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Lions’ teen spirit nets us African photo award

Every so often in wildlife photography things just seem to ‘click’ into place. That was the case earlier this year during our visit to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP) in South Africa when we spent a very happy morning photographing a pride of lions in the Nossob riverbed.  One of our images from that morning’s haul has just received an award in this year’s ‘Nature’s Best Photography Africa’ competition; the continent’s most prestigious wildlife photography contest. (You can see all the 2017 winning images here). Here’s the story behind our successful shot in this year’s competition…

Winning image. Canon EOS 1DX, 1/800sec, f/8, ISO 320, 500mm lens plus 1.4x converter

It was one of those mornings when you manage to cross paths with a great subject at just the right time; when the light’s still very usable. One of the many reasons we love photographing in the KTP is the fact you can often follow the same animals for days; learning their routes and routines. The Kalahari’s famous lions are a case in point. The excitement begins with a just a handful of paw-prints in the sand and then, if, and when, we catch up with our quarry, due to the wonderfully open terrain, it’s possible to document our subjects’ behaviour intimately; setting active subjects off to great effect against a stunning background wash of semi-desert hues.

We picked up the same pride on several occasions
We picked up the same pride on several occasions

We’d been following one pride with five sub-adult cubs for several days. The adult members of the pride liked to sit on the face of a favourite dune and we’d managed to pick them up there on a couple of mornings. Sometimes the youngsters would join them; sometimes they weren’t to be seen.

On this morning we’d suddenly found ourselves with front row seats as the whole pride, both adult members and their boisterous, almost ‘teenage’ cubs, were reuniting after a night on the prowl. As you might imagine there was much running around with lions coming in from every direction off the nearby dunes.

With so much going on it was difficult to predict where to manoeuvre our vehicle for the best. Anticipating which individual subjects to follow with a camera can be a nervy gamble. Even with two of us keeping an eye on the developing situation we truly were spoiled for choice. We were anxious we’d get it wrong and end up with a wonderful memory of the unfolding episode, but nothing on our memory cards to back it up.

Big brothers. It was a tough decision to leave these guys and stick with the younger lions

In a situation with lions it’s always tempting to follow the photogenic males – even more so in this case as they were two stunning black-maned bruisers. We’d photographed the same pair a few days earlier as they walked side by side on the sand like brothers in arms, so we knew they were potentially the best prospect. But with the sun now rising higher in the sky we decided to break with convention and placed all our bets on the youngsters instead.

We reckoned the experienced big males would soon be headed for the shade. Probably not much chance of anything new on the photo front there. There’s usually only a slim window of time and good light to make interesting behavioural shots before lions disappear into cover to sleep as the day hots up. Getting cleanly composed images in sweet light is always a challenge.

Staying with the group of cubs was a gamble. Would it pay off?

The hyperactive cubs, on the other hand, too stupid for their own good, were still wandering aimlessly out in the open, clearly frustrated by the adults’ sober pace. Rather than resting up in the shade (obviously not quite cool enough for juvenile big cats) they seemed content to stay out in the riverbed. The pastel colours of the distant dunes dropped off perfectly. We could see they provided an ideal complementary background for the sort of entertaining antics we were hoping for. We were now staking everything on shots of the young lions playfully interacting.  But would they oblige?

Gotcha! Lion cubs hone ambush moves that will help their survival when fully-grown

Just as we expected they soon began taking their pent up predatory frustration out on each other; ambushing each other, chewing each other’s tails and sparring in mock combat in that way that tearaway young lion siblings always will – sooner or later – rehearsing moves that would one day make all the difference to their survival in this unforgiving eco-system.

Getting your teeth into it. A sibling’s tail at the sharp end of one cub’s canines

Sometimes following your instinct about a wildlife subject pays dividends. Good fortune plays its part too of course, but don’t underestimate hard-earned knowledge picked up along the way. Because at times like these you realise those endless hours spent observing your subjects’ behaviour, without a decent image for your effort, really isn’t really a waste of time at all, but a worthwhile investment you can cash in later.

