Tag Archives: wildlife

Meet the meerkat mob that stole the show

Playful young suricates get into mischief at the den one evening

It’s just before sunrise and we’re squatting uncomfortably in a clump of bushes in a quiet corner of our Kalahari restcamp.  We’re keeping quiet.  For two reasons. First up, our subjects are still snoozing, although we’re not too concerned about disturbing their slumbers (they’ll be up like clockwork with the sun in a few minutes). But more importantly we don’t want to draw anyone else’s attention to what we’re doing…

It’s not that we don’t like sharing, and we’re not usually this clandestine about subjects (we even took a detour and sneaked round the long way this morning in case anyone spotted where we were headed). With subjects this obliging we are unusually keen to keep this one to ourselves.

Keep schtum! We really need to keep this quiet – hence the secrecy

We stumbled upon the spot a couple of days ago, almost by accident, and we have spent a few wonderful mornings (and sun-downs) with the ever-popular species that occasionally has sleep-overs here. We worry if we draw a crowd the group could be disturbed and might not choose to sleep in camp with us again.

What are we up to?  We’re door-stepping meerkats.  We certainly feel like paparazzi skulking about secretively with our cameras and lying in wait for the money shot.

It’s a golden opportunity to observe these busy creatures intimately at low level

But the chance to photograph a family of suricates – fascinating, characterful, charming, comical and anthropomorphic as they are – out of our vehicle, up close, at ground level, interacting and behaving totally unselfconsciously (and with the prospect we might even be able to use a wide-angle lens if we take things slow and don’t push it) is not one to let go.

It’s summer here, when suricates breed, and we’ve been lucky to see a couple of photogenic ‘clans’ with young – including some really tiny babies ( more of them to come in a later post…)

The last time we had the chance to photograph meerkat families socialising as intimately as this, we were photographing at the real life ‘Meerkat Manor’ from the TV, at the home of the long-running Kalahari Meerkat Project, for a magazine feature. It’s not a place that grants access to photographers lightly so a meerkat den in a secret corner of our camp in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park a few weeks ago, with habituated residents, was going to make missing the odd the big cat sighting on morning and evening game drives for a day or two more than worthwhile.

Last out’s a sissy. Checking the coast is clear a single merrkat pops up to say hello

Just as cramp is setting in our lower limbs we see the first signs that our photo session is about to begin. A sleepy, long-snout noses out of the sandy hole followed by a skinny body. The early riser clocks that we’re here, but isn’t fazed by us.  This clan is used to people with cameras. This is because they’ve been spending the odd day here or there foraging on the campsite to the delight of tourists.

It was an amazing experience to watch them socialise right in front of our camera lenses
One meerkat would act as sentinel climbing a bush to check the coast was clear

Having spent a few days with them now we marvel at their ability to be in plain sight one minute on the campsite, then ‘puff’ they’re gone from right under everyone’s noses the next.  Nobody seems to notice them taking a cautious, sometimes circuitous, route home to the far reaches of the restcamp, picking their moments before clumping up in a tight, secure group when they need to cross an open bit of ground… followed discreetly a minute or two later by two self-conscious, stupid-looking photographers, trying hopelessly to look nonchalant…and invisible.

Emerging into the spotlight as soon as the sun is up – the morning meerkat show begins

Meerkat number one is now completely out of the hole and scoping around to check the coast is clear. The gang don’t always see eye to eye with their closest neighbours, a family of yellow mongoose, who get out of bed around the same time, but they’re nowhere to be seen this morning.  Like peas being shelled from a pod, the rest of the clan – all 14 – pop out of the hole in quite quick succession. It’s a treat to watch. They seem to ignore us completely and while a sentry climbs a nearby bush to keep watch, the morning rituals of getting up ‘meerkat-style’ begin.

Characterful and comical their antics keep us busy until they head off to forage
The pregnant alpha female and a youngster bask in the sun

On hot summer mornings like this these suricates won’t hang around long sunbathing so we need to shoot quickly and efficiently – without getting in their, or each other’s way.  We start framing shots of tight huddles of adults, and young interacting close to the burrow, using our 100 to 400mm zoom lenses so we can easily make a variety of compositions without moving position and disturbing them.  Gradually the huddles break up and we divide our attention between digging adults and playfighting juniors, clicking away hungrily before inching slowly towards one of the more confiding groups with a short lens.  This allows for a more dynamic perspective and one we certainly couldn’t get beyond the confines of camp where we’re confined to working from our vehicle.

When the time is right we inch closer with a wide angle lens – but don’t like to intrude

It feels intrusive, however, with a camera right in their faces, and given we’ve had such close access to them already, we quickly grab a shot or two and retreat to a respectful distance.

Scampering off for the day past the resident ground squirrels in camp

Before long they’re off and away, as on the other mornings, the gang fanning out as they forage – all the while chattering reassuringly to keep contact with one another as they frantically dig and search around with noses down.

