World Lion Day: A Celebration of New Life!

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Giving Thanks on World Lion Day

The killing of Cecil the lion has caused an uproar around the world as so many become aware of the tragic situation facing Africa’s biggest cat. Let us hope that Cecil’s death can bring change and help end the senseless slaughter of these majestic animals. In just over 50 years the lion population has plummeted from approximately 250,000 in 1975 to about 20,000 today. This leaves only 3,000 or so older breeding males–the prime target of trophy hunters–and the future of the lion populations. (See this national Geographic animation for an understanding of the rapid decline.) 

Just as poaching is decimating the elephant and rhino populations, so is it affecting the the big cats. According to CITIES, there were 6,652 lion trophies exported between 2000-2009 and ignorance surrounding the “medical” benefits of animal parts further fuels the black market trade. Loss of habitat and human-animal conflicts are on the rise. 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.

I have had over 40 encounters photographing lions in Africa and this year, in honour of World Lion Day, I would like to celebrate all the new life–the lion cubs–the next generation of what hopefully can be a growing population of  panthera leo.

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You never forget your first lion…

lionCub_snarl__Wight_IMG_2970In 2007 I made my first trip to Africa to safari in Tanzania. I also bought my first DSLR to take pictures along the way. Several things happened on that trip–we were stranded in the Serengetti due to out of season torrential rains, I fell in love with Africa, I discovered my love of photography and…I saw my very first lion cubs! We were staying in the Grumeti sector of the Serengeti with @ beyond and there was a small pride with five cubs. We watched for over an hour and I was taken with this little guy who was practising his best snarl.

I have been lucky to observe cubs in 5 of the 6 countries I have visited. I have seen cubs just over a week old and learning to use their paws and open their eyes, jumbles of youngsters and tangles of tawny fur tossing themselves this way and that, adolescents and sub-adults almost ready to strike out on their own. For the most part it has been joyful. However, nature poses some difficult challenges on young lives and I have sadly witnessed cubs in distress.

This is “Buddy” a young cub in the Okavango Delta in 2008. He had lost his paw in an altercation with a predator. He was a marvel to watch, tumbling with his two siblings and making his own way through the tall grass. But sadly, a week after we met, his Mom hid him and his siblings away while she went off to hunt. A nearby pride had made a kill close by and the cubs, likely lured by the smell of the meat, came out to investigate the remains. The lions returned to their kill and while the two other cubs managed to scatter back to safety, Buddy couldn’t get away fast enough and was killed. I was glad I had met him and he certainly struck me as a brave little soul.

worldLionDay_Wight__U7A5741I photographed this older cub in Laikipia, Kenya last year while staying at Kicheche Camps. Her markings were absolutely gorgeous with her spots still quite prominent. (You sometimes still see these spots, although faded, on sub-adults.) She had somehow managed to be separated from her family. She was a little thin and my ranger Andrew figured she had likely been on her own for a couple of days. As she wandered away calling to her pride I said a small prayer that she would find them before nightfall. On her own her future looked bleak as she would be easy prey for hyena.

The Charleston Lion Pride of Sabi Sands

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Lions are the only cat that live in groups. A pride of lions can include up to three males, over a dozen lioness and all their offsprintg. A large pride could number 40 or so. These three are what remained of the Charleston Pride when I photographed them in the Sabi Sands at Kirkman’s Kamp in 2013. The two sub-adults were living alone with their aunt after their mother and several others were killed by a neighbouring pride when they were young cubs. (See Lions at Night for more.) The aunt did a formidable job raising them and keeping them safe after losing her sisters. Male lions will be fully grown at about three years old and will leave the pride to make out on their own. These two males, maybe 2+ years old, were preparing for the challenges ahead.

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Healthy Cubs in the OMC

Last year I travelled to Kenya and was not disappointed with the young lion life I was able to photograph! These youngsters were all in the Olare Orok Conservancy on the Mara and I enjoyed the time I spent with them thanks to Patrick at Kicheche Bush Camp.

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The Lion Cubs of the Mara North

But perhaps my very favourite lion sightings came last year at Alex Walker’s Ngare camp in the Mara North Conservancy. My guides introduced me to three different sets of cubs, all still living alone with Mom. These were all the youngest cubs I had yet to see! A lioness gives birth after about 110 days and she keeps her cubs separate from the pride for up to 6 weeks. Not even Dad is allowed to visit. The cubs I saw ranged in age from less than two weeks old to about 4 weeks old. I am really excited to be returning to Ngare Serian this fall and hope to photograph them again, re-united with the rest of thier family!

In celebration of World Lion Day, here are the lion cubs of the Mara North–long may they live!