Let’s make up. Time for a friendly head nuzzle after the fighting

 

 

Our blog gets its stripes in African media awards

It was a big fillip for our Beat about the Bush blog recently when our post from last year, the Marmite Moments of a Photography Couple,  reached a shortlist of three nominated for best blogger/vlogger on Africa in the first media awards hosted by the African Travel and Tourism Association (ATTA) in London.

The annual ATTA Media Awards have been set up to celebrate the best travel, conservation and tourism journalism on Africa – so you can imagine just how chuffed we both were to get nominated.

We couldn’t attend the awards bash in London earlier in the summer as we were – you’ve guessed it – away in the African bush.  But we’re determined the good news will kickstart us into posting here a bit more now. Unfortunately we’ve been a bit quiet in the last few months, partly due to being busy building up the new photographic safari side of our business…

But hey, now we’ve got a blogging reputation to keep up!

News Splash! See our trip award winners for 2014

Before 2015 gets underway, it might be a good time to hand out some more Beat About the Bush Trip Awards (BATBAs) – the ‘gongs’ given out when we’re back in the office reliving our exploits. The official awards season is almost upon us and we don’t want our humble blog to get eclipsed by the Oscars.

As a way to round up a bunch of disparate stuff after a photo trip before attention turns to the next project, trip awards seemed an okay idea when we did the first lot (see our blog of April 29, 2014). With barely a week’s gap between our most recent Thailand and South Africa trips however, and a nasty and lingering ‘lurgy’ plaguing our return home, we’ve not had time to repeat this contrived excuse for a blog subject until today.

So enough with the apologies already. Let the drum rolls begin…

BATBA Award for the Wettest Photographers

AMHE586 Elephant bull spraying water
A bigger splash! More embarrassing than refreshing for us…

And the BATBA for raging bull elephant goes to …. This one might alternatively be headlined ‘Elephant gets its revenge on wildlife paparazzi’. We’re still rather shamefaced about it now when our lost pride’s been regained and our camera lenses have been well and truly dried out. We definitely got what we deserved when our boatman drifted a little too close to this big guy for comfort one afternoon on the Chobe river in Botswana late last year. We’ve certainly got a sneaking admiration for this elephant who put us firmly in our place by dumping a full trunk of river water over our heads. We’ve spent years reminding people to respect these massive mammals and warning them not to get too near. Pity we couldn’t heed our own advice on this occasion. What’s even more annoying than the dousing, however, is that while one of us did have the presence of mind to press the shutter button we didn’t get the end of his dripping trunk in the frame!

BATBA Award for Best Wildlife Drama

AMHB90 Cape buffalo herd swimming across Chobe river
River wild – the buffalo crossing was our Chobe trip highlight

On a more serious note the Chobe river was also the location for the wildlife highlight of our second visit to Africa in 2014. Once again we were really lucky to have more than our fair share of highlights last year. In 2014 our list of would-you-believe-it encounters was topped by the sight of a huge herd of cape buffalo huddling together, and looking more than a little stressed out, as they paddled purposefully across the river. We were led to understand the swimming herd had been pursued by a pride of a lions the previous night and was keen to cross for refuge, but we’re really not sure why they seemed so intent on crossing at that moment. Being on a small boat (with a more experienced guide than the infamous ellie incident above) we were able to get reasonably close, without disturbing them, and certainly close enough to see the panic in their eyes as they struggled in the water with just the whites of their rolling eyes and a tangle of horns bobbing above the choppy waters. It looked for all the world like a huge, heavy oil-black rope was being dragged laboriously through the water. We felt really lucky to be close by just when it happened and, selfish as it sounds, to have this special sighting all to ourselves. It was fascinating to see how these tough guy, Big Five beasts, so dangerous on terra firma, looked completely vulnerable and out of their element in the water.

BATBA Gold Award for Best Day Off

RLB12 Gold statues, Wat Phra Kaew compound, Grand Palace, Bangko
The Grand Palace in all its glorious detail had us glued to the viewfinder

Some days it’s quite refreshing to point our cameras at something other than the wildlife when we visit a place. Quite often when we we’re away we’ll try to tack on a little bit of time for some touristy stuff. Inevitably the cameras end up coming out even though we’re meant to be enjoying a bit of downtime from ‘work’. Back in late 2014, in Bangkok, after an intense week in the Thai forest reporting on the Siam rosewood poaching story, we became so immersed in photographing the glittering Grand Palace we hardly noticed the intense heat, the thronging crowds or the passing hours. We spent ages snapping away, soaking it all in. Sometimes with no pressure to get a particular shot, or any shot at all, no deadline, no shooting list, or commission it’s nice to rediscover the joy of photography for its own sake.

