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Among Giants

Joe and Mary Ann McDonald, at Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda.

In fall 2016, Joe McDonald ’74, M’76 and his wife, Mary Ann, completed their 100th mountain gorilla trek. This photo was taken in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. In the following photos, Joe McDonald shares his perspective from behind the lens.

A wildlife photographer for more than 30 years, Joe McDonald ’74, M’76 and his wife, Mary Ann, made their 100th trek to the volcano slopes of Rwanda last November to see mountain gorillas up close.

While scientists may have them beat, they say their 100 treks are a record for tourists. They’ve also brought along nearly 600 guests, a boon to the local economy and to gorilla conservation, McDonald said.

During their tours, they come within feet of silverback gorillas weighing upwards of 400 pounds, but Joe describes them as “gentle giants.”

“I have been pushed flat by a silverback and slapped on the back and legs by juveniles, but the biggest danger is getting whacked by a thick bamboo pole when a gorilla pulls one down seeking tender shoots,” he said.

To mark their recent milestone, they released a book, 1,000 Hills, 100 Treks, and Countless Friends, to be followed this year by their 11th book, Camouflaged Wildlife. McDonald plans to continue his adventures in Rwanda next year by participating in Kwita Izina, a ceremony to name the newborn gorillas.

Leaders of photo tours around the globe, the McDonalds count among their greatest accomplishments photographing in a single year all the world’s big cats—snow leopards in the Himalayas; tigers in central India; lions, leopards, and cheetahs in Africa; jaguars in Brazil; and pumas in Chile.

Joe McDonald: In His Words

“When I was an IUP undergraduate and a biology major, my dream was to someday visit Africa and do a photo safari. Back then, in the early 1970s, ecotourism was in its infancy. In some areas, like Rwanda, where mountain gorillas inhabit the slopes of a few volcanoes, tourism was absolutely unknown. I never thought I’d ever see a mountain gorilla in the wild, or that one day I’d have completed 100 treks doing exactly that.

“My BS in biology (1974) and MEd in learning resources and mass media (1976) allowed me to get an emergency teaching certificate to teach biology and zoology at a high school for six years. Since 1983, I’ve been a full-time professional wildlife photographer, and a big part of my business has been organizing and leading photo tours around the world. Our typical schedule involves about 30 weeks of travel, usually to Africa, India, and South America.

“My last book was titled Deadly Creatures, and despite that title, I’ve had very few dangerous encounters. I’ve been in shark cages among great white sharks, which was thrilling, and I’ve had a spitting cobra spit venom into my eyes, which could have been very bad. We’ve also been chased (while in a vehicle) by irate elephants, rhinos, buffalo, and leopards. Respect for the subject and common sense generally keeps anyone out of trouble.”

Learn more about their work at McDonald Wildlife Photography.

View more of their photography; click on any image below to start a full-size slideshow. All photos by Joe and Mary Ann McDonald.

African elephants dined on grasses in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve in November.

African elephants dined on grasses in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve in November.

Joe and Mary Ann McDonald with several gorillas at Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda.

Joe and Mary Ann McDonald on their 100th mountain gorilla trek in fall 2016 in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda.

A mother tigress and her growing cubs soaked in a lake at Tadoba National Park, India, after feasting on a sambar deer.

A mother tigress and her growing cubs soaked in a lake at Tadoba National Park, India, after feasting on a sambar deer in March 2016. “Tigers, unlike lions, enjoy water and often soak—sometimes all the way up to their necks,” Joe McDonald said.

One of our favorite locations is Bandhavgarh National Park in central India, said Joe McDonald, who took this photo in March 2016. This tigress emerged from a bamboo forest, then walked along a large pond’s shoreline before pausing to drink, right in front of me.

“One of our favorite locations is Bandhavgarh National Park in central India,” said Joe McDonald, who took this photo in March 2016. “This tigress emerged from a bamboo forest, then walked along a large pond’s shoreline before pausing to drink, right in front of me.”

Romance with lions can be violent, said Joe McDonald, who took this photo in November 2016 in Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. After mating, a lioness frequently takes a mighty swat at her beau. I’ve seen blood spray in wide arcs when she connects!

“Romance with lions can be violent,” said Joe McDonald, who took this photo in November 2016 in Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. “After mating, a lioness frequently takes a mighty swat at her beau. I’ve seen blood spray in wide arcs when she connects!”

A silverback gorilla charging past Joe McDonald at Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda.

“Gorillas charge, thumping their chests with open palms, for a variety of reasons,” Joe McDonald said. “We knew this one was about to charge when it pursed its lips and started calling, ‘Hoo-hoo-hoo!’ The silverback ran right by me, and I know I was smiling as it did so.” Mary Ann McDonald took this photo in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, in fall 2016.

In October 2016, I was photographing lions in the northern Serengeti, Joe McDonald said. Shortly after dawn, this mother lioness walked across a field of high grasses, then climbed a large rock where she and the cubs were in clear view. The sunlight reflected back from my vehicle, acting like a big studio reflector.

“In October 2016, I was photographing lions in the northern Serengeti,” Joe McDonald said. “Shortly after dawn, this mother lioness walked across a field of high grasses, then climbed a large rock where she and the cubs were in clear view. The sunlight reflected back from my vehicle, acting like a big studio reflector.”

Pictured against an October evening sky, juvenile leopards rested on a boulder in the Serengeti—“one of my dream compositions,” Joe McDonald said.

Joe McDonald came upon this scene during an October 2016 safari in the Serengeti. “On the first evening of this safari, two juvenile leopards climbed onto a large boulder and were framed by a flaming western sky,” he said. “This happens so rarely, and this was one of my dream compositions!”

This silverback charged across a small clearing to discipline a younger male, called a blackback, who ran off, Joe McDonald said. The silverback’s charge continued and angled to the left, ending up right in front of me. This photo was taken in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, in fall 2016.

“This silverback charged across a small clearing to discipline a younger male, called a blackback, who ran off,” Joe McDonald said. “The silverback’s charge continued and angled to the left, ending up right in front of me.” This photo was taken in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, in fall 2016.

This photo was taken in November 2012 in Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya.

“Several generations of one cheetah family have learned to climb atop the roof of safari vehicles and survey the grasslands for prey,” Joe McDonald said. “The cats ignore the human occupants, yet if one stepped out of a vehicle, the cats—even scores of yards away—would dash off.” This photo was taken in November 2012 in Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya.

Joe McDonald photographing mountain gorillas at Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, in fall 2016

Joe McDonald photographing mountain gorillas at Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, in fall 2016

“On some rivers, kingfishers wait for fish tossed out for the birds, but this one was bold and grabbed a fish right from my fingers,” Joe McDonald said. This photo was taken by Wade Aiken in September 2016 in Pantanal, Brazil.

“On some rivers, kingfishers wait for fish tossed out for the birds, but this one was bold and grabbed a fish right from my fingers,” Joe McDonald said. This photo was taken by Wade Aiken in September 2016 in Pantanal, Brazil.