Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Caught in the Act

Leopards are very different to Africa's other big cats: Besides being arguably the most beautiful, they are also the ultimate recluses. They are introverts of note, note needing company of any kind, not even from their own kind! Living solitary lives they are also unique in that they stalk to within a yard of their prey before pouncing on it. Lions and cheetahs will chase prey but for a leopard it is all about stealth and agility. Leopards, for me, are just like overgrown pussycats and always reveling in the proverbial game of cat and mouse. Unlike lions and cheetah, hunting for a leopard is pure fun, it is not a chore. It is an obsession! As a result they spend their lives involved in a never ending game of chess with almost every creature, whether big or small. Leopards will eat anything from a dung beetle to a baby giraffe...

Recently on safari, it was our very last morning that our guide thankfully spotted a leopard in an African Ebony tree. We were busy positioning the safari truck when we noticed a herd of impala walking in the direction of the tree. Knowing that the impala would possibly walk below the tree to feed on the fallen fruit, the game was potentially on. The leopard was very high in the tree though but knowing how crazy these cats can be, my heart beat started to quicken. As often happens when a potentially big moment is about to occur, I started speaking to myself, having a conversation in my head to reason as to where we should position the vehicle. Adding to the pressure, the light was good!
Deciding to give a wide berth around the impala, so as not to spook them, we parked so that we would have side light, a clean background and enough distance to make sure we would be able to capture the mad action, if it happened. The next hour was quite plainly - agonizing! Watching the impala mingle beneath the tree with the leopard watching them mingling from above, was for a wildlife photographer, like an alcoholic sitting at a bar in happy hour but knowing you were just biding the time before your AA meeting. Watching her every move through my Nikon 600mm lens I knew that once she hit the deck, I would have too much glass. It was all about her leaping out the tree! Tweaking my camera settings constantly to try and avoid the sky being horribly over exposed, should she leap through it, and continually assessing her body language for the faint nuances that would signal a leap, I was feeling the pressure. Yes, wildlife photographers do have stress, insane stress, sometimes!

I noticed her shuffle her back feet ever so slightly, like a sprinter in the blocks. This was it, the moment a wildlife photographer lives for. Its all about the moment! A photograph is just that, a singular moment, arrested and suspended. A leopard suspended perhaps?  Pressing my shutter button as deep as possible without actually taking a photo, I poised over my camera. The leopard poised over the impala. The next couple of seconds were going to be a blur in my mind. At a shutter speed of 1/8000th of a second I was hoping the blur would only be in my mind though.

The leopardess flew out the tree in a literal heartbeat. Only now, looking at the photograph I captured can I see her steely, fixed gaze. Her calmness. Her superb athletic ability. The soft side light, highlighting the graceful arch of her leap. Her tail balancing the pull of gravity. Her perfection. Her poetry in motion. Her outstretched front paws. Her long whiskers. Her steep vertical descent. And gazing at her perfection I am not nearly as impressed by my photograph as I am with her.

She lands amidst a cloud of dust. She lands amidst a herd of impala. The antelope react with lighting speed reflexes and although I had too much glass the 11 frames per second from my Nikon D4s were now very much needed. The leopard's outstretched tail adds an appropriate degree of tension!

I have been fortunate enough to watch leopards hunt impala before and on both occasions the leopardesses seemed to single out an individual amongst the herd. Here you see her, with her gaze fixed squarely on the impala she has selected, which is to your left and out of the frame. The impala in this frame is not the one being hunted.

At this point the leopard continues running down the termite mound in pursuit of her quarry.

She catches up with the impala and the antelope turns the wrong way. Or so it seems? She actually, although turning towards the leopard, makes the correct choice because to the leopard's left there is a log. There is an obstacle in her way.

The impala gets away. All the impala get away. The leopard lies down in the dirt and debris. She is not in the least bit angered or frustrated. She is just doing what cats do!

The end.

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Tuesday, 24 March 2015

There be Dragons here


Its a small stream in my favourite part of the Masai Mara. I especially like driving along its banks in the afternoons as you never see another vehicle. There is a beautiful Sausage tree along its banks and I have many times dreamt about building a bush house there, fantasizing about living on that little narrow stream in the middle of the great grass plains...