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Pantera 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 cannot imagine a world without them…

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For more lions…

World Lion Day: Long Live the King!

Lions at Night

A Pride of lions following the migration in Ndutu takes a nap…bellies full!

Lion portfolio.

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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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This post was previously published last July.

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Photographing the Dragonfly in Flight

Red-eyed dragonfly inflightI call it Dragonflying. The art of photographing the dragonfly in flight. And it is teaching me patience.

I have always been intrigued by the elongated shape and erratic movements of the dragonfly. But not until I started photographing them did I realize how intricate and beautiful they truly are. With their “stained glass window” wings, brightly colored tails and gigantic eyes, they are a small wonder of nature’s design. Part of the odonata order that also includes damselflies, they are believed to have been gracing this earth for more than 300 million years.

dragonfly in flightEquipped with two sets of wings that can beat independently, unlike other double-winged insects that beat in unison, their front wings can be going up while their back ones are beating down. However, even with two sets they are considered to be slow flappers, so to speak, with an average of 30 wing-beats per second (whereas a bumblebee’s wings move at about 300 bps).

Staring dragonflyDragonfly eyes are enormous and contain as many as 30,000 individual lenses (whereas humans have one), giving them supreme vision that enables them to respond to stimuli—like an eager photographer—up to 40 feet away. Still, they are quite accommodating and generally may grant you an audience quite close.

Once referred to as The Devil’s Darning Needles, myth would have it that dragonflies would seek out bad children and sew their mouths together with their claspers while they slept. Sadly, the myth fell apart after rigorous scientific study revealed they had no pockets or handbags in which to cart around needle and thread. They actually can do no harm to us humans as they don’t bite or sting. In fact, they seem intrigued by us and generally come quite close. Frankly, I think they should be more revered as they help control our mosquito population.

Dragonflies pass through a fascinating life journey and you may not realize it, but the time they spend flying around our ponds and lakes is quite a short chapter in their lives. They actually hatch on the water surface and can remain in the larva stage for several years. The metamorphosis state brings the growth of wings, at which point they leave the water and begin their flying lifecycle, which lasts only weeks. This winged-stage is for mating and it is a common sight to see a male and female attached to each other, clinging to a blade of grass, or even mid-flight. Happy times for dragonflies before their precious few weeks of flight-time expire.

red-eyed dragon fly restingThe art…and challenge of photographing dragonflies

I am grateful to the dragonfly as it is teaching me patience. One of the biggest photography challenges for me has been capturing dragonflies in flight. I am generally impatient waiting for microwave popcorn, so standing in one spot for 50 minutes trying to focus and track spasmodically flying winged-things is not exactly in my comfort zone. But I love the challenge! I think of it as a zen meditation — with swearing.

blue eyed dragonfly in flight.I usually shoot with either a Canon 5D Mlll or a 7D and my 70-200 f4 IS L and after a few false starts and focusing trial-and-errors, I have started to find my rhythm. Coincidentally, it has corresponded with finding the dragons’ rhythm. Dragonflies really are unreliable, drunken flyers, changing direction and altitude very quickly. But, they also hover—and that is the photographer’s moment.

dragonfly flying towardsa cameraI have learned to anticipate and concentrate on that brooding moment. Once I find my way with tracking and focus, and I seem to have to re-learn this every time, I am able to concentrate on composition. Luckily, these subjects enjoy flying around bushes and moss-covered water allowing for opportunities to explore creative and contrasting backgrounds with which to create interesting bokeh, (that nice, softly blurred background you sometimes see in photographs) and perhaps a little catch of light dancing off the wings. Is that too much to ask for?

Dragonfly wings inflightThe next time you see a dragonfly while you are out for a hike in the woods, kayaking on the lake or relaxing in your garden, take a moment to watch it dance. Remember, you are privileged to be witnessing the last few days of this graceful creature’s life.

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Originally written for The Mother nature Network.

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Fox Kitts Have Left the Den!

Young foxes Kitt & Caboodle have left the den! The young fox kitts and their siblings are probably about 3 months old now and have left their winter den site. They are slowly gaining independence as they wander further and further from their mother. It has been great a great privilege to photograph the foxes in and around the rocks and trees. Most of the time I have come across them they have been sleeping, but even when they are, it is wonderful to spend time with them. They are looking very healthy and with a large squirrel population at ahnd, they are clearly well fed!

Here are a few of the more recent shots.

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I nice stretch…maybe he things he’s a wolf?

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Mama fox dropped her acorn. You can see the entire sequence here.

I lost my acorn

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fox under the tree

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Enjoy!

If you missed Kitt&Caboodle in the den, click here.

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