03.04.18: Looking back

Female western lowland gorilla, National Zoo, Washington, D.C. 


Technical information

July 10, 2009,
12:51 p.m.

38°55’49" N
77°3'12" W
(Show in Google Maps)

Canon EOS 40D

Canon EF 100-400 f/4-5.6L (275mm)


1/320th second


This is a photo of what turned out to be a cooperative female western lowland gorilla in the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. I’ve learned from my many photo forays to zoos that a cooperative animal is one of the most important factors for getting a quality photograph in a zoo.

Every time I post a photo taken in a zoo, I make the same statement: I have more difficulty getting quality photos of animals in a zoo than I do in the wild.

It seems like it should be the other way around. After all, I know exactly where the animals are in a zoo. There are maps and signs showing where to find animals. Can't miss 'em. Just walk up to the pen and start shooting. Nothing to it.

Except there are often high fences to shoot through. Or glass walls. And crowds of people. And the animals tend to seek shelter far from the viewing areas.

On this day I managed to find a spot with an unobstructed view of the gorilla, but it was one of those good news, bad news situations. The good news: Nothing was blocking the view. The bad news: The gorilla had its back toward me and showed no interest in turning around.

So I focused on the back of the gorilla’s head and hoped.

I held my position while the crowd of people passed through the area, the typical zoo visitors who take a quick look at an animal then move to the next exhibit. After about 10 minutes, the gorilla glanced my way. I grabbed a quick shot. Then it turned away.

I like the expression on the gorilla’s face, a combination of curiosity and indifference (and perhaps a touch of sadness) as it looks back at my position.

According to the National Zoo’s website,  western lowland gorillas are the smallest of the gorilla subspecies of great apes. Males are much larger than females, standing up to 6 feet tall and weighing an average of 300 pounds (a male can weigh as much as 500 pounds). Adult females weigh from 150 to 200 pounds and stand up to 4.5 feet tall. 

The western lowland gorilla is native to the Congo Basin of central Africa and is a quiet, non-aggressive animal. It is considered to be the least endangered gorilla subspecies, but it is still listed as critically endangered — a fact that says a lot about the plight of the species. According to the zoo’s website, western lowland gorillas have been plagued by exceptionally high levels of disease and hunting, which has resulted in a population decline of more than 60 percent in the past 20 to 25 years.

Each week I will post a photo from my collection with an explanation of how I got the shot. Previous photos of the week are in the archives.