It’s only when the den site is quiet and empty once again that we notice just how painful it’s been working hunched up on the uneven ground, sprawled in and around the prickly bushes and network of old ground squirrel burrows.  But that doesn’t matter. It’s not every day you get to wish ‘good morning’ to a bunch of meerkats; going eyeball to eyeball with the whole gang as they emerge from a secret hideaway that nobody else knows exists.

Improve your eye for photography in 2017

We’ve added a new, one-off photographic workshop to our list of events for 2017.  Often there just isn’t the time on our routine photo days to provide all the detailed help and guidance people would like  (everyone’s busy photographing) so we’ve  decided to run a special ‘Shoot Like  a Pro’ masterclass at the start of the spring – just as the days lengthen and the wildlife action starts to hot up – to share our top tips and the lessons we’ve learned about everything that goes into capturing and creating top wildlife and nature photographs.

Whether you’re a skilled photographer looking to develop your creative eye or refresh techniques or a beginner looking to pick up new tips, we’ve got it covered. We’ll include professional tips, advice on selling  images and lots of practical, simple suggestions to  help you capture winning wildlife images and take your work to the next level. Or perhaps you’d simply like to pick our brains about equipment or post processing?  Our varied, accessible and lively programme should have something for everyone and is designed to get you tuned-up up and ready for the 2017 ‘shooting season”.

Our masterclass takes places on April 1 ( yes that’s right and it’s not a joke!). The venue is the famous Rheged convention centre in the Lake District – one of Cumbria’s top tourist attractions – which is conveniently located close to the M6 motorway for ease of access and has interesting photo exhibitions you can browse in the breaks between our sessions.

There’ll be lots of opportunity to learn more about wildlife photography in an informal and friendly setting plus the chance on the day to win a place on our popular raptor photography workshops in 2018.

Topics to be covered include:

  • Where’s the picture? – discovering great compositions in nature
  • The art (and design) of wildlife photography
  • Creative control
  • Top techniques for wildlife
  • Cleaner, sharper shot-making
  • Better backgrounds
  • Working the light – from bad to brilliant
  • Capturing action and behaviour
  • Developing projects
  • An original take – new subjects and approaches
  • Successful editing, post processing and curating
  • Shooting to sell

Our one-day ‘Shoot Like A Pro’ workshop costs just £75 per person, including lunch and all refreshments through the day.  Spaces are limited to 24.  To find out more visit the workshops page of our website. To secure your place contact us on sandatoon@aol.com or book direct via Eventbrite.

Pass the painted dog pinotage this way again

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) regurgitating food for pups, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, 28 June 2016
Supper anyone? Feeding 13 ravenous wild dog pups is a full-time job

It’s been the year for spotted dogs… Back in June we were trying to keep tabs on 13 tearaway pups running rings around their adult wild dog babysitters and ceaselessly pestering returning pack members for food.  It was hard to believe, but there we were, with our guests on safari, right by the den of these incredibly scarce predators as the pack conducted its daily meet, greet and eat sessions with the next generation of dogs.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) chewing old impala horns, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
Capturing a great portrait means getting down and dirty

Arriving at the den site late afternoon to share time with the African continent’s second rarest apex predator is one of the highlights of 2016 for us.  It’s not every day you get the chance to get off a game-viewing vehicle and lie down to shoot such special subjects up close and at their level. The chance to get into the skin of your subjects and join their world for a while is what makes wildlife photography  so rewarding.

The patient, if uncomfortable and mildy-grubby wait, as a tangle of snoozy pups, safe within the confines of their shady den site, slowly re-awoke and ventured out on short exploratory missions to chew branches or play endless games of tug o’ war with shards of old animal bone was a privilege and a joy.  And the sudden explosion of noise and energy all around us when the adults returned to regurgitate food for the pups, when everything instantly became a blur of marbled fur, fangs, and frantically wagging tails is an experience we’ll never forget.

African wild dog pups (Lycaon pictus) feeding, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, 28 June 2016
It’s special to photograph a successful breeding pack of these very rare predators

One of our favourite species, African wild dogs are among the world’s most endangered mammals with a population currently estimated at around 6,600. Most are to be found in southern Africa. The chance to spend time observing them on Zimanga game reserve as we did this year, in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, where there’s the chance of wonderful photographic access to the breeding pack is truly something special…

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) pups from pack exploring, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
Fast forward a few months and now the pups were on the move with the adult dogs

Returning to Zimanga last month with our second group of photo safari guests we were obviously keen to catch up with the dogs and check how they’d fared. The news was mixed. The alpha female, and mother of the pups, had been killed by a crocodile, but the puppies were thriving and were as hyperactive as ever. Observing the group dynamics, it probably wasn’t going to be long before another dog from the pack stepped up to take on the role of alpha female, but my how those pups had grown!

