Blog entries have been few lately; I’ve been working closely with an overseas conservation agency supplying a number of photographs & short video clips. I’ve also been busy arranging schedules for a number of photographic trips this year. Organising a trip is always a time consuming activity and often keeping a blog up-to-date takes second place to trip logistics and working with organisations to produce and supply images.
If I hear this comment one more time I’ll scream….
Five weeks in Africa self drive can be very damaging to a motor vehicle, more so if you have an off road permit. In Australia I own a Toyota Landcruiser which is an excellent vehicle and takes me to some out of the way places, but my vehicle is regularly maintained. The rental vehicle in Africa was Toyota Landcruiser troop carrier. In many respects a similar vehicle with the exception that this four wheel drive hadn’t been regularly maintained.
Australian Landcruisers Are Tough
The lineage of this vehicle was Australian and it had been purchased second hand from Telecom, the Australian communications company. On the outside the 4X4 looked OK, and for the first week or so performed admirably. But as time passed, problems began to present themselves.
LEFT: Field repairing the front left spring which began to break due to rough road conditions. Masai Mara warriors watch as we work!
Apart from the usual flat tyres and getting stuck a few times in deep mud, we had more insidious issues. The front springs were makeshift and had been replaced incorrectly; we were afraid that with the workload they would fall apart leaving us stranded in “lion country”. Further, the roof hinges for the observation roof were damaged and rattling like chattering teeth and the attachment points of the bulbar to the chassis were loose due to poor welding. Shock absorbers were – well let’s say they didn’t absorb anything at all! But we continued using the vehicle until the inevitable occurred.
LEFT: We wondered if "this" would be our Toyota in a year or so!
BANG – while driving along the dirt track, the hinges of the roof hatch broke and the heavy metal hatch flew forward onto the bonnet (hood) of the Landcruiser. It then hit the bull-bar which reflected the hatch back towards the windscreen – SMASH. In 30 seconds the windshield was cracked and the hatch was lying loose. Repairs were necessary so we drove to the nearest town and mechanical repair facility. The name “repair facility” is erroneous, as these guys were not mechanics but locals who knew a little bit about mechanics – just enough to be dangerous. They repaired the car for a few dollars and away we went satisfied that all was OK.
LEFT: Field welding the bullbar back to the vehicle chassis.i
A few days later, BANG!! We hit a hole in the ground and the vehicle lurched precariously to the side. Inspecting the damage it was noted the bulbar now had fallen off the car, the rear tyre carrier had also broken away and the shock absorber – well what shock absorber! It was gone. Another visit to our newly made mechanical friends soon rectified the situation – for a few dollars. The locals shrugged off our comment about regular maintenance, log books and the like – “Hey this Africa” they chanted.
As we departed the repair facility, we could only wonder if this was going to be a regular affair. A few days later as we crossed a rather deep and rocky river crossing – BANG!! The vehicle sunk to the chassis in the centre of the river. Our first thought was crocodiles, but there were none nearby. We literally smashed the transmission repeatedly into forward and reverse as we attempted to extract ourselves from the hole. BANG!! Was that the drive shaft or the front diff hitting a submerged rock– who knows! Climbing from the river we inspected the vehicle again. The front springs were not looking healthy! Further, the steering was suspect as the car veered sideways when driving. Time to say hello to our local friends again and here the ominous words “Hey this is Africa” as we parted with a few more dollars….
This visit identified additional mechanical issues. As we drove into the town locals jumped about and wildly pointed at the front wheels. Alighting from our chariot to inspect the front wheels we were “delighted” to see that the right hand tyre was sitting at a crazy angle!! The upper bearing had broken and wheel was about to vacate the car!
Authorized Toyota Repair Facility – Ahhh No
It soon became apparent that this was NOT an authorized Toyota repair facility as we watched the bearings being replaced. The bearings were striped apart and placed on the sand – YES read sand. They were then cleaned with petrol by a young African smoking a cigarette (I stood well away). New grease was not applied to the bearings but rather they used the older sand-entrained grease. When I mentioned this to the head mechanic, he quickly smeared some new grease over the older grease looking at me with a smile that said “Hey this is Africa”….. A few dollars and once again we were on our way!
The final straw was a few days later when we hit a rather large hole whiles travelling off-road. BANG!! Inspecting the car we noted more issues which included the front springs looking slightly “more” bent than what they were a week earlier. We drove on but stopped when we noticed we no longer could hear a rattle that had been present for two weeks. To our horror we found out why there was no rattle; the sidebar, which was the cause of the rattle, had vanished! It must have fallen off on one of the river crossings! We looked or the sidebar but never found it.