BATBA Award for the Recession

RCS91 Khao Yai national park
Tranquil in late afternoon, the Thai forest seemed quite alien compared to the African bush

Nothing to do with austerity measures this was all about getting a handle on the haunting beauty of Thailand’s Khao Yai National Park. One evening, towards the end of our time in the forest, when travelling just outside the park at dusk we noticed this wonderful recession in the forested hills as if a series of coloured cards had been carefully arranged by someone to create the tranquil effect. Not the best landscape shot we’ve ever taken, it nevertheless enabled us at last to make our peace with a landscape that had swallowed us up when we were bang in the middle of it struggling to make sense of it on camera. Dwarfed by the wall of huge trees, roofed over by the thick, dark canopy, our ears ringing with the shrill whoops and shrieks of unseen birds and gibbons it seemed such a forbidding and claustrophobic place. Seen with a sunset glow from a distance and in silhouette Khao Yai was a sleeping giant – softened and tame, at least, for a while.

BATBA Award for Best Book

michaela
This plate of Michaela sums up the book better than we can!

We did a ‘book of the trip’ award last time in April 2014, but had to do it again for ‘Leopard in My Lap’ (published 1955). We stumbled across it in Barter Books, the treasure trove of a second hand book emporium in Alnwick, near our home in Northumberland. Go there if you ever have the chance. The book’s by another, much more famous, but now pretty much forgotten husband and wife duo specialising in African wildlife, called Armand and Michaela Dennis. She did the text he did the pictures. The forerunners of today’s celebrity wildlife film-makers and TV presenters, their adventures make for an interesting, often hilarious, sometimes concerning read. When we tell you it’s illustrated with lots of plates of peroxide blonde Michaela in the bush looking as glamorous as a Hollywood starlet while cuddling a series of African mammals as the title suggests, you’ll begin to get the idea. Thankfully wildlife photography’s come a long way in the last 50 years…

Elephant M*A*S*H Portfolio Wins Top Photo Prize

ACV17 Wild elephant bull hoisted by crane for vasectomy operatio
A wild elephant bull is hoisted into position

Great news to end a busy 2013 has been the recognition for two of our recent photo-journalism projects in this year’s Melvita nature photography competition with French magazine Terre Sauvage and the IUCN.
Images from our work photographing a crack team of top US and South African veterinary surgeons performing pioneering keyhole surgery in the middle of the African bush on wild elephant bulls have been awarded a top prize in the competition – a bursary of 4,000 Euros to photograph a conservation assignment (yet to be decided) for the IUCN.

The portfolio of winning images showed how the vets, in full operating room scrubs, handled these tricky patients using oversized surgical instruments and cutting edge keyhole surgery techniques to perform vasectomies on a number of elephant bulls on a South African reserve to help control population numbers. The procedure, while expensive, is seen as a potential solution to the problems caused by elephant overpopulation in some parts of southern Africa, particularly on smaller game reserves.

ACV26 Wild elephant ready for surgery in the bush
The elephant’s vital signs are closely monitored during the operation

Not to put too fine a point on it, an elephant’s testes are inside his body so quite difficult invasive surgery is required. And that’s once you’ve tracked the elephant bull down, tranquillised it from the air and manoeuvred him into position so two teams of surgeons, and their support crew, can safely get to work.

We watched and photographed three such 90 minute operations. All were successful, with the bull stitched up and back on his feet at the end of the complex procedure.

A big thanks to the expert team from the Elephant Population Management Program in America and South African vet Johan Marais for all their help and assistance with this photo project.
A second portfolio of images from our current Project African Rhino photo-journalism campaign to raise awareness about all issues relating to the poaching crisis was also nominated in the competition’s ‘Mankind and Nature’ category.