Cape Town - A Cape Town professor took rare photographs of an uncontacted native tribe in Peru three years ago, only to discover on Thursday that they had been published globally and accredited to somebody else.
The plagiarised pictures have been shared across international news platforms – but Professor Jean-Paul van Belle only just discovered that credit for his prized pictures had been taken by a Spanish expedition guide who fabricated the story of how he took them.
Van Belle is an information systems professor at UCT. He was visiting Peru for a conference in 2011 when his adventurous spirit drove him to tour the Manu Nature Reserve.
While on a guided boat tour, his group came across a rare and special sight: a group of Mascho-Piro people on the bank of the river.
Wary of their deadly poison arrows – which were used to kill another guide not long after this encounter – the guide steered the boat to the far bank of the river. There, Van Belle was able to photograph the native people using a small bird-watching telescope stuck on the end of his “cheap” compact digital camera.
“These are the most amazing pictures I’ve taken in my life,” Van Belle said. “To see these guys is really unique. It’s the luckiest break I’ve ever had.”
The guide, who understood the Mascho-Piro people’s shouts, said they had deliberately come to the river to ask for machetes. They usually avoid contact with non-native people at all costs.
One Mascho-Piro woman had a bloody lesion on her leg. The guide said it was a sexually-transmitted infection that could not be cured without antibiotics, and would likely kill the whole tribe within a few years.
Van Belle handed over his remarkable photographs so that the guide could raise awareness and help the disease-threatened people. Little did he know that the guide would pass the precious picture on to reporter and member of the Spanish Geographic Society Diego Cortijo.
Confronted with the real photographer, Cortijo apologised heartily and assured Van Belle that he had not made any money off the pictures, and that they were shared with the aim to raise awareness about the Mascho-Piro.
“As an academic I feel very strongly about not plagiarising things,” Van Belle said. “I still think it’s wrong what he did, but I don’t hold personal grudges. I have reported it to Reuters. If they change the accreditation, I’ll be happy.”