Grant's gazelle and young one ... southern Serengeti.

Grant's gazelle and young one ... southern Serengeti.

A few decades back from Carl Sagan …

“Memories of events late in the first year of life are not extremely rare, and there are possible examples of even earlier recollections. At age three, my son Nicholas was asked for the earliest event he could recall and he replied in a hushed tone while staring into middle distance, ‘It was red and I was very cold.’ He was born by Caesarean section. It is probably very unlikely, but I wonder whether this could just possibly be a true birth memory.”

from “Dragons of Eden”

For reasons I would never try to explain, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time trying to comprehend what the world must look and feel like to a newborn. I was in the delivery room for the birth of my youngest son and witnessed firsthand what must have been a very rude shock to his system … to pass from the warmth and security of his mother’s womb to the bright lights and controlled climate of the operatory. He was fortunate in many ways. A platoon of expert