Going on safari in Africa is on many photographers’ bucket list. It is an unforgettable experience, and very different from other photo tours or workshops you might have attended. What should you expect? What do you need to know? Here are a few of the key things I learned on photography trips in South Africa and Botswana.
You will see things that literally astound you. Just sit back for the adventure of a lifetime. Take my word for it, you may want to stay longer or not even want to board the plane for home. You might even feel a kinship, after all, it is the Cradle of Civilization. If you go once, you will be going again and again, as it is a life altering experience. I plan to be back in Africa this October, assuming pandemic travel restrictions are lifted.
Each of us is drawn to nature photography for our own personal reasons. Some for commercial reasons — to make money. Others because they enjoy sitting in the peace and quiet of nature, waiting for beautiful light. Still others who perhaps enjoy the thrill of capturing animal behavior in front of their very eyes. For me, at the beginning, it was all of the above but, as I spent more time in the field and grew older, it became more about being a champion for innocent and beautiful creatures who needed protecting from, ironically, humans like me. In the midst of a pandemic, it’s easy to see the effects of the COVID-19 virus on humans, but it is also significantly affecting the animal kingdom.
This is one fairly savvy traveler’s take on safaris–what to look for, what it’s like. Safaris are now big business and there are many things to think about as you plan your trip if you want (a) things to go smoothly and (b) an amazing experience.
Can only two male lions take down an adult male giraffe?
Male lions average over 400 lbs. Giraffes, over six times that much, with well over a ton of power behind their kicks. Just their height alone is intimidating. However, in April 2016, I saw two male lions take down an adult male giraffe in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. So, the answer is yes, with a caveat I’ll mention a bit later.
Life in the African bush is hard for prey animals and apex predators (those at the top of the food chain) alike. Ungulates (hooved animals) such as zebras, gazelles and wildebeest are constantly wary and keeping watch to ensure they don’t fall victim as food for one of the countless predators that share their territory. Predators fight among themselves over that same territory. Lions will fight to take control of existing prides. They will also fight to drive off other predators, like cheetahs, sharing the same space. Very often these battles have grim results for the victims.
During my recent trip to Ndutu in northern Tanzania (eastern Africa) we saw many cheetah families living in the Makao plains. Among them were two bachelor brothers that we had hoped to encounter during our journeys. With a top speed approaching 70 miles per hour, cheetahs are the fastest land animals in the world. They can maintain this speed for approximately 500 yards. As a singular animal a cheetah is capable of chasing down and capturing smaller prey, a favorite being a Thomson’s gazelle. Adult male cheetahs often form coalitions with siblings. When teamed up they are capable of bringing down much larger prey, like wildebeest. We wanted to see this two-male coalition in action.
On January 31, during our morning game drive we happened upon a lone cheetah that had climbed onto a fallen tree. It started calling and before we identified the gender we suspected a female calling for her young. As we looked more closely we realized it was a male and that it was injured. His mouth was wounded and his elbows rubbed raw. This was one of the brothers, only his sibling was nowhere in sight. Our best guess was that the two cheetahs had been victims of a lion attack during the night. Either the second male had been killed or severely injured, or he escaped and ran in another direction.
Injured cheetah searching for his brother.
A closer look at his mouth injury.
The wounded cheetah wandered from tree to tree, sniffing for signs of his brother and then sending a stream of his own urine toward the tree. Like all cats, cheetahs have a keen sense of smell and can identify an individual by its unique scent. During this time he called continuously with a forlorn cry, presumably with the hope of vocally contacting his sibling. Occasionally he would leap onto a fallen tree to search and call from a higher vantage point. Allowing enough distance to avoid interference we followed the lone male for over an hour. During that time his pace was constant, his conviction never faltered. Continue reading →
Serengeti—it’s one of the most famous names in the world, an icon of wild places.
The Serengeti ecosystem, almost 10,000 square miles in area, includes Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Crater, and adjacent reserves such as Loliondo, Maswa, Ikorongo, Grumeti and Kenya’s Masai Mara. It is one of the few large, protected ecosystems left on earth. Each year, more than two million animals—wildebeest, zebras and other herbivores—migrate from the eastern plains through central Serengeti and northward to Masai Mara and back, in a search for water and fresh grasses. It is the largest land mammal migration on earth.
I’ve been traveling to the Serengeti ecosystem annually for 30 years, leading photo tours, and working on book and magazine assignments. I always assumed that national park and World Heritage Site designations would protect this ecosystem. I was wrong.
In May 2010 I learned from Masai friends that the Tanzanian government planned a major commercial highway that would cut across the northern part of the park like a knife wound. Hundreds of trucks would speed daily from Lake Victoria in the west to the Indian Ocean coast. In addition to cutting off the migration route, the highway would become an avenue for poachers.
Within days of my discovery, I contacted a handful of other frequent Serengeti travelers and we started a Facebook page, Stop the Serengeti Highway. Word spread, and today that page has more than 60,000 followers worldwide. In addition, ecotourism consultant Dave Blanton and I started a tax-deductible non-profit called Serengeti Watch to rally support to save Serengeti and to inform select news media around the globe about the threat. Click the link to join and/or make a donation.
In December 2010, Richard Engel of NBC News traveled to Serengeti. He uncovered the culprit funding the highway: China. Engel asserted that China was after coltan, an important mineral in cell phones, and certain rare-earth minerals.
The situation has grown more complex because of oil in Uganda and South Sudan. Plans are now being discussed by the Tanzanian government for a “transportation corridor” that might include a railroad as well as a highway. Either would mark the end of the migration and the total unravelling of the Serengeti ecosystem.
Serengeti Watch has proposed an alternate southern route, one that bypasses Serengeti entirely. Parts of this road already exist and are being upgraded for major transport. The Tanzanian government has ignored funding offers for a southern route, and to date the Serengeti Highway remains a threat.
Building local support is vital. Through donations, Serengeti Watch has made educational grants locally to raise awareness about the importance of preserving Serengeti. The overall aim is to fund projects in media and education that encourage young Tanzanians to become involved in conservation. Through photography, journalism, video and social media, Serengeti Watch will give local people the ability to communicate the importance of protecting their reserves and parks.
This may be the best way to protect Serengeti for the future.
Boyd Norton is the author/photographer of 16 books. His most recent, Serengeti: The Eternal Beginning, has received accolades from primatologist and researcher Jane Goodall and Richard Engel of NBC News, among others. For more than 45 years Boyd has used his photography and writing to save and protect wilderness and wildlife worldwide, testifying at numerous congressional hearings. He has served on the Board of Trustees for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. He is a Fellow of NANPA, a former NANPA board member, charter Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, and founder and Fellow of the International League of Conservation Writers. His next photo safari to Serengeti will be in February, 2015. www.boydnorton.com; www.wildernessphotography.com. See a recent legal development: http://newsle.com/article/0/162431923/