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A Q&A with Clay Bolt, award-winning Natural History Photographer

Award-winning natural history photographer and GWC partner Clay Bolt traveled this month with GWC Communications Director Robin Moore and a team of conservationists and photographers to CREA‘s Cocobolo Nature Reserve in eastern Panama. Bolt is a Natural History and Conservation Photographer specializing in macro photography with an emphasis on invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians. He regularly works with organizations and publications such as National Geographic, The Nature Conservancy, The National Wildlife Federation and many others. He is an Associate Fellow in the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP), president-elect of the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA), and co-founder (2009) of the international nature and biodiversity photography project “Meet Your Neighbours.” His current major focus is on North America’s native bees and the important roles that they play in our lives. In 2015, Clay moved to Bozeman, Montana to take on the position of communications lead for WWF’s Northern Great Plains Program. Visit www.claybolt.com to learn more.

We sat down with Clay to ask him about his time at Cocobolo and the role of photography in conservation.

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If you aren’t looking closely, especially in the daytime, you’ll miss a whole lot in the rainforest like this young helmeted iguana (Corytaphones cristatus). These incredible reptiles typically move very slowly and in wet environments often have moss growing on their heads and bodies. (Photo by Clay Bolt)

 
Q. What made the experience at Cocobolo Nature Reserve unique? 

A. Cocobolo Nature Reserve is unique in many ways. First, you have a place that is located on the Continental Divide, and in a position between the Caribbean and Pacific Slopes. This means that species from both sides of the Divide find their way into the Reserve. In addition, Cocobolo is located in the most narrow point of Panama, with forest stretching from the Reserve all of the way down to Colombia, which is also relatively close. As a result, it forms a wildlife corridor for a broad range of species, including five species of cats and many species that are typically only found in South America, such as the gladiator tree frog. All of this adds up to a location that is brimming with biodiversity and opportunities for surprising evolutionary results.

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Cocobolo is one of the only known locations where the Limosus halequin frog (Atelopus limosus) is still breeding in the presence of the devastating chytrid fungus. (Photo by Clay Bolt)

For me, the thing that makes Cocobolo so special is that there is still so much that we don’t understand there. What is it about Cocobolo’s environment that allows the Limosa Harlequin Frog (Atelopus limosus) to not only hang on, but reproduce in numbers, when so many other species in the genus are dying from chytrid fungus? Also, there have been so few biological surveys there that we are still finding interesting and sometimes undescribed species on a regular basis. In short, it is a goldmine for biodiversity research. Add to this the fact that Cocobolo is only a relatively short drive from Panama City and soon you can understand why this place is so special for scientists and students searching for a place to spend time in a tropical forest environment.

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Bat researcher Laura Cisneros worked with students from the Marvelwood School to survey bats at Cocobolo. Species such as this common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus), were recorded during the survey. (Photo by Clay Bolt)

Q. What did it feel like to be there, among that much wildlife? 

A. Through my work as a natural history photography, I’ve traveled to some pretty incredible places, but Cocobolo is one of the most biodiverse places I’ve ever had the pleasure of exploring. From insects, to birds, to plants, to herps, it is hard to imagine anyone leaving an experience at Cocobolo without feeling elated.

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Cocobolo is a hotspot for invertebrate biodiversity. Clay led a team of students from the Marvelwood School to survey orchid bees. In this photo, a male orchid bee (Euglossa tridentata) licks salts from the photographer’s finger. (Photo by Clay Bolt)

Q. What stories do you try to capture and tell through your photography when you’re in a place like Cocobolo? 

A. No matter what the subject matter is, my main goal is to always try to use my images to tell a story that will engage the public, and hopefully draw their attention toward a species or conservation issue that is need of support. In order to do this, I look for species with interesting behavior, captivating physical characteristics, or a creature or place that is facing conservation challenges. I admit that I am fascinated by just about every aspect of the natural world, but when you’re in need of a spark that will light a fire in the viewer’s imagination, it sometimes pays to be selective about your subject matter.

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Bat expert Laura Cisneros mist-netted for bats each night during our expedition to the Cocobolo Nature Reserve and many of the bats that she captured as part of her survey were fruit bats like this little Heller’s Broad-nosed Bat (Platyrrhinus helleri). To keep the bats happy and healthy while they were being examined, Laura would feed the bats a few drops of sugar water, or in this case a bit of watermelon to help keep its sugar-levels up. (Photo by Clay Bolt)

Q. What role does your photography play in conservation?
A. Photography offers an opportunity to bring people into places that they’ve never been to, or will likely never visit, and draw their attention to issues that may not make it into national headlines. On the other side of the coin, in my line of work it allows me to also show people the beauty of the species and places that are right in front of them that may be slipping away or overlooked because of their familiarity. At the end of the day, it is my hope that my photography will inspire the viewer to do something to speak up for nature, and connect with the natural world on a deeper level.

Q. Why should more conservationists and researchers spend time at Cocobolo?

A. Cocobolo is a living research lab for exploration and discovery. There is so much that we don’t know about this amazing place, and it has the potential to offer us solutions to big problems that species such as the Limosa Harlequin Frog are facing in the developing tropics and beyond. Also, given that it is so easy to access, with great basecamp facilities, it is the perfect place to conduct research, retreat and exploration-based work.

(Photo of Clay at top of page by Neil Losin)

About the Author

Lindsay Renick Mayer

Lindsay Renick Mayer

Lindsay is the associate director of communications for Global Wildlife Conservation and has a particular interest in leveraging communications to inspire conservation action. Lindsay is passionate about species-based conservation and finding compelling ways to tell stories that demonstrate the value of all of the planet’s critters, big and microscopic.

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