The vehicle served us for three weeks. It was then decided, in lei of the amount of time being spent having the vehicle repaired, that it was prudent to rent another vehicle form Nairobi with a driver. After this decision, our repairs ceased and although the local mechanics waved to us every time we passed through town, we never did stop to hear the words “Hey this is Africa” again.
LEFT: Field repairs were a constant ordeal and we were always keeping an ear to the ground listening for something else falling off, or breaking on the vehicle. Tyre repairs and changes were common and in "lion country" need to be done as quickly as possible, Here a Masai Mara warrior lends a hand to Uwe as a damaged tyre is replaced.
Of course if the above mechanical issues were not enough to keep us on our toes, there were also battery problems. The battery was new but the wires and alternator were old - very old! I have SOG to thank for making a very robust knife tool (like a leatherman). I used this on several occasions to repair the alternator and arc the battery terminals so the car would start! I can remember at one stage we all were pushing the vehicle in an attempt to clutch start it, but it got away from us and started chugging along the track without its passengers; We were madly running after the car!! An except from the movie flick "The Gods must be Crazy" crept into my mind as I clamored aboard.
But, as they say "this is Africa"...
Photographs are “just photographs” unless they capture something special regarding the subject.
Left: A black-browed albatross (Diomedea melanophris) tends it's sole chick in the Falkland Islands.
In today’s digital world, there are so many images of animals that it’s easy to view images as a just another animal “snap”. To elevate your image to the next level you need to do something more than just being at the location for a fleeting moment and squeezing the shutter button. Certainly, a well lighted, technically correct and suitably composed photograph is several steps in the right direction, as is a rarely photographed animal. But, what can be done to separate your image from the rest of the crop.
I’ve discussed photographing defining moments in an earlier blog post, but what about intimate moments.
Capturing an intimate moment with wildlife is often serendipitous; however, knowing the behaviour of your target species is advantageous as it allows you (the photographer) to have a “somewhat slightly fractured” crystal ball to predict the behaviour that will occur. Although animals do alter their behaviour to changing environmental situations, they do not change their base behaviour. Spending as much time as possible with an animal will greatly increase your chance to observe differing behaviour and photograph, either a defining or intimate moment.
In this photograph of a Black-browed Albatross, the intimate behaviour is the subtle expression on the adult and chick’s face as they face each other in the nest. I waited for two hours on a cliff ledge in the Falkland Islands to be given the opportunity, to capture this connection between the chick and its parent. I have many “snaps” of albatross in similar positions with similar lighting, but the expression of intimacy portrayed in this image, is what separates it from the others.
Is the Intimate Connection Real?
Was there an actual connection between the chick and the parent? This is a difficult question to answer; it depends upon whether you believe animals’ have the ability to “feel” as humans do.
I rarely have anthropomorphic responses towards an animal’s behaviour, however, many individuals who view my images do. Therefore, photographing intimacy between animals is well worth the effort because it separates your photograph from the many hundreds of “snaps” already out there in the marketplace.
- Anthropomorphism is any attribution of human characteristics (or characteristics assumed to belong only to humans) to animals.
The following morning, whilst travelling the usual rough route from the camp to the last known position of the cheetahs, our luck appeared to change. The brothers were on the move and tailing a large herd of wildebeest. Quickly driving to a suitable shooting position in relation to the sun, we prepared our cameras for what was hoped would be a kill.
LEFT: A cheetah moves out from the cover of the stream and makes his way toward the herd.
One of cheetahs climbed a termite mound, to see further ahead, before setting off at a fast trot moving toward our vehicle. In an instant, the feline was transformed from a sleeping house cat to a highly mobile killing machine. It was so fast, almost a blur, as the cat shortened its distance between itself and the herd of wildebeest. The target was a largish individual, enough to sustain the three hunters. But where were the other hunters – only one was chasing the target prey. The other two hunters were lolling behind enjoying the morning sun while playing in the grass!
LEFT: A male cheetah, bypasses a fleeing wildebeest as it locks onto an individual within the herd.
The wildebeest, perhaps sensing an untrained solo hunter, stopped running and turned while lowered its head to confront the cheetah. A brief exchange took place whereby the wildebeest charged the cheetah attempting to injure the adolescent with its two flailing front legs and hoofs. The cheetah made a fleeting attempt at grabbing the rear flank without success before retreating to a safer distance from the aggressive wildebeest.
LEFT: Adult wildebeest are no easy match for a cheetah. The wildebeest rather than run, stops and confronts the cat.