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) pups from pack at three to four months old, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
A brief pause for rest during the hunt

They were now regularly accompanying the adult pack members and yearlings on daily hunts; running through the bush, first this way, then that, only momentarily stopping to pose on a small mound of earth or prominent dam wall before haring off again.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) feeding on warthog (Phacochoerus africanus), Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
The Zimanga wild dog pack enjoying a warthog dinner at dusk

One evening we found them making light work of a fresh warthog supper. It was interesting to see how the adult dogs let the pups eat first.

African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) confronting spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
The curious pups practise stalking a hyena cornered in the riverbed

And on one of the morning sessions we caught up with the pack in a dry riverbed in a stand-off with a spotted hyena they’d cornered. The hyena was a bit stuck.  Hemmed in by the prowling pack he’d wedged his back against a big rock for protection – fully aware that’s where he would be vulnerable to the chasing pack if he fled.  Eventually the dogs lost interest and the hyena took his chance. A step late, the pups raced madly up the steep sides of the bank in pursuit, but the hyena had got enough distance on them and was last seen disappearing over the horizon.

It was with such thrilling sightings in mind that we purchased a bottle of Painted Wolf Pinotage (Painted Wolf being another name for wild dogs, albeit not very accurate) for our first evening in Kruger National Park soon after. The winemaker donates a portion of the price towards wild dog conservation – www.paintedwolfwines.com  – if you want to find out more.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus), Kruger national park, South Africa, September 2016
Painted wolf wine did the trick in more ways than one

We were celebrating the end of a successful safari. A good red was the order of the day because temperatures had taken a sudden and unseasonal nosedive and with such an apt name it was soon safely off the shelves and in our basket. It went down well as we toasted our toes around the braai and looked forward to a few game drives in the Kruger to ‘wind down’.

Our choice of tipple turned out to be a lucky one too because in just a few short days in the reserve we ran into a pack of wild dogs on all but one of our morning and afternoon game drives.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) at rest, Kruger national park, South Africa, September 2016
We were lucky to see lots of the Kruger pups too

Anyone who has visited Kruger will know wild dogs are not your everyday, common or garden sighting. Running into them at all is a special treat, running into them repeatedly is something else. We certainly hadn’t expected to be photographing wild dogs again this year.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) at rest, Kruger national park, South Africa, September 2016
All eyes and Mickey Mouse ears – the Kruger pups wake up in the late afternoon

Like the ones on Zimanga the Kruger pack also had this year’s still-cute pups in tow (born around the same time as those in KZN as wild dogs den seasonally in the African winter).  And exactly like the pups on Zimanga they huddled together, sitting apart from the adults, fidgeting restlessly and squabbling endlessly – when not running amok of course.  We couldn’t get enough of them.

We’re crossing fingers (that’s holding thumbs if you’re in South Africa) that we might run into them again in Kruger in 2017 – as yearlings.  We may even buy another bottle of that red to boost our chances. We’re certainly looking forward to going back to Zimanga next year and seeing how the pack there is getting on.  There might even be some new puppies around then to terrorise and annoy the older dogs…and to photograph  of course.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) pack member hunting, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
We’re already looking forward to following the Zimanga wild dog pack again

 

The Marmite moments of a photography couple

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) with cub, Kgalagadi Transfronter Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, June 2016
We’ve waited a long time to photograph cheetah cubs this size in the Kalahari

Wildlife photography really is a Marmite profession. We’re either tearing each other’s hair out through frustration or hugging each other for sheer joy. There’s no middle ground.

We were reminded of this fact again recently on our last visit to the Kalahari, a few short weeks ago, when we managed to shoehorn ourselves into a packed Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park for a couple of weeks last minute before the first of our new African photo safaris. The idea was that some time spent in one of Africa’s last wilderness areas would refresh us after a particularly hectic time back home in the office trying to twist editors’ arms into running our material etc etc.  We reckoned a good photographic ‘tune-up’ in the field before meeting up with and leading our first safari guests would be just the ticket.

Leopard female (Panthera pardus), Kgalagadi transfrontier park, South Africa, June 2016
Leopards were like buses. Two came at once on our recent visit to the KTP

A good idea in theory, but we’d forgotten to factor in the Marmite effect. For the first week we struggled to find a rubbish subject to train our lenses on, let alone a decent one. Ordinarily in these situations we’d change camps to see if other parts of the park proved more fruitful, but the place was chock full. Daily marches to reception to see if there was a cancellation somewhere drew a blank and the dust started to build up on our barely-used gear.

Lion (Panthera leo) cub, Kgalagadi transfrontier park, South Africa, June 2016
To get lion and cheetah cubs on a short visit was special

Anyone who has been to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park will know that seldom are things served up on a plate in this vast thirstland landscape. It’s never easy getting great images even though it is one of our top spots to photograph in.