This particular afternoon was no different and we were winding our way along the stream blissfully adrift on the open veld. There is a point where the road crosses the stream and I have forged this crossing at least one hundred times in the last 10 years. I had never before seen a crocodile there though, it really is a narrow and small piece of water. A zebra herd was drinking peacefully and we stopped to take some photographs. Just then I thought I saw something, a flash of scales maybe? Could it be that one of the large crocodiles had swum up from the Mara River? The wildebeest migration had long since left and the crocs were hungry. What's more is that I myself have learnt, first hand, that old wise crocodiles know how to walk miles and miles to unsuspecting waters, where they can ambush prey. This I learnt while bobbing down a remote sand river on a tractor tube in Ruaha, but that's another story for another time.

Jumping out of the car I inched my way to the water's edge and lying down facing the water head on, it is a familiar position for me, and one that always makes me feel vulnerable as if a croc grabbed me it would be head first - game over. This thought bounced through my mind while I trained my lens on the still, calm water. The water remained flat for some time before erupting - mere inches in front of the zebra's nose.

The behemoth surfaced with a flying flash of furry right in front of the zebra. The dragon of the deep breathed not fire but rather thousands of small water droplets, ejected from its dragon-like nostrils in two foul spurts. He has translucent membranes that allows him to see under water and although he is a literal living dinosaur, he has special hemoglobin in his blood that allows him to remain submerged for over an hour. This master of the murky had waited for the zebra to drink peacefully, to walk deep into the tranquil pool to quench its long thirst, before launching his attack.

The zebra jerked its head back and for a split second the scene froze. The water slid off the crocodile. The water droplets were suspended in midair. The zebra's head high and still in utter disbelief.

As reality dawned on the zebra, its heart beat quickened. So did mine. The zebra turned. The crocodile turned. Their eyes met. 'You at 5.6, just track that crocodile's eye' was all I heard playing over and over in my mind. I have learnt to photograph the moment and to philosophize about it later. Only in hindsight have I noticed that the the croc's head was longer than the zebra's, this was indeed an 18ft monster.

The zebra turned to flee and within the blink of an eye the crocodile had spun around in what looked like nothing more than a churning frothing wall of white water. When the water subsided the crocodile had the hind leg of the zebra in its vice-like grip and had snapped it in two! Crocodiles have the strongest bit ever measured in the animal kingdom, slamming their jaws shut with 5000 pounds per square inch, that's five times more than a hyena. The croc's teeth were covered in algae, he really was an ancient relic of the deep.

The waters fell silent again. I could here the birds calling again. The tranquil scene belied the horror beneath the water. Life seemed to be flowing out of the zebra with every passing minute; its eyes sank deeper into its skull. I looked away from my viewfinder. The water an ineffective veneer. I had seen too much.

Driving back to camp, we passed the the same zebra herd that had been drinking. The sun set and I chose to blur my subject in remembrance of the zebra whose death I had just documented. A visual metaphor if you like and a reminder that all life vanishes.

The end.

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Thursday, 29 January 2015

Swimming with Elephants

Its not that I don't like them, quite the opposite actually. Its just that to the camera, especially with its limited ability to record dynamic range, an elephant is most often just a large grey blob. Yet, anyone who has ever spent any time with an elephant knows that they are creatures that have soul. As an African wildlife photographer one of the most difficult tasks has been to try and capture the enigmatic and intrinsic beauty of an elephant (read more about previous attempts here). Recently I had another opportunity to try and capture the essence of elephants...

This big boy had swum out into the middle of the Zambezi River where he was enjoying the cool water and the lush green grass growing on an island. It was November and the hottest time of year in the Zambezi Valley. I longed to jump in with the bull and celebrate life the way he was. I even asked my guide if I could but he was quick to point out the danger of crocodiles. He was of course right. All I could do was lie down and watch in fascination as the largest land mammal on earth frolicked in the water. As the sun set, the watery foreground turned into an orange swirl. Light rays refracted, reflected and bounced onto the face of my subject. Our eyes locked and I immediately recognized that I could potentially capture a photograph that conveyed the beauty and mystery of one of God's greatest creatures. Moments like this are what make me feel so incredibly privileged to do what I do and I am so grateful that the camera allows me to share them with you.
The end.
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Friday, 23 January 2015

The Snake, the mound and the elephant..

