World Lion Day: Long Live the King!

wight_king0U7A19590U7A1959August 10th is World Lion Day. In just over 50 years, less than my lifetime, the population has plummeted from approximately 250,000 lions in 1975 to closer to 25,000 today. (1)  According to renowned documentarians (The Last Lions) and conservationists Derek and Beverley Joubert, “If you check back, every time we add a billion people to the roster, we lose half of the big cats.”  Just as poaching is decimating the elephant and rhino populations, so is it effecting the the big cats. (6,652 lion trophies exported between 2000-2009) Ignorance surrounding the “medical” benefits of animal parts is fueling the black market trade. (2) The remaining lion prides are becoming more isolated and fragmented and their long-term viability is now under serious threat. I would urge you to visit The Big Cat Initiative and learn  more about the challenges facing the lion population and how you can help. In honour of World Lion Day, I am giving thanks and celebrating the lions I have been fortunate to photograph, sharing my personal encounters with the largest predator in Africa–panthera leo. I hope it inspires a roar!

You never forget your first…

wight_hanginIMG_2664IMG_2664 (1)In 2007 I made my first trip to Africa. When I arrived in Tanzania wide-eyed in wonder, I did not really have lions on my mind. The stars of the safari circuit, number one of the Big 5, did not seem to ignite my imagination the way other animals did. That is, until I saw one! There is absolutely no forgetting your first lion. Mine was fast asleep in a tree, dangling just overhead! Pointing my camera up, his paw filled the frame and fired my imagination. He was so close he could have pee’d on me. Bodily functions are always a professional risk and I tend to ponder these kinds of comical mishaps more than wondering if my meaty thighs might provide a tasty treat.

I have had 31 encounters photographing lions and have been blessed to observe them in 5 of the 6 countries I have visited, eluded only by the desert lion of Namibia, whose paw prints disappeared over the dunes, my imagination trailing behind. I have captured tawny mounds of sleeping cubs, adolescents acting out and feasting prides on moonlit nights. I have spent time with three-legged lions, tree climbing lions, sleeping lions, pooping lions and hunting lions. I have wondered at their scarred noses and fashionable manes. And I have cherished every moment.

wight_leo0U7A19760U7A1976wight_fight20U7A98860U7A9886 wight_cub0U7A14230U7A1423During one exceptionally close encounter, a young male walked right through the minimum focusing distance at 70mm, looked directly in my soul and sniffed my boot along the way. The reflection of our Land Rover was captured in his golden eyes as they met the Savute sunset. (These compostions were captured in-camera.)

strip“The Masai name for lion is olng’atuni but it is seldom uttered aloud lest the mention of its name should tempt the fates and invoke a visit. “ The Marsh Lions. The Story of an African Pride.

My most viceral encounters have happened at night. I have watched lions relax on the sandy river beds, fur tinged pink from a recent meal, with only the beam of a flashlight to expose them. Once, while driving off road, my ranger switched off the ignition as a hunting pride stalked by. The lions split, flanking the open truck,  walking softly through the darkness on both sides of me. I could just make out their low rumbles as they advanced, shoulder to hip, reappearing in single file, shadows dancing on the beams of  headlights. Your mind has nowhere to wander. On an inky African night, when a lion looks directly in your eyes, the message is very clear. “This is my time. This is my turf.”

Nap on the beach. "You know you are truly alive when you live amongst lions" Karen Blixen Out of Africawight_dreamland0U7A05430U7A0543It is not only seeing them that excites me. They have a way of arousing all your senses! I have arrived too late for dinner, inhaling the stench of rotting flesh left behind on last nights bones. In bed, listening to the thundering silence of an African night, you are reminded they are near; the unmistakable alarm call of a baboon enlivens your imagination and colours your dreams. And perhaps nudges your heart rate ever so gently! (Take a listen with the volume turned up.)

 

“You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions.”  Karen Blixen, Out of Africa

Lions are the only big cats who live in groups and a pride can number anywhere from 3 to 40, averaging around 12 or 13. Each pride is ruled by a dominant male, who could top the scales at close to 250 kg. His job is to protect the territory, which can range 250 square kilometers. The lionesses are the primary hunters, working as a team to feed the family. When a hunt is successful, squabbling ensues. The male eats first, followed by the females, and the cubs get the scraps.