The hunt had ended and the cheetah was left standing, panting and looking towards his brethren with a disdainful look on his face which clearly said “where were you?” The hunt, run and attack was a failure due to poor cooperation between the trio.
Let’s Try Again…
A lager (a thin strip of thick vegetation that hides a watercourse) was directly in front of the moving wildebeest. We decided that the prime shooting position would be with the sun behind us on the quarter at the other side of the lager. To reach this position required us to drive across the rough lager and a small stream.
LEFT: Paws outstretched, a cheetah brings down a wildebeest after a short but very fast run.
Meanwhile, the trio had reunited and were making a steady pace behind the herd. We were certain a kill would happen this morning; the cheetahs were active and we knew they must be hungry!
The wildebeest slowly moved around our vehicle; for a moment I was concerned our presence would predetermine the direction of the herd. However, this didn’t occur as the animals abruptly altered direction moving away and to the left of our vehicle. The herd comprised a number of mothers with first born, inexperienced adolescents, and old salts. It’s the young and inexperienced that are usually targeted by predators.
LEFT: The prey is now dead and the cheetahs share the choice pieces of the kill. One cheetah drinks fresh blood from a severed artery whilst another chews on a flank.
The cheetahs, following each other, pushed through the dense vegetation of the lager and stopped short of the savannah. The cats assessing the situation quickly, realized that the herd was moving towards them. They broke from the cover provided by the lager and began to walk toward the herd maintaining what cover was available from the natural contours of the land. The herd hadn’t noticed the three slick cats, until they bounded from a walk to a very fast run, which became a blur as they shortened the distance to the herd. The wildebeest finally saw the danger and the lead animals broke into a run which translated to a wild frenzy of movement as each individual in the herd panicked. The hunting had ended and the chase had begun.
The Hunting Had Ended & The Chase Had Begun
It was too little too late! The three cats were amongst the herd and it was difficult to think that the hunt would not be a success. At first, each cat appeared to target what he thought was a prime individual, but as they ran along the side the herd, a dedicated target was selected from the many. The three cats, in marvellous co operation ran the ‘chosen one” away from the protection of the central section of the herd. The singled out wildebeest ran fast, weaving and dancing in an attempt to remove the ‘target lock” achieved by the cheetahs. The individual selected was not an inexperienced youngster, but a fully grown adult who was more than capable of outfighting a single cheetah, but what about three cheetahs acting as one unified force?
The first cheetah pawed the rear leg of the wildebeest, but missed!; the resultant inertia forcing him to loose his footing and fall to the ground. The second cat manoeuvred himself to the front of the wildebeest causing the stricken animal to alter direction and loose speed. The third cheetah made his move and with two paws outstretched, fastened himself to the rump of the now highly panicked animal and wrestled him to the ground. Attempting to get a better purchase on the animal, the cheetah released his grip and the wildebeest, realizing his opportunity, jumped from the cheetah’s grasp to make an escape. However, by this time the first cat, recovered from his fall, leapt onto the rear of the animal, bringing him down before he could make good his escape. The cheetah that had lost his initial purchase on the rump, quickly climbed onto the panting wildebeest holding him to the ground. It was over. The death of one would be the life of three.
The hunt, chase and kill had transpired very quickly. Now there was a stricken wildebeest lying on the ground with two cheetahs beginning to feed, whilst the third kept a careful watch for intruders.
LEFT: Two hungry cheetahs begin to feast on the still live wildebeest whilst a third cheetah watches for other predators. It's unusual behaviour for cheetahs to feed on still-living prey.
While one of the brothers tore the flesh from the favoured area of the animal; the rear haunches, his brethren began to open an area in the region of the neck, to drink the fresh blood. Blood is very rich in iron and often is drunk by animals as a vitamin supplement to water. The luckless victim continued to try and make an escape, but clearly this movement was instinctive. I was told by the KWS ranger that cheetahs rarely eat live food, and to do so, probably can be explained by heightened hunger.
In between feeding, each cheetah in unison would stop momentarily, raise himself high from the ground and scan the horizon for danger. A lion or hyena group could easily steal the carcass and perhaps injure one of the trio. Overhead, vultures attracted to the recent kill, began to circle the carcass.
Unusual Cheetah Behaviour
The normal practice for cheetahs is to “rush their meal” for fear of losing it to another scavenging animal – the behaviour is almost “hit and run”; but, thirty minutes had gone by and the three brothers were still eating! This was not normal behaviour.