This image depicts a snake poking its head out from inside a termite mound, one which had a tree growing out of it also. In the background is an elephant bull feeding on fallen seedpods from the same tree. Close your eyes and picture the scene playing out in the dry bush country of Zimbabwe and on the banks of the Zambezi River. Now take a second with me to ponder the miracle of this photograph and indeed the very miracle of still-life photography…

It all began hundreds of years ago when a termite queen started laying over 20 000 eggs per day. She started a colony of termites so vast that they numbered millions, all related - each a brother or sister to the next. These termites needed to eat so venturing out, only at night, to avoid being burnt by the sun (for they have no pigment in their skin), they collected dead grass. They collected more grass than is eaten by all the animals combined, working tirelessly for 365 days of the year, year in and year out. They then used this fermenting grass as a fertilizer on which to grow mushrooms. To house these mushrooms they built a vast mound with secret gardens deep within. They built their clay castle, one single grain of sand at a time, until it stood taller than a person.

This mound they kept at a constant temperature through the skillful use of air vents. The environment inside the mound was therefore perfect for growth; it stayed the same temperature throughout summer and winter, year in and year out. The termites tunneled their way all the way to the water table below where they fetched water to irrigate their mushrooms. This termite mound is in fact the oldest form of an organized community on our planet.

One fine day a seedpod was blown from a neighbouring tree by a hot fierce gust of wind, moving ahead of the approaching rainy season. One tiny seed fell down one of the termite mound’s cooling shafts. The stable micro-climate allowed this seed, much smaller than the nail of your pinkie finger, to germinate. Slowly it sent out a small root and then a stem. This stem shot upwards towards the distant light at the end of the tunnel and the seedling grew into a massive tree, 30 feet tall and 50 feet wide. This tree outlived the termites and a Green-spotted Bush-snake now lives in the disused mound, where it whiles away its time hunting geckos.

Pocking its head out of a hole in the mound at the exact time that we happened to be driving past on a safari drive, I jumped out, and not believing our great fortune, began photographing. While I was clicking away, seedpods were falling all around me; the same ancient winds that began the process of germination were again blowing on cue, in mid November. An elephant bull walked past and using his dexterous trunk, he picked up the fallen seedpods, which to him are like Christmas pudding. These pods were from the same tree growing out of the same mound. I waited for the bull to fit neatly into the background of my frame before tripping my camera’s shutter.

This photograph is just one tiny example of the miracle of life that unfolds in countless ways everyday in the African bush and the above description is a very brief summary of just some of the many factors that must have come into play for this moment to ever come into existence. There are simply too many miracles involved, linked in a series of unfathomable events, to describe adequately using only words. You see, this is where photography becomes a language all of its own, one where a single fraction of a second can reflect upon the mysterious tapestry that contains the very essence of life…

The end.

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Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Shadow and Soul

Is wild Africa a myth? Does it still exist? My answer to both these questions is a resounding "Yes".  Recently I found a campsite so wild that lions, leopards, elephants and large herds of buffalo walk right past you without even so much as taking a moment's notice. It is a place where wild animals rule the night and lions are savage hunters. The dusk and dawn however belong to the fleet-footed wild dog...

Camping in a remote part of Zimbabwe, we had just returned to our campsite after the sun had set, when a wild dog caught an impala in the dry riverbed in which we were camped. The frenzy of activity was incredible as the rest of the pack arrived and started devouring their prey. There was hardly any daylight remaining but diving into the sand for an eye level perspective the scene really came to life when a guide in the neighbouring campsite flicked his torch in our direction, to investigate the commotion. The African Wild Dog is highly endangered and affectionately known as the ‘painted wolf of Africa’. As the torch beam illuminated the scene from behind the dogs resembled a pack of wolves while the low angle and dust, kicked up during the killing frenzy, added to the atmosphere. This ranks as one of the greatest wildlife experiences of my life.
The end.
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Velvet and Stealth

The African leopard is not as much a visual part of our lives as other iconic African creatures are, like lions and cheetah for example. As a result, people all over the world do not have a connection with them like they do with other animals. I would like to help change this because when you think about it, people are inclined to protect the things that they know and value. The goal of this portfolio is to use the medium of photography, and especially the recent advances in low-light digital photography, to make the African subspecies of leopard more known, valued and appreciated. Even here in Africa, most people live alongside leopards but never get to see them. My home country of South Africa is one of the best places in the world to photograph leopards and so it was that I undertook a personal assignment to not only find leopards but to spend as much time with them as possible. I wanted to get to know them and to assemble a collection of images that can be used to reveal both their enigmatic beauty and mystery.

