In his 20-plus visits to Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve, photographer Robert Ross has crouched in palm forests with hunters, bounced along dusty roads with tourists, and spent sleepless nights among howling hyenas. Last week, after nearly a decade of shooting and editing, he released The Selous in Africa: A Long Way From Anywhere, a photography book filled with his vibrant portraits of animals and landscapes from one of Africa's last truly wild places.
With over 19,000 square miles, the Selous Game Reserve contains a staggering variety of habitats and landscapes, from Miombo woodlands and coastal forests to ragged mountains and riverine valleys. Crocodiles, leopards, giraffe, hippopotami, and vast herds of buffaloes roam the land and rivers, and over 460 species of birds have been recorded in the area, including bee-eaters, birds of prey like Pearl-spotted Owlets and Crowned and Martial Eagles, and waterbirds such as Openbill Storks and Pink-backed Pelicans. Ross, 58, started photographing Africa’s rain forests and bustling cities 15 years ago, but it wasn’t until 2009 that he ventured into the Selous, and immediately found himself transfixed. What was intended to be a week-long stay turned into a six-year-long mission to document all the wild wonders of the reserve. Ross pursued flocks of Red-billed Queleas for hours (yelling directions to his driver as they tried to keep up), confronted wallowing hippos to get the perfect lakeside shot of Northern Carmine Bee-eaters, and hid from skittish African Paradise Flycatchers as they fed their babies (a remote-triggered camera came in handy for that one). He also encountered many rare birds, including the Narina Trogon, the Wattled Crane, and the Böhm’s Bee-eater.
The Selous was once dotted with settlements, but harsh environmental conditions and a tsetse fly outbreak spurred a large-scale evacuation of the region in the 1940s, leaving the reserve uncultivated, uninhabited, and relatively untouched for many years. Written records on its history only date back to the 1800s, when the first piece of the reserve was set aside for conservation. Today, the Selous has about 40 blocks of land that are leased to big-game hunting companies, as well as a number of camps in the northern part of the reserve that are reserved specifically for photo safaris. (Photographic tourism has been on the rise in the region due to its untamed nature and reputation.) Both activities are rigorously monitored, and provide vital sources of revenue that benefit the reserve and its protected areas. "The Selous is one of those fabled, protected places,” Ross says. “Even though it is one of Africa’s largest and oldest wilderness areas, it is still largely unknown.”
It's also plagued by a number of anthropogenic threats. Between the 1970s and late 1980s, the reserve's once-thriving elephant population declined from 110,000 to 30,000 due to poaching, and the park’s rhinos went from 3,000 to a mere 100 during the same time period. The Selous was designated as a World Heritage site in 1982, but poaching is still a major problem. The Tanzanian government legalized oil and gas exploration in the reserve in 2009, and there are plans for the construction of a dam on the Rufiji River—the reserve’s largest and most ecologically important river. As a result, the site was added to the United Nation’s List of World Heritage in Danger last year.
Ross hopes that his book will inspire greater conservation efforts in the Selous. “The better something is known, the better chance it will be properly looked after,” he says. “It’s critical we protect these wilderness areas, because once they are gone, they are gone for good.” To that end, Ross collaborated with writers Rolf Baldus and Walter Jubber, who both penned essays about the reserve’s history and ecology for the book. The Selous in Africa also includes excerpts from Sand Rivers, Peter Matthiessen’s dreamy 1981 account of his adventures in the Selous. Among those sampled lines is an observation that rings as true today as it did 30 years ago, paired alongside Ross's image of a solitary stilt in the book: “There is a silence in the imminence of animals and also in the echo of their noise, but the dread silence is the one that rises from a wilderness from which all the animals have gone.”
Take a virtual trip through the reserve with more selections from the book:
The Selous in Africa: A Long Way from Anywhere, photographs by Robert Ross, Officina Libraria, 276 pages, $65. Buy it on Amazon.