The flanks had been consumed and now the trio were demolishing and feeding upon the remainder of the carcass. A lone jackal, attracted by the smell of blood boldly made his way towards the carcass, however, the brothers had little intension of sharing their food with a non family member and quickly charged the jackal, putting this “lower predator” into its rightful place. Eventually the jackal was successful in steeling a morsel (the stomach).
LEFT: A male cheetah lifts its head from early dining to sneer at a Jackrel that wants her share of the free food which the jackrel did not earn....
The three brothers, whose bellies were now visibly distended, had within forty minutes consumed most of the accessible meat from the carcass. Immediately after the last cheetah had left the remains, the waiting vultures descended and began to rip apart the remainder of the flesh. The transition was swift; it reminded me of a hoard of flies attracted to a piece of left over meat at a summer BBQ, or perhaps a school of piranha attacking a hapless victim in Amazonian waters. Literally within minutes, the bones were picked relatively clean with only the rib cage showing above the grass. Nothing went to waste.
I'll return to the cheetahs at some stage in the future, however, I won't be discussing the three brothers. Instead, we'll have a glimpse into the life of three, very playful one-week old cheetah cubs and their mother.
The small thermometer I had on my photo backpack said it was 45 degrees Celsius; I thought about repositioning the device, but then realized that it was already in the shade.
I was sitting in the rear of a Toyota Landcruiser crammed in amongst various pieces of photographic equipment, and a very large cooler which carried breakfast and lunch. I’d been sitting here for 3 hours watching three young cheetahs, and the temperature didn’t seem to be decreasing. The cheetahs had the right idea – sleep, and I’m sure I dozed off now and again, only to be woken by several dozen squadrons of annoying flies buzzing around my head.
LEFT: A male cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) watchful for prey or predators.
The Three Brothers
The three male cheetahs, nicknamed “The Three Brothers” by the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS), are a tad over a year old and belong to the same litter.
“Cheetahs are usually solitary or are seen in pairs. A trio co-habitating is quite uncommon” stated one of the KWS rangers I had spoken with earlier that day.
Our task this day, and for the following several days was relatively simple; follow the cheetahs to observe their behaviour and hopefully photograph the animals hunting and making a kill.
Cheetahs are one of the most beautiful cats to be found in Africa, and in my opinion rate second to the leopard. Evolution and natural selection has developed an animal that is exceptionally adapted to chasing and killing certain types of prey. The cheetah is the fastest of the big cats and is superbly adapted for speed, able to retain speeds of 112 km/hr (69 mph). This speed equates to roughly 32 meters per second (32 m/s) and can be maintained over an average prey chase of 2.7 kilometres (3.5 miles).
But, as with most predators when not hunting, they sleep to conserve energy - and this is exactly what the three brothers were doing, only occasionally stirring to check on the location of a number of Thompson gazelles that were browsing nearby.
Cheetahs Are Skittish Animals
Cheetahs, in comparison to other apex predators such as lions and leopards, are skittish animals forever watchful and alert. They are the “scaredy cats” of the feline family. A cheetah won’t take unnecessary risks, and often will retreat upon conflict with another animal – especially a lion which are known to kill cheetahs. A mother with cubs is especially vulnerable and often cubs will be killed by hyenas and lions. At these times the mother will move away from areas heavily populated with prey to minimise any interaction with other predators.
The Three Brothers inhabited a lightly vegetated area adjacent to surrounding plains; this is the favoured habitat of cheetahs as it provides vegetation to hide behind, and open ground from which to exercise their one benefit over other predators – speed. Unlike lions, which mainly hunt at night, cheetahs prefer to hunt during the daylight hours, thereby minimising the chance of injury such as falling into a hole while running at high speeds.
Searching for the cheetahs each day revealed that over the past week or so they had hunted and made several kills; the remains of their kill was evident as we searched the open ground and beneath shady bushes. Cheetahs, like some house cats, are fussy eaters; they prefer smaller animals such as gazelles, and then only consume the choicest cuts – normally the rear flanks, leaving the remainder of the kill for hyenas, jackals or vultures.
LEFT: On the brothers wakens briefly and yawns whilst his brethren sleeps adjacent.
Several times, we observed prey animals and positioned the four wheel drive in a suitable place to film any resultant hunt and kill; however, it became evident that as the brothers were three, a gazelle hind quarter was not going to be enough food to sustain them. I’d read that cheetahs hunt three to four times a week; daily when bringing up cubs.
We knew the brothers were hungry….We knew they had to hunt soon…We had an inkling that they wanted something more sustainable than a gazelle, but when would they make their move?
In my next post, I’ll describe the hunting technique of the three brothers and we’ll learn whether they were successful or not.