Delicate yet Powerful

To date I have spent a total of over 1000 hours tracking and photographing leopards (over the duration of the last 6 years). It is easy to spot a lion or an elephant but a leopard is seldom seen and the old adage of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ can apply, which is worrying from a conservation point of view. The Snow Leopard has received excellent coverage and is now widely known and loved. It is my hope that we do not need to wait until the African leopard is critically endangered before we give it the same degree of publicity. It is widely accepted that leopard numbers are on the decline worldwide and the African subspecies is currently classified as Near Threatened (since 2008) on the IUCN Red Data List and is an appendix 1 species. If this decline continues the leopard will soon qualify as Vulnerable (one step away from endangered). Leopards have, to date, disappeared from about 36% of their global range.

A Young Hunter

This is one of my personal favourite images. Here you see a mother leopard taking her cub along on a hunt for the first time. I have watched this cub since he was born and I have especially enjoyed watching his rambunctious nature taking in its stride, the trials and tribulations of life in the African bush. I once watched him run to the very top of a tree to escape a hyena and I have also watched him stalking and pouncing on almost anything that moves, including of course his ever-patient mother. He is now 9 months old and is fast becoming a supreme predator. I already dread the day when he will leave the area to find a territory of his own.

Circle of Life

Unlike lions, which view hunting as a major chore, leopards view hunting as a perpetual game and one that they are rather partial too. Also differing to lion, their diet is far more catholic and comfortably includes items as small as a mouse and as large as an impala antelope. As such, the African bush offers them a plethora of hunting opportunities and like overgrown pussycats; they revel in a perpetual game of the proverbial cat and mouse. Of all the big African cats, leopards are by far the most patient hunters. They will stare at a rustle in the grass or stalk a herd of antelope for hours, waiting for just the right time to pounce. On this particular morning we spotted a leopard patiently lying in the grass next to a herd of impala. She never moved or flinched for an hour until a gust of wind spooked the herd of impala. Seizing her opportunity, she grabbed her prey with precision! Captured in this frame is a fleeting glimpse of the impala’s last moment alive. A serene look of acceptance on the antelope’s face reminds me that life and death is a familiar cycle in the African bush and that it is neither dark nor sinister, but rather just a circle of life.

Eye to Eye

I have spent more time with sleeping leopards than with awake ones. This is the life of a wildlife photographer and if you do not simply enjoy spending time with your subject, then it is my guess that you will either go mad trying or quit altogether. I need to constantly remind myself that wildlife photography is about more than just getting a photograph. It is about respecting, studying, appreciating, understanding and admiring your subject and its environment. If you are patient enough, sooner or later it will pay off, but this is almost certainly going to be later. On this day, after patiently waiting, this sleeping leopard opened one glassy eye and stared into my lens.

A Cub’s Bath Time

Leopards make excellent mothers, moving their cubs between dens every few days, to avoid them being detected by other predators and scavengers. Trying to keep track of where the cubs are hidden is like playing hide and seek with a ghost. If one is lucky enough to locate a den site, getting the shy cubs out in the open is an entirely different and seemingly impossible challenge. On this particular afternoon however, this leopard mother finally realized that I have meant her family no harm, and she brought her two cubs out into the open. I had never before managed to get an image of a mother grooming her cub and on this day I was more than pleased, in fact I was quite emotional, at having captured this intimate portrait. Leopards are incredibly clean creatures licking themselves and their young constantly. This young boy cub stopped his whining protest of meows to inquisitively stare at my lens.

