Field Leader Spotlight: Meet Marco Tonoli
Posted by Carmin Arnot
in Of Interest
Marco Tonoli is one of our top expedition leaders, guiding trips throughout Africa, India, and Sri Lanka. His passion for discovery and deep appreciation of nature are expressed in the way he shares insights and experiences with his guests. In this article, Apex Expeditions president, Carmin Arnot, speaks with field leader Marco Tonoli to reveal more about this exceptional individual.
Q: What do you find most rewarding about your career as an expedition leader and naturalist guide?
Marco — Oh, there is so much about this career to enjoy. First, the more I travel, the more I am just absolutely fascinated by the sheer wonder of our world. It is truly remarkable to have the opportunity to witness the staggering biodiversity we have on our planet, the dramatic landscapes and geological wonders, and the huge variety of fascinating cultures still very much intact. The opportunities we have in this day and age to actually see and experience it all in person is reason enough to get out there and explore.
I would then say that the opportunity to behold some of the most extraordinary creatures on our planet, in their natural environment, and to do so very frequently in a very up-close-and-personal way is one of the great joys of being an expedition leader.
The final and indeed one of the greatest joys, is the people that we meet. There is already immense joy in experiencing the world, but to do so with like-minded travelers who are curious and engaging and allow us the opportunity to share our love, knowledge and passion for the world we live in is one of the greatest pleasures. Seeing the expression on your face the first time you witness something incredible is a great personal joy for me.
Q: What is one thing you hope Apex travelers will take away from their time spent traveling with you?
Marco — To keep exploring. Our world is a fascinating place full of wonder and grand spectacles of nature. Just by being in a destination is making a difference. The world is changing quickly, so get out there and explore as much as you can!
Q: You’ve led many trips for Apex all throughout Africa as well as India and Sri Lanka. Is it possible to have a favorite destination?
Marco — That’s a very tough question to answer. Variety in life keeps things exciting, so every destination is a favorite. However, if I had to choose one destination that really stands out from the rest, it would have to be Ethiopia. It’s such a fulfilling destination to explore. Ethiopia has a rich history that is still very evident in the deep-rooted faith practiced by the many cultures. It is a land elevated high above the rest of Africa. These highlands have been isolated long enough to offer many remarkable endemic creatures, offering one of the greatest primate encounters on our planet—the Gelada. Traversing through the land feels like one has travelled back in time. You view rural scenes that have changed very little through the course of human history. Also amazing is the immense diversity of remarkable animistic tribes, still very much culturally intact, which is something one sees less and less in our swiftly changing world.
One day you can be sitting on the edge of a 10,000-foot escarpment surrounded by a thousand Gelada. Then a few days later, you’ll be walking through the Rift Valley, interacting with tribes that still practice bizarre body adornments, scarification and wear lip plates. Then, you’re back on a moon-like landscape searching for the rarest canid on earth. It has tales of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, and 800-year-old rock hewn churches filled with devout Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. It’s a remarkable destination, and I have yet to meet someone who is not entirely drawn into the experience.
Q: Tell us more about your special tracking skills and how you use those skills on an Apex expedition?
Marco — The art of tracking is one of the oldest skills passed down from the age of the hunter-gatherer. It’s a skill used to look for food, follow prey, search for water, and to learn and understand the natural world around you. Some of the finest and most revered trackers in the world are the indigenous Khoisan of Southern Africa. I had the privilege during my time in the Kalahari to work together with some of the finest trackers in the region. They were always willing to share their knowledge with those who would listen. And I listened!
It is never merely the process of following the tracks of an animal. It is about having a thorough understanding of the environment you are in. It’s also knowing a lot about the creature you are looking for, what it eats, how it finds food, how it moves, what sounds it makes in different situations, what it fears, how it finds a mate, and how different environments have an impact. We use these skills frequently to improve our opportunity to find the animals we are seeking. This could be distant alarm calls, evidence of an animal having eaten recently, a sleep sight, behavior of other animals in the area, and tracks.
The tracks can give you the direction an animal has moved, how recently it was there, the speed it was walking—was it walking quietly to a waterhole or running after or away from something? Every morning you wake up and head out into the wilderness knowing there are new stories to be told by the tracks. You are focused on sounds of creatures telling you what is happening out there and who is moving where. While finding and observing an animal in its natural space is exceptionally rewarding, it is the actual tracking of the creature that is exhilarating!
Q: You are quite interested in wildlife filmmaking and photography. What sparked your interest?
Marco — I have always loved photography. When I first left South Africa to explore Israel, I bought my first SLR and focused mostly on general travel photography. Pursuing a career in guiding, it was natural that photography found its place very easily there too. There is a great sense of excitement in searching for a particular creature at the right time of the day when light is good and possibility of activity is high. Capturing the short moments of an animal’s life and sharing it with people has always been appealing. The filmmaking came much later.
I always dabbled in videography in the early years of travel and guiding but I remember the moment quite clearly when I decided I needed to pursue it more. It was when the first BBC Planet Earth series was broadcast. I was captivated at the imagery and videography. But the selling point was the post-documentary interviews with the filmmakers. I remember watching that and thinking, “Yes, I think I’ll do that.” So, I left the bush and moved to Cape Town to study wildlife filmmaking, which led to some fascinating work with Natural History Unit Africa, National Geographic and Discovery Channel, as well as the early work of live online safari broadcasts, where I worked as a presenter and cameraman.
Ultimately though, I missed the people. I missed that enthusiastic energy travelers arrive with, and then witnessing the direct response as they share a new experience with you. So, it was natural to return to the world of guiding and expeditions. I still love photography and film, and continue with both in a slightly smaller capacity.
Q: How do you enjoy spending your time when you are not leading expeditions for Apex?
Marco — That’s easy. I love spending as much quality time with my family as possible. I have two little girls who are learning all about the world and life. Being there with them as they discover it all is very entertaining and rewarding. I am also fortunate to live in a very beautiful part of the Western Cape in South Africa, right along the eastern edge of the Cape Peninsula. We are surrounded by mountains and natural beauty, which means I get to spend a lot of time hiking the mountains around us and exploring the surrounding area.
Q: What is one thing you hope your young daughters will learn from you at an early age?
Marco — To respect life is all its forms, whether it be people, wildlife, plants and themselves (and their parents of course). The natural process and time scale that has passed to arrive at this point in human history that allows us to be here right now is a great gift. I hope to instill a sense of gratitude to be alive. I suppose I also hope that my love for exploring rubs off on them. I hope they develop a sense of curiosity for this incredible world we live in and that they take the opportunity to explore it.
Learn more about field leader Marco Tonoli and his upcoming expeditions.