Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Nature's Brutality

When this image was first published, I naively underestimated the range of responses. From amazement to outright horror, they served as a reminder of how radically our perception of elephants differs from the way we regard other species. From the outset of my two-year project in Savute, capturing this rare behaviour was one of my primary goals and the once-in-a-lifetime sighting was the reward for relentless hours of tracking, watching and waiting in the field – but it was also brutal to watch. As a wildlife photographer, it is easy to become desensitised in the heat of the moment and so focused on ‘getting the shot’ that normal human emotions are temporarily suspended. It may even be a prerequisite for the job. After the event, natural empathy returns, and with no way for the lions to throttle the elephant, the protracted end was not pleasant to watch. But death is a necessary part of nature’s circle of life, and the elephant’s demise enabled a pride of 13 lions to survive.

Some people come on safari year after year with the express purpose of seeing a kill. For others the very idea of one animal taking another's life is abhorrent. Fortunately the diversity and quantity of wildlife in Africa allows plenty of room for both schools of thought. For those of us that live here, though, things are a little different. The population of lions has dropped by over 40% in the last two decades and with human population growth continuing to escalate, the future looks bleak.  Clearly in order to survive, lions must eat and in order to eat, another animal has to die. This is an inescapable truth. It may not be pleasant to watch, but it is an intrinsic part of their character and the most important skill cubs are taught by their parents. To have a chance of safe-guarding their future, we need to learn everything we can about them and to fully understand these majestic beasts for what they really are, we cannot afford to ignore the one thing they need to do to survive.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Altering Reality

I love the way that photography can stop time, converting a split-second moment into an eternal freeze-frame. Not only does it give us an opportunity to properly appreciate something that we would most likely have missed in real time, it can also give the photographer the ability to subtly alter reality. Normally, when I think about freezing time, I envisage something like an elephant splash containing thousands of droplets of water all visible and stationary at once, however it was only when I remembered the preceding moments before this photo was taken that I realised I had inadvertently captured something that felt very different to what had actually occurred.

This female leopard had been dozing at the foot of the rain tree when she was startled by a passing herd of elephants, kicking up the dust just a few metres behind her. Acting on instinct alone, and with her eyes as wide as yellow saucers, she leapt up the tree in two lithe bounds before racing across the branch and coming to an abrupt halt no more than a couple of seconds later. I captured a few shots in that short time, but this one stood out because she appeared so relaxed, nonchalantly tip-toeing along the branch without a care in the world, while casting me a side-ways glance - a very different scenario to the one that actually occurred. 

The effect was completely accidental - neither the shot before or after gave off the same impression – but I found it a useful reminder of the power of a single photograph to shift our perception of reality, even if it is only in a subtle way. Maybe that's why they say 'the camera always lies'.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Cat Fishing

This image was almost two years in the making but turned out very differently to my original vision. When I first heard that a leopard had been seen fishing in the flowing Savute Channel at night, I converted a camera body to infra-red in the hopes of capturing it. The fishing window of opportunity is very narrow however, numbering only a few weeks in the entire year and was only made possible when the receding flood funnels the catfish through narrow stretches of shallow water. Poor rains the following year looked set to scupper my chances as instead the channel, which had only been flowing for five years following a 30 year dry spell, was once again disappearing fast.

The catfish had nowhere to go and were trapped in a handful of pools in the river-bed, so I spent several weeks rotating between drying pools waiting for one of the resident leopards to take advantage of their vulnerability. Eventually I was rewarded with this female jumping into the muddy pool with instantaneous success, remarkably doing so in broad daylight.

Not only is the behaviour remarkable by itself, it has been learnt by the oldest female since the channel started flowing and has been subsequently taught to her two litters of offspring. Last year's average rains both locally and in Angola on top of the preceding drier years has meant the flood is set to once again not reach the channel in 2016. Given its history and with the dusty river-bed now bone dry, this mercurial tract of water may not flow again for many years after the lifetime of these enigmatic cats, so it is anyone's guess if and when this unique behaviour may be repeated.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Down and Dirty

I had spent about an hour with this relaxed bull as it drank and played in the water. Guessing he might move towards the mud-hole nearby, I positioned myself accordingly and soon enough was delightedly watching as he rolled around in the mud just a few feet from my lens. Eventually he staggered to his feet and manoeuvred himself so that he faced me. "Excellent," I thought crouching on the ground with my recently infra-red converted body and wide-angle lens, hoping he may try to splash around a little. However I had underestimated quite how much splashing his tree-trunk legs were capable of (not to mention his mischievous trait as well). After a brief warm-up, his front leg began going hell-for-leather until both my camera and myself were completely splattered in rancid mud from head to toe. I kept shooting and managed to get a couple of images that were hopefully worth the cost of getting the lens professionally cleaned afterwards!

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Stars and Elephants

With the flood not reaching the Savute marsh this year,  a couple of crowded, pumped waterholes are the only attraction keeping the wildlife in the area. I had wanted to capture a night-time shot with the  elephants but the window for doing so is remarkably short. The breeding elephant herds have all moved further north where there is more water and with the pumps barely able to keep up with their insatiable thirst, there is no guarantee that even the old bulls will wait around for long. After the rains are expected to arrive next month, both bachelors and breeding herds will disperse in search of better food. What's more, the centre of the milky way is no longer visible after October,making the whole effect much less spectacular. To top it off, I have a flurry of other commitments severely restricting my bush-time so in a (large) nut-shell, I realised this would probably be the only chance I would have to capture this no pressure then.

The first night I tried, there were a couple of male lions in the vicinity. I thought nothing of it until I was crouching by my tripod next to my vehicle in the pitch darkness to hear an echo of roars emanating approximately from my exhaust-pipe. I couldn't see my hand in front of my face, so I felt at a distinct disadvantage to a predator with excellent night vision. The second time the call came, I could feel my vehicle vibrating behind my back (or maybe that was just shivers up my spine); I needed no further encouragement and called it a night.

I had one more night left and fortunately the lions had moved on, leaving me with the simple task of dodging 13ft elephant bulls in the dark who were thirstily moving towards the only water source for miles around. I had to use my 14mm wide angle to capture the sky, so needed to be close to the ellies. They were remarkably relaxed though, occasionally approaching me to check out this new addition to the landscape but eventually diverting course at the last minute like a one-sided game of chicken. Occasionally a ruckus would break out at the waterhole as an old bull broke ranks and queue-barged his way to the front which caused much trumpeting, back-pedalling (and a rapidly pounding heart from the guy crouching on the ground a few feet away), but fortunately having done my research before-hand into the star positions and having taken note of my settings the previous night it didn't take much more than half an hour to get something that made it all worthwhile.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Curiouser and curiouser

Whilst watching some nearby elephants queuing to quench their thirst, I was pleasantly surprised when this jackal elected to share the same shady tree that I had chosen as protection from the 40+ degree heat. Although jackals are curious by nature, they are often wary of a vehicle getting really close, so I thought I would take advantage of the opportunity of this apparent desire for proximity. Gingerly opening my door I slowly extricated myself from my vehicle and lay down on the floor, only moving once I was convinced the jackal was relaxed with my new position. After 10 minutes I had crawled almost close enough to touch. In fact my only problem was that he was too relaxed! I ideally wanted him to be standing up looking down on me rather than snoozing at the same level as me. Eventually when half my body had gone to sleep, he got up and trotted off to a nearby carcass for a mid-afternoon snack, giving me this cursory glance before he disappeared.