Leopard female (Panthera pardus), Kgalagadi transfrontier park, South Africa, June 2016
This female walked straight towards our lenses

Goodness knows how many hours we’ve spent parked up waiting for something to happen, or driving up and down the same old sandy, corrugated tracks that trace the dry riverbeds of the Nossob and Auob.  Patience and persistence are essential tools in the armoury in this semi-desert eco-system. Nine times out of ten the cheetah we’ve been following for hours doesn’t hunt, or the chase explodes in the wrong direction  leaving us with nothing but a big anti-climax for our efforts. Leopards stay tantalisingly out of camera reach on the far calcrete ridges or glare down disdainfully from the intensely-dappled shade of a camethorn tree – a perfect jewel marred by its bad setting. Great to witness but lousy to photograph subjects can sustain a photographing couple only so long.

This photographic drought was something else. The days were fast slipping by and we had zilch to show for it. Our grumpiness was getting worse…

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) cubs, Kgalagadi Transfronter Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, June 2016
You can’t stay grumpy for long when you have photo opps like this

Then suddenly the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. Would you credit it? Out of nothing we suddenly found ourselves with seven leopard sightings in as many days (something of a personal record for the KTP). Not one but two confiding female leopards chose to share their early morning patrols with us, posing close to the cameras, which is not your typical wild leopard response to interlopers. Three tiny cheetah cubs (still with their white fur hoodies intact and our first at this young age for several years) turned up out of the blue. They hung around for ages  with mum  so we had both evening and morning drives with them playing and getting up to mischief while we clicked away. Then, en route for our second helping of said cheetah cubs, we tripped over a couple of really little lion cubs beautifully lit at dawn.  They were totally under our radar until that morning. You couldn’t have scripted a more opposite week to our first one.

Leopard female (Panthera pardus), Kgalagadi transfrontier park, South Africa, June 2016
Twenty years ago we hardly saw leopards they were so shy in the Kalahari

What a trawl of anniversary presents! We’ve been celebrating 20 years of visits to the Kalahari in 2016, but we never expected we’d be doing it with such brilliant photographic encounters as we had that second week. More Marmite please…

Lion (Panthera leo) with cub, Kgalagadi transfrontier park, South Africa, June 2016
What a way to celebrate 20 years of visiting this magical African wilderness

Battle of the sexes: Do you take photos too?

Here’s a humorous – but semi-serious – view of wildlife photography and gender from me (Ann) that was first published in Outdoor Photography magazine  back in 2009.  It seemed worth digging out and dusting off  here following a revealing thread on Facebook today on the subject. Posts from leading wildlife photographers such as Suzi Eszterhas and Sandra Bartocha, discussing how they’re sometimes treated as photographers by the opposite sex, certainly chimed with my thoughts then and now. It’s also a bit about what it’s like being  a in a photographing couple…

Girl power! Room for a bit more in wildlife photography?
Girl power! Room for a bit more in wildlife photography

‘Do you take photos too?’ If there’s one question that’s guaranteed to make my blood boil it’s this one. By the time we arrive at the hide I’m seething. Hardly the best frame of mind going into a day of endless waiting, interspersed very occasionally by the odd few seconds of manic photography.  My husband Steve doesn’t help either. He’s got his head in the lunch bag, assessing which bits he can eat now, and, frustratingly, seems to have got his camera gear set up before I’ve even summoned the energy to heave the 3.75kg 500mm lens from the bag. Do I still have any Deep Heat in my toilet bag I ponder? I’ll probably need it by tonight.

I think Steve should be more understanding and supportive when people ask me this question, but he reckons I’m over-reacting. He’s probably right, but I’d never let him think that. A whispered domestic ensues. We are in a hide. ‘You’re going to bang on about that sleeping bag thing any minute,’ Steve hisses, spitting bits of corned beef roll in my direction. This is because I once read an interview with a very well-known wildlife photographer who admitted he liked having his wife accompany him on trips because she was an expert at rolling up sleeping bags. It was most likely an affectionate in-joke, but his remarks underlined the way it felt to me being a girl photographer in a bloke’s world. Just like the saying has it: ‘Women are from Venus…men are from Jessops’ (a UK chain of camera shops if you’re wondering)

Meerkats, Suricatta suricata, Addo Elephant national park, South Africa
The romantic notion of a photographing couple…

The ‘atmosphere’ in the hide gets worse. ‘And another thing…,’ I splutter in the direction of my equipment. I can’t look directly at Steve because he’ll put me off my stride and I can feel myself getting into a flow. ‘I was reading this other magazine recently with a portfolio of wildlife images by a female photographer with an introduction from the editor who suggested her work showed women could compete on equal terms with ‘the men’. ‘Is that patronising or what?’ I’m still directing my anger at the camera, but it’s meant for Steve. In my mind by now he is representing the whole masculine gender. The upshot of this is, of course, that my viewfinder is completely fogged up by my hot breath when the perfect V-shaped skein of geese flies past the hide and I can’t see well enough to compose what would have been my first decent photo opportunity of the day. I barely hear Steve’s grunted reply above the rapid clicking of his shutter.

