90-year-old Painting as a GPS? Retracing Carl Akeley’s trek in support of Mountain Gorilla
Ever dream of following the rare mountain gorillas, scaling a 14,000 foot mountain, and retracing a heroic explorers’ footsteps (based on a 90-year-old painting) deep in the jungle of the Virunga Mountains in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)? Sound a bit like Indiana Jones? But for sculptor, naturalist and social entrepreneur Jeff Whiting, who is a few days away from his departure to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, this is a very real undertaking.
Unassuming and composed, yet full of internal jitters, Jeff chats with me about his upcoming expedition which is part of an art-science initiative spearheaded by his international organization, Artists for Conservation (the leading non-profit group of artists supporting the environment), and endorsed by the Explorers Club.
CS: Mountain Gorillas, Rwananda, DRC, exploring and trekking sounds exciting, exotic and nerve-racking at the same time – what is this expedition all about?
JW: On November 20th, I’ll be taking off to accompany American historian, artist, and explorer, Stephen Quinn on a rare journey to study the Mountain Gorilla in Rwanda and DRC. Our goal is to retrace the footsteps of Carl Akeley from a journey that happened nearly a century ago. Akeley is considered to be the father of modern-day taxidermy and to this day known to have played an instrumental role in the establishment of the first national park in Africa – the Virunga National Park – it’s best known for the mountain gorillas.
CS: What is going on in this area? Why is it significant?
JW: The area we are visiting was at the time of Akeley well inhabited by mountain gorillas. Today, it’s estimated that there are only 740 mountain gorillas left in the world. The poaching and civil wars in the Congo have significantly threatened the wildlife in the park over the years. But we are going there to take a closer look at the changes in landscape.
When Akeley went up Mount Mikeno (14,557 feet, 4,437 meters), an extinct volcano, on this infamous trip some 90 years ago (which by the way ended up in his death), he made a painting which is now the backdrop for the famous Mountain Gorilla diorama still on display in the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
CS: And what do you hope to accomplish?
JW: We’ll be using this 90-year-old painting to find the exact location, a lookout towards the top of Mount Mikeno, from where Akeley painted it – to this day, the exact location of the lookout and Akeley’s grave is not known and has not been recorded via GPS. Steven will create a series of paintings on location depicting what that exact site looks like today so that we can compare and contrast the changes that have taken place over the past century in this area. On the journey, we will also document what the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project has done to ensure the survival of the remaining Mountain Gorillas.
Upon our return to North America, we hope to successfully bring back our work, including some high definition footage, and will hold a series of workshops and presentations, including a public exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, to share our findings, and to highlight and support current conservation work done to save the Mountain Gorilla and its threatened habitat.
You can find out more and follow Jeff and Steve’s trek at Artists For Conservation Flag Expeditions
Photo credit: Denis Finnin, American Museum of Natural History