You can spend days trying to find a pride of lions. There are fewer numbers wandering fairly large ranges and they quite easily disappear in the tall grass. Their lazy lifestyles actually pose a challenge for photographers who want to capture action as they can spend twenty hours a day resting under trees or on cool stretches of sand. It can be a long wait before you hit the shutter in burst-mode. Of course there are small rewards; a wayward tail swatting flies or a toothy snarl when a sibling flops down a little too close. Early morning and late in the day are the best times to be out tracking as you might catch them returning from a hunt or arousing themselves from siesta before their evening patrol. Their incredibly expressive faces are portrait-worthy and when a lion smiles, flashing canines the size of human thumbs, it is not hard to imagine the damage that is unleashed by those powerful jaws. There is no mistaking why he is king of the jungle.

wight_yawn0U7A12640U7A1264faces wight_upsdie0U7A98170U7A9817wight_undertree0U7A11860U7A1186cubears wight_ndutuIMG_3060IMG_3060Pantera leo evolved in Africa as long as 800,000 years ago. Can it really be that they will perish under our watch? I sincerely hope the tides will turn and humanity will realize the steep price we will pay if we allow these formidable carnivores–the apex predator on the African continent–to disappear.

I will certainly do my best to cause an UPROAR on their behalf.!

“I have just emerged from the depths of the great wide open spaces, from the life of prehistoric times, today just as it was a thousand years ago, from meeting with the great beasts of prey which entrall one, which obsess one, so that one feels that lions are all that one lives for…”  Karen Blixen’s Letters from Africa

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All photos © NJ Wight

1. As of 2008, the African lion population was roughly estimated to number between 23,000 and 39,000. *CITES 

2.The CITES Trade Database lists a total of 6,652 lion trophies exported between 2000-2009, virtually all males. Available records show that between 1999 and 2008, 21,914 wild-sourced African lion parts were traded internationally from twenty range states. *CITES.

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Photographing the Strawberry Poison Dart Frog: Hidden Gems!

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Oophaga pumilio…better known as the strawberry poison dart frog, is a gorgeous little amphibian-dude that lives across Central America. These are terrestrial beings (meaning they hang out on land) and are active during the day, making it a somewhat easier to go traipsing around the rainforest searching them out. What I found interesting about photographing these creatures was how accommodating they were. I mean, aside from sitting knee-deep in mud, soggy from humidity and being knawed on by bugs, the frogs themselves are rather patient and engaging. Once spotted, I could generally get down on my knees and move relatively close up for a shot. They didn’t seem to mind, although they certainly preferred to keep their backs to me.

My first task was finding them. Given this was a maiden voyage to their territory, (a side trip to Bocas del Toros while in Panama photographing hummingbirds) I was not exactly sure what to look for and I walked the same path, back and forth, without so much as a single click of the shutter. The first encounter was thanks to a naturalist that I was fortunate enough to go hiking with. He pointed out a tiny red  fleck on the low branch of a tree. I had not expected them to be so tiny and bright! After this gleeful introduction I began retracing my steps in the jungle and suddenly my eyes had no problem spotting several little gems to spend time with.

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They do like to hang out in the leaf litter so the trick to discovering them was to keep an eye on the vegetation just below my knee and slightly off the path.  Their vibrant colour is a beacon in the bush!  They are very tiny beings–imagine the size of a regular strength Tylenol, but with itsy-bitsy, silvery-blue speckled legs. The biggest challenge was getting myeslf close enough to shoot them. Staying dry and clean was out of the question–but that’s part of the fun! Balance is key when photographing something so small with a macro lens, in my case the Canon 100 f2.8 IS L. When you are up close and absorbed in making an interesting image, it is very possible to falter and reach out to steady yourself. I am prone ot tipping over in these situations. This is not a good idea in the rainforest where you have no idea what might be hiding at the bottom of the grass that is climbing your calves or what might be fasy asleep on the slippery moss of the tree trunk next to you. Not to mention, be careful not to touch these little guys. Their skin is toxic. (Interestingly, this toxicity is not present in frogs born in captivity, leading scientists to believe the toxins form from the diet they consume in the wild–which is where they belong.) These frogs put you through your paces as they squeeze between entwined vines, slip under decaying leaves or cling to the underside of wide grass blades. It requires some elaborate body contortions to get your camera into a position low enough for a capture. With these controtions there was no relying on tripods or monopods for stability and pre-storm skies created further challenges with light, already in short supply under the rainforest canopy.  I was pushing the ISO to 6400 and using a shallow DOF, making shooting conditions less than optimal for these photos.

Still, I had an absolute blast mucking about and talking quietly, trying to coax one of these little ruby-red jewels to look me in the eyes!

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If you like little creatures, why not check out Flapneck Chameleons: Emerald Wonders!

