Thursday, 4 August 2011

Africa! You Know It Ain't Easy

Life in the wild is a constant challenge to both predator and prey alike. They all find themselves running for their lives. The struggle for survival  is not easier for one side or the other, although weather conditions may temporarily tip the balance. Evolution has seen to it that predators and the animals they stalk both have the inherent natural tools necessary in order to endure both individually and as a species.  With the notable exception of the cheetah, most predators are not as fast as the prey they chase after.  In order to compensate for slower speed they must rely on being clever and using the element of surprise.  In the case of lions, unlike other big cats, they also rely on cooperative hunting.

My good friend, Martin Grosnick, and I spent many weeks camping in the northern part of Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya's premier wildlife park, in order to try to photograph the big cats--lions, leopards and cheetahs--hunting.  Lions hunt mainly at night but occasionally they can be spotted on the prowl just after dawn.  We left camp just as the sky was getting light each dawn (the park's rules don't allow you to go out any sooner), driving without a guide in a 4x4 vehicle that we had rented in Nairobi.  Masai Mara is one of the few parks where you are allowed to drive where you want without having to stay on dirt tracks.  We almost always located lions, but only on one occasion did we find them actively hunting. 

There were four lionesses and they were walking very purposefully, at first in a single file.  It had been an exceptionally dry season and much of the wildlife, especially the African buffaloes, were in a weakened condition from dehydration and poor grazing.  There were carcasses scattered about the landscape, a testament to the effect of the drought.  We stayed a distance back in the jeep so as not to disturb the hunt.
The lionesses made a beeline straight at two buffalo who just stood their ground.  There was nothing stealthy about the stalk. The buffalo turned to face the big cats and made no effort to flee.  The cats concentrated on one of the two buffalo and walked right up to it.  It was not necessary for them to run or rush and the lionesses seemed to know that.  They simply walked up to the buffalo and jumped on its back. One of the lionesses grabbed it's muzzle. After a huge effort the cats were able to bring the buffalo down and then it was all over.  From a comfortable distance with out 600 mm lenses Martin and I were easily able to catch all the action.  But this was the one and only time we saw a successful lion hunt.  The statistics are not flattering to a lion's prowess:  single lions are successful in only 15% of their hunts and a pride manages to catch what they are after only about a third of the time.

Leopards are another story. Of the big African cats they have the second highest hunting success rate, 40%.  But even they are far from perfect, and the hoofed animals of the veldt seem to sense that.  We watched a leopard walk right past a herd of impala and the fleet antelope seemed to know instinctively that the cat had no chance of catching them. They remained on high alert but barely stepped aside.

It took a few more hours of observation that day before we got to see the leopard make a run at a wildebeest calf, successfully isolating the calf from it's irate mother who then chased the leopard, carrying the baby wildebeest,  into a bush.  The leopard remained within the safety of the bush until the calf's mother abandoned her hopes and rejoined the herd. Only then did the leopard carry the dead calf over to a fig tree and proceed to drag it up into the branches to feed.  We captured the whole drama on film.

Closer to perfection are the cheetahs. Their hunting success rate is 50% due to their ability to chase down any critter they want, racing across the landscape at 70 mph.  Usually they hunt the diminutive Thomson's gazelles which weigh a maximum of  29 kg.  We observed cheetahs hunt more often than the other two cats combined, primarily due to the fact that cheetahs are predominantly diurnal hunters. And once they had subdued their prey they sometimes used our vehicle for shade, dragging their kill into the jeep's shadow. Then photography was a piece of cake.

Except when the cheetahs were right next to our vehicle, basically all of our big cat photography involved using our longest lens, the 600 mm. Mine was a 600/f 5.6 Nikon. I never owned the 600/f4.  It was just too heavy, too bulky, too expensive, too much hassle to travel with.   I would rather up the ISO a notch than need to hire a Sherpa to help carry gear around. On this trip I often used a 1.4x teleconverter which made the 600/f 5.6 lens effectively an 840/f8.  I used the 840 power to capture the leopard in the middle photo above.  For lens support I used a bean bag draped over the edge of the vehicle's window or door frame. To create the bean bag I brought along an empty stuff sack and bought plenty of lima beans at a supermarket in Nairobi. The low tech device worked great.

Mark Newman

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