Phantom of the Bush

Trying to photograph a leopard on the move is not easy. They stride through the bush effortlessly and being typical inquisitive cats, they often double back on themselves to investigate a sight, sound or smell. It is therefore difficult to predict their erratic movements but one of my goals for my leopard project has been to capture a frame that shows the ease at which leopards cut through the think African bush, like a warm knife through butter. I desperately wanted to capture an image that portrays the effortless ghost-like movements of one of Africa’s most elusive predators but three years into the project, I was still searching for a frame to illustrate this aspect of there daily lives. I first began experimenting with slow shutter speeds but I was not achieving the desired effect; the results were too one-dimensional. I then changed my strategy and began experimenting with radial blur to try and convey my message. Adopting this technique from the way BMX riders are often photographed, I zoomed out as I took this image, while still panning with my moving subject.

Shadow and Sigh

This small antelope is called a Duiker and the kill had just taken place. I watched in awe as this female leopard dragged her quarry through the bush, looking for a suitable tree in which to cache her prey. Leopards are the only large African predator to drag their prey up trees and they are capable of dragging more than their own body weight straight up a vertical tree trunk. In this image, the warm orange reflection in the leopard’s eye is metaphorically juxtaposed against the cold blue reflection in the dead antelope’s, symbolizing the familiar life and death cycle that makes Africa’s ecosystems tick. I never get used to seeing a kill but I have learnt to photograph in the moment and to philosophize about it later.

Rosettes in Autumn

The sun had already set when we heard the rasping roar from a leopard. Frantically searching for the leopard while some light still remained, I was elated to find this leopardess elegantly draped over a granite boulder. The seasons are not very pronounced in Africa and seeing a bush willow tree in its autumn dress, I desperately wanted to make the most of the opportunity and include the bright orange leaves in my composition. I asked my expert driver guide to reposition and after some skillful 4x4 maneuvering, I managed to get as many leaves as was possible in the foreground of my frame. The evening sky had turned a royal blue and this, offset against the bright orange leaves had left me feeling that possibly for the first time during this project, I would be able to capture a frame that illustrates the immense beauty of the African leopard. A burst from my flash brought the scene to life.

Luscious Leopardess

This beautiful specimen of an African leopard had made a kill in the night, but her cubs had clumsily knocked the antelope carcass out of the tree. She now needed to re-hoist it and I knew there would be a brief moment when she would gaze back up at the tree, to plot her route up. As soon as her beautiful pale blue eyes glanced skyward, I hastily tripped my shutter button. Since then, I keep coming back to this image to study the form and beauty of what has to be Africa’s most striking predator. At the time of taking this photo, I never noticed her pink nose or her exceptionally long whiskers and eyelashes. I also never noticed the way that the spots on her forequarters gradually give way to rosettes. Every leopard also has a string of spots running across their throat, affectionately known as the pearl necklace. This will allow me to identify this leopard again in the future.

Night Stalker

Leopards are largely nocturnal and my intention for this project has been to harness the latest advancements in digital cameras (specifically in the area of high ISO performance), to document the nightly forays of leopards. This extreme lowlight photography has been nothing short of invigorating as not only is it is very technical, but every situation is different, having required me to come up with my own recipe of manual settings that need constant tweaking. The one image I had desperately been searching for was one that captured the leopard in its nocturnal environment. I wanted an image that illustrates how the leopard carries out a single solitary existence cloaked in an environment of utter blackness. Finally getting my chance on this evening, I chose to include as much of the night around my subject as possible. Naturalist Maitland Edey described it best when he said ‘He is an animal of darkness and even in the dark he travels alone.’

The end.

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The Great Crossing

No matter how many documentaries you have watched, nothing can prepare you for seeing the migration crossing the river in real life. I recently witnessed a crossing so immense that I am calling it 'The Great Crossing'...

There are few places left in the world where large mammal migrations occur but Kenya’s Masai Mara Game Reserve, where these images were taken, is one such place. The River Mara is the only perennial water source in the ecosystem and as the great herds search for greener pastures, they make multiple crossings. I have been photographing the wildebeest migration for more than 10 consecutive years now and never before have I witnessed a crossing of such biblical proportions as on this day. A northerly wind was sweeping up dust and as the herds gathered on the opposite bank the atmosphere was electric. When they did finally cross, they did so in three flowing veins. The only way to try and do scene justice was to zoom out as far as I could and to then convert the image to black and white to give it a quality of timeless wonder and a sense of nostalgia, for times past, when great migrations existed all over the world.

The end.
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