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Tracking Leopards: What a Difference a Ranger Makes

roadtrip8BWight___MG_9873It is always a thrill to catch sight of a leopard in the wild. Two leopards, well, that’s sheer bush ecstasy! These felines are elusive loners and very independant, so finding them is quite difficult and tracking them, well, hang on to your hat. Their markings and stealth movements allow them to disappear in front of your very eyes. But if you have an experienced guide at the wheel, you might be in for quite a treat! And so it was for me last October while staying at Leadwood Lodge in the Sabi Sands, one of my favourite of & Beyond’s property’s.

I was guided by Mack, a very experienced and photography-savvy ranger and our talented tracker, who’s name I wish I could remember. Two things that make an enormous difference when you are in the bush searching for wildlife and unique photo opportunities–a knoweldgeable ranger/tracker team and a reliable, well-tricked out Land Rover. The & Beyond folks tick both boxes.

Early on our second morning we came across this mother with her adolescent cub. As soon as we spotted them, they were on the move! Through thickets and tall grass, down raveens and around termite mounds, they slipped in and out of sight. Unbelieveably, Mack and our tracker stayed with them, which involved some serious off road manoeuvers. Thankfully our truck easily ploughed through almost anything!

roadtrip5BWight___MG_9890The cats moved through tall grass, the occassional tip of a tail or back of an ear bobbing up here and there, welcome landmarks in bad weather.  Finally they emmerged from the thickets into the open and once again we were able to track more closely as they followed the bend in the road in front of us.

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roadtripBWight__0U7A0204But not for long! Into the grass and down the banks they went, forcing us to once again to take our search off-road, bouncing along over tree stumps and thick bushes–with one happy photographer hanging on to a roll bar in one hand and a Canon 5D Mlll in the other!

roadtrip4BWight___MG_9901The guys were quick to respond and years of tracking these fabulous animals has provided keen insights into anticipating which way they might be heading. Mack gunned the engine (as much as you can power forward in 3 feet of underbush!) and moved the truck through the fields, pulling a quick u-turn and magically emmerging back on the road–with the leopards walking towards us!!roadtrip9BWight__0U7A0176The kept moving forward, straight at the truck, disappearing through my minimum focus range. They barely gave us a look as they slipped by the open-sided vehicle. I resisted the urge to try to scratch some kitty ears as they floated by.closeWight__0U7A0180

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Finally, they wandered into a cool clearing and lay down to tumble together and enjoy some serious grooming. Leopard watching just does not get better than this!

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Black-backed Jackal and her New Family

I always consider it a treat to see jackals (canis mesomelas) when I am in the bush in Africa. I have been fortunate to see both the side-striped and black-backed jackals in my travels, but they have always been quick to disappear once spotted.  So, it was a very RARE treat last October to come across a black-backed jackal standing out in the open on the Ngala reserve  in South Africa. We could see her off in the distance standing at high-alert near a mound of dirt at the edge of a thicket.

wight_jackal0U7A57980U7A5798We slowly made our way across the grassy plain and as we approached we quickly realized that this was no ordinary mound of dirt! Tentatively, a tiny face emmerged from the opening at the base of the mound. This was my first-ever sighting of a jackal pup and this  fuzzy little bundle looked very new to the world indeed, quite possibly making one of his first explorations out of the den.

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wight_jackal20U7A58050U7A5805As if seeing one youngster wasn’t enough, moments later his sibling climbed out for a look! As Mom moved off a few yards the two little ones were in full view. We kept a signifincant distance so as not to startle them so I would have to be satisified doing some serious cropping with these shots taken with a 5D Mlll and 400mm f4 DO. I was thankful we had decent light to work with though, and regardless of not being optimal shooting distance, it was wonderful to watch these tiny new lives.

wight_jackal50U7A58070U7A5807The second puppy was slightly less brave, and after a minute or so, her made a quick dive back into the den leaving his fearless sibling to explore alone. After a few minutes the little guy settled in for a rest just to the side of the den but remained quite alert, looking directly at us.

wight_jackal60U7A58100U7A5810wight_jackal40U7A58060U7A5806Eventually both cubs hid themselves away and Mom wandered further from the den to hunt. We followed her for a good 30 minutes as she attempted to pounce on small rodents and capture low-flying termites. The morning heat was mounting and every so often she would lie down for a minute or two to rest before picking up the hunt again. She continually looked back to make sure all was well at the den.

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wight_jackal90U7A58620U7A5862We returned to the denning site three more times over the course of the next four days, but we were unsuccessful seeing the adults or the cubs.  I am so grateful I had these moments as this was absolutley one of the highlights of my 11 days in the bush this time around!

 

Don’t miss previous African adventures. Why not check out: Lions at Night and Spotted Hyenas; Who’s the Boss?

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