poison dart frog, because it was the first time it had ever been photographed," he said.

But one of the most fun was when he came face to face with a very loud and extrovert howler monkey. "I love the picture of it howling very close to the camera," he revealed. "It was about four metres away. "It's really amazing to see an alpha male doing his thing".

In June he plans to travel from the delta of the Amazon to its source to observe the effects of man-made damage to areas along the river. He explains: "I want to look at the differences of habitat on the river and see if the damage to the land is as terrifying as I saw from the airplane."

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