Meerkats, Suricatta suricata, Addo Elephant national park, South Africa
…The reality is we hardly ever see eye to eye…

At least he got some shots from the fly-past. When all’s said and done, this is perhaps one of the best reasons to suffer working in tandem with your spouse; getting on each others’ nerves 24/7 in extremes of heat, cold, damp, discomfort, midges, mosquitoes, guano, mud, dung, mutual self-doubt, endless games of ‘Travel Scrabble’ (Steve wins, I throw a tantrum), dreaded ‘domestics’, boredom, more arguments to dispel the boredom and not forgetting the escalating ‘BO’. Whether it’s a musty hide, a cramped, hot car or a camping-equipped 4×4 with no room to swing a cable release we’re a double act – even if it is a smelly one at times. Never mind the battle of the sexes, there’s no disputing the fact that two sets of eyes are better than one. If one misses the action, chances are the other will come up trumps. If everything’s happening at once then there’s two cameras working to cover it. Better still there’s the option to get two different ‘takes’ on a single event because we’ll use different lenses and follow where individual inspiration and interests lead. Hence the joint names on all our picture credits. That and the fact that in many cases we can’t actually remember which one of us pressed the trigger.

Meerkats, Suricatta suricata, squabbling, Addo Elephant national park, South Africa
…Sometimes only a downright domestic will settle things!

If that sounds way too harmonious for words bear in mind that to avoid divorce proceedings we now take turns using the ‘best’ camera body and lens for the job. How sad is that! I console myself with a sandwich because comfort eating is the only cure when I get like this. The bread is fluorescent yellow because I’ve picked out one of Steve’s piccalilli ones by mistake and not one of mine which have baby leaf spinach. The people who don’t ask me whether I take pictures too, often ask instead, if, as a female photographer, I bring something different to the table and whether I see things differently or interact differently with subjects etc. Certainly Steve and I approach our photography in different ways and we definitely see things differently or he wouldn’t be forever asking me ‘What are you taking that for?’ But I think it’s more to do with having different (clashing) personalities than it is a question of sex.

Okay so Steve is useless at multi-tasking and can’t compile a shopping list at the same time as composing a picture, but then I wouldn’t choose a camera manual or a technical tome on the intricacies of Adobe Photoshop to read in bed after a hard day in the field like him. Thinking like this makes me smile to myself. I should be looking through my viewfinder or I’m going to miss the picture again and he’ll nail it (did I mention how competitive I am as well as insecure?).

I suddenly start to feel a bit stupid and sheepish for letting the fact that once upon a time wildlife photography probably was much more of a man’s game than it is today get to me. Okay, so some folk still reflect this a bit too much in their thinking and approach, but that’s dying out now surely? I hope so. I certainly hope it isn’t stopping women from pursuing a passion for taking wildlife and nature photos. I shimmy sideways across the wooden bench towards my husband waving a ‘Kit-Kat’ as an olive branch. Fancy a game of ‘Scrabble’? Our heated differences of opinion will no doubt start up all over when we’re back home editing and processing our pictures. Oh well, as that other saying has it: ‘Vive la difference!’

And they all lived and photographed happily ever after
And they all lived and photographed happily ever after.

 

Remembering elephants – our pachyderm hit parade

African elephant (Loxodonta africana) playing in river, Chobe River, Botswana, June 2016
Trunk call to action. Sun-bronzed elephant bull on the Chobe river, Botwana

It’s just a few short weeks to the launch of the much-heralded ‘Remembering Elephants’ coffee table book, so what better excuse is there for taking a ‘scroll’ down memory lane and sharing  a few of our favourite elephant images from the files to whet your appetite until the publication date…

Elephant (Loxodonta africana) and calf, Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa, February 2014
The project will help secure this iconic species’ future

This unique project, in association with the Born Free Foundation, has proved a fantastic way to raise funds for elephant conservation at a time when, sadly, ivory poaching is still on the increase.  Some 65 leading professional wildlife photographers around the world have donated stunning elephant images for the project under the umbrella of ‘Photographers United’.

Elephants, Loxodonta africana, greeting, Addo national park, South Africa
This trunk greeting elephant shot from us will feature in the book which is out next month

We were really chuffed to be approached for one of our own elephant images which will be included in the book – particularly as the initiative  chimes well with the awareness-raising work we’ve been trying to do ourselves around the illegal wildlife trade, albeit in a small way, via our Project African Rhino campaign.  It’s good to know that wielding a camera can sometimes make a tangible difference for the subjects we’re pasionate about photographing.

African elephants (Loxodonta africana) at waterhole, Madikwe reserve, South Africa, February 2014
Elephants coming to a waterhole photographed from a sunken hide in South Africa

The current build-up and promotional support surrounding the launch has certainly got us doing our own bit of  ‘elephant remembering’.  Hope you enjoy our pachyderm hit parade here.

African elephant head and skin detail (Loxodonta africana), Kruger national park, South Africa, October 2014
Close up of a bull near Shingwedzi, Kruger, South Africa

We’ve had some superb encounters over the last couple of decades and even though we’ve been lucky enough to see several 1,000s in the wild in that time we never grow tired of them. There’s no disputing the fact elephants are one of the most engaging, fascinating, funny, awesome, rewarding, humbling and moving species to watch and photograph.

African elephant (Loxodonta africana) at sunset, Chobe River, Botswana, June 2016
Rerembering elephants before it’s too late. Chobe bull at sunset

Let’s hope that the coming together of individual photographers for this important cause, the hard work behind the scenes in bringing a coffee table book like this into being, and the sheer heart for elephants behind the project will help to keep it that way for future generations.

African elephants (Loxodonta africana), Chobe National Park, Botswana, October 2014
Elephants in Chobe National Park, Botswana, photographed from the river

Pre-launch sales and donations have to date raised more than £100,000 for targeted conservation projects to protect and save elephants; with the cost of printing and producing the book successfully covered by a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign.

Bull elephants (Loxodonta africana) at the waterhole in front of the lodge, Ol Donyo Wuas, Mbirikani Group Ranch, Amboseli-Tsavo eco-system, Chyulu Hills, Kenya, Africa, October 2012
Bull elephants and storm clouds, Ol Donyo Wuas, Chyulu Hills, Kenya

You can find out more about the ‘Remembering Elephants’ project, pre-order your copy of the book or purchase tickets for the special launch event on September 22 at the Royal Geographic Society’s HQ in London, at the project website remembering elephants.com.

African elephants (Loxodonta africana), Amboseli National Park, Kenya, October 2012
Parade of pachyderms in the mid-day sun, Amboseli, Kenya

The launch event will be introduced by Virginia McKenna of Born Free, followed by a talk from renowned wildlife photographer Art Wolfe and there’s even an auction of some of the images.

Elephant trunk (Loxodonta africana), Etosha national park, Namibia, May 2013
Elephant trunk against the light, Etosha, Namibia

If you can’t make the launch, but live near London, there’s also a ‘Remembering Elephants’ exhibition  taking place at  La Galleria in Pall Mall  from September 19 to October 1 .

Spread the word…

‘Hunny’ badger liking tortoise too much!

Honey Badger or ratel (Mellivora capensis), Kgalagadi Transfrontierl Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2014
‘I can smell tortoise, I can see tortoise, but I can’t taste tortoise.’

It’s not everyday you cross paths with one of these tough little guys in the wild – and when you do see a canny and cunning honey badger it’s more often than not a fleeting glimpse and hardly ever a photograph.  Nine times out of 10 they’re gone before you’ve got your camera ready.

So imagine our surprise when we met this chap one rainy morning just before sunrise in the Kalahari’s Nossob riverbed. We hadn’t been up long and were still feeling groggily half-asleep. As a result we were pretty slow to react when we spotted it.  We almost drove past making it necessary to turn right around – a manouevre we knew from experience was guaranteed to buy this wily predator just enough time to effect his escape.

Honey Badger or ratel (Mellivora capensis) eating leopard tortoise (Geochelone pardalis), Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, January 2016
Our honey badger getting to grips with a large leopard tortoise.

We couldn’t believe our luck when we saw the animal was still there after all our clumsy faffing about. What was keeping it so busy and so preoccupied it didn’t want to flee the scene even with our vehicle noisily bearing down on it?

‘He’s got a tortoise. He’s got a big tortoise and he’s eating it!’

Perhaps you have to be an African wildlife afficionado to fully appreciate just what a rare and exciting sighting this was.  Magic. Unless you happen to be a tortoise that is – and certainly that particular tortoise. Feisty, fierce but full of character it’s not your everyday animal that can get through such defences. A bit like opening a can of corned beef without the key or a tin-opener.

Honey Badger or ratel (Mellivora capensis) eating leopard tortoise (Geochelone pardalis), Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, January 2016
Winnie the Pooh with his jar of ‘hunny’?

Call us weird, but putting aside the harsh reality of the ‘red in tooth and claw’ aspects of this sighting,  we couldn’t help noticing similarities to that famous E H Shepherd illustration of a portly Winnie the Pooh with his paws in the ‘hunny’ pot as our badger delved deep into the tortoise shell to extract more of his tasty meal.

Given the honey badger was happy for us to gawp at him eating his breakfast in the rain we took lots of stills, shot some video and just watched.  The captures are not what we like to call ‘photographers’ photographs’; the light was poor, we had to use flash, and you can hardly call our results aesthetically pleasing, but the chance to  document a moment like this doesn’t come often. We probably won’t see this behaviour ever again.

It’s why we go to Africa.  In the hope that we might do!

Kalahari Big Cats – the Might and the Mane

We seemed to have the lion’s share of big cat sightings on our trip to the Kalahari last month. Always cool for cats, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park surpassed itself on this occasion and provided us with not one, but two sets of cute lion cubs to contend with, a camera-friendly female leopard posing on the red sand as if it were the red carpet, some cheetah cubs washing up after their dinner of springbok tartare and a bunch of muscular, black-maned male lions strutting their stuff up and down the Auob and Nossob riverbeds.

That all added up to some spectacular wildlife encounters and adrenaline-fuelled, feline photographic opportunities despite the 40 plus degree temperatures in the shade. You can imagine the two of us, hot and bothered, getting camera gear and gearstick in a tangle in our excitement to soak up (capture and expose correctly!) all those awesome big cat sightings.

It’s never easy trying to manoeuvre a vehicle speedily and efficiently into the best position for the light, relative to an often moving subject, at the same time as changing camera settings in a nano-second, in a small space, all the while  ensuring you’re well-braced for each shot. The results can’t ever reach up the the magic of the real-time moment, of course, but here, as they say, are just a few of the ‘mane’ highlights…

Leopard (Panthera pardus) female, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2016
Most leopards are camera shy. Not her posing near her kill.
Lioness with cubs (Panthera leo) drinking in the Kalahari, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2016
A wedding anniversary photo bonus for us to find this mother and cubs.
Lion (Panthera leo), Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2016
Black maned males like this chap are the pride of the Kalahari.

 

Lioness with cub (Panthera leo) in the Kalahari, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2016
This little chap needs to walk off that full tummy as he goes to the water with mum.

 

Cheetah cubs ( Acinonyx jubatus), Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2016
We found these spotty siblings relaxing in the shade after a springbok meal.
Lioness grooming cub (Panthera leo), Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2016
Watch it mum that’s a big tongue you’ve got!

 

 

Kalahari trip marks 20 years of our safaris

Lioness, Penthera leo, carrying cub, Kgalagadi Tranfrontier Park, South Africa
A memorable Kalahari moment from the old days – on film

It’s a big anniversary for us Toons in 2016. This year, this month in fact, we’ll be celebrating 20 years of safaris in Africa with a trip to the Kalahari – the very place where our photographic adventures first started.

Where did those two decades go? If you want living proof that Africa gets under your skin look no further. We’ve been visiting the continent two or three times a year since then for several weeks, often months, at a time, because, quite simply – we can’t get enough.

Steve Toon, wildlife photographer, Etosha national park, Namibia
Photography on safari in Africa is what we’re about – Steve checks cameras before a drive

That six month trip to South Africa and Namibia in ’96, what Steve refers to now as our ‘road to Damaraland’ conversion, convinced us to ditch our day jobs in journalism and hitch our wagon to wildlife photography instead. Spending almost all our time in the bush on that visit changed our lives completely. Crazily we gave up stable, well-paid jobs in the media for the hand to mouth, roller-coaster existence of the freelance wildlife photographer. It wasn’t easy – starting a new career from scratch – building a portfolio and a profile, getting established with the right photo libraries, mastering the arcane arts of marketing and the 24/7 demands of running our own business.

Leopard, Panthera pardus, male, Okonjima, Namibia
Velvia 50 film – great for richly satuarated portraits but frustratlingly slow for most wildlife

If we’re talking steep learning curves ours has been a Kilimanjaro. We’d just cut our teeth on film when the digital revolution happened. Just in terms of ISO we jumped from a gold standard of 50 (we’re talking the good old days of Fuji Velvia here) to routinely being able to shoot at 1,000 plus without much loss of quality – a huge step forward when so many of the critters in our crosshairs are crepuscular, high-speed or hyperactive.

African fish eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer) fishing, Chobe National Park, Botswana, Africa, October 2014
Cameras like the Canon 1DX have helped us keep pace with our more active subjects

Back in the day we spent an age, plus a fortune on postage, sending out manually labelled and catalogued slides to prospective clients around the world which once out for consideration could not be touted elsewhere. Our hard-won images were sat on for weeks, returned covered in gum from the photo printing process, often sent back scratched and in one or two cases lost forever.

In the field back then we missed so many great moments of action, and nuances of mood, now within our grasp. Exposure was a make or break issue and techniques needed to be nailed in camera – no second chances in the digital darkroom. Looking back it was probably a great way to hone our skills and pay our dues – but what would we have given for a couple of Canon 1DX’s back then?

BPS18 Ann in dune bedroom, Tok Tokkie trail
Waking up to another African dawn after sleeping under the stars in the Namib Naukluft
Giraffe, Giraffa camelopardalis, at dusk, Etosha National Park, Namibia
Big skies and big game plus the thril of not knowing what will happen next

So now we embrace the digital age for the additional freedom and creative scope it brings us, even if it has led to a surfeit of wildlife imagery and a consequent squeeze on earnings. It means we can run our photographic business from home in the wilds of Northumberland National Park, and increasingly from the remote African bush if we have to when we’re away on photo-journalistic assignments or running photographic safaris. And while it’s become tougher than ever to make a good living from photography – we’re doing something far more important – we’re making a life. No-one can take away the rich bank of wildlife experiences we’ve amassed over the last 20 years and the expertise and knowledge we’ve garnered by focusing hard on a well-defined subject area we’re totally passionate about.

African elephant (Loxodonta africana), Chobe National Park, Botswana, October 2014
Helping guests get great shots on our photographic safaris is the next exciting chapter in our African adventures in 2016

Would we make the same move today we did all those years ago – I’m not sure. But then again I think we would. The huge skies, the smell of the dust, that soundtrack of doves, those sunsets, that sense of excitement you feel before every game drive, crossing paths with an elephant or coming face to face, in the flesh, with a big cat, witnessing a unique bit of animal behaviour, or best of all having a completely wild, unscripted scenario unexpectedly developing to your photographic benefit. Nothing beats that. For us it’s just about one thing. Being there…

 

Surfing penguins make a big splash in Cape Town

African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) in the surf by Foxy Beach, Table Mountain National Park, Simon's Town, Cape Town, South Africa, September 2015
Home from the sea – African penguins return to the colony after a day’s fishing

There’s no getting over the real sense of surprise you experience when you see penguins in Africa – of all places – and get great views of their antics – without going on a major, massively expensive expedition to colder climes. Even after repeat visits to the famous and unique breeding colony of endangered African penguins on Foxy Beach in Simon’s Town on the Cape – part of the Table Mountain National Park – it’s still a real joy to spend time photographing these compelling, anthropomorphic subjects.

African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) in the surf off Foxy Beach, Table Mountain National Park, Simon's Town, Cape Town, South Africa, September 2015
Graceful in the water this penguin arrives back at the beach in quite some style.

Just last month on our latest photo trip to South Africa we got the chance to return to the handful of beaches where the colony has made its home since the early eighties. We caught up with the characterful penguins returning to the beach, and to their waiting hungry chicks, after a busy day’s fishing out at sea. The tide was high and photographing the penguins riding the surf and exploding out of the water onto the shore in waves of small groups tossed about by the foaming waters kept our fingers clicking furiously.

African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) in the surf off Foxy Beach, Table Mountain National Park, Simon's Town, Cape Town, South Africa, September 2015
This shot, heads all one way in the foam, was just what we wanted.
African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) in the surf off Foxy Beach, Table Mountain National Park, Simon's Town, Cape Town, South Africa, September 2015
Bobbing about and tossed by the waves African penguins splashing in the surf

At first penguin-watchers more eagle-eyed than us were spotting the returning hunters well before they reached the shore – when they were just tiny dots near the horizon. The groups were back at the beach before we’d had chance to fix them in our viewfinders. We soon learned to distinguish the shapes and colours of a distant penguin group from the vast ocean backdrop and began to see the wonderful potential for pictures. Peering out to sea, we were now poised to track them, cameras primed as they surfed the waves at considerable speed back home to the land-based colony.

African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) in the surf off Foxy Beach, Table Mountain National Park, Simon's Town, Cape Town, South Africa, September 2015
It wasn’t easy locking onto to our subjects as rode the waves
African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) porpoising in the surf off Foxy Beach, Table Mountain National Park, Simon's Town, Cape Town, South Africa, September 2015
Bodysurfing penguins on their way back home to shore

The penguins were fantastic to watch as they porpoised through the foam like polished torpedoes. One moment you would see them crest a wave, the next they would disappear beneath it, so hunting a tight-packed group and keeping the birds in focus was a bit of a challenge. Before you could say ‘nailed it’ they were bobbing up back on the beach in a penguin pile, picking themselves up and striding up the shore, chests and tums puffed out, fanning out like chorus line extras from an old Fred Astaire movie in full evening dress. Time for us to try again with the next incoming group…

African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) Foxy Beach, Table Mountain National Park, Simon's Town, Cape Town, South Africa, September 2015
Stepping out – the penguin parade is almost choreographed

A visit to see the birds is a ‘must-do’ on any travel itinerary in and around Cape Town. The colony is just a hop, skip and jump from the ‘Mother City’, one of the world’s most popular travel destinations, so the downside is you do have to share the penguins with others. But there are one or two quieter spots along the shore if you’re prepared to look a bit harder, and on the tiny, family-friendly Boulders Beach, right next door to Foxy Beach, there’s the chance of having a penguin toddle right onto your picnic blanket or join you in the shallows as you paddle. How cool is that?

African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) colony on Foxy Beach, Table Mountain National Park, Simon's Town, Cape Town, South Africa
The penguin colony is now a tourist ‘must-see’ on any Cape Town trip

African penguins are the only penguin species found on the African continent. There has been a breeding colony of the penguins on this beach since 1983. We first visited the penguins on Foxy beach in 1996 before the current tourist boardwalk was built. In those days it was possible to walk on the shore in and among the main colony. Since then tourism has increased so the extra protection for the birds is welcome. Penguin numbers in the colony were rising until about 2005 when there were 3,900 penguins. since when there has been a decline to around 2,100. This is thought to be due to a number of factors including global warming affecting fish stocks, over-fishing and the impact of oil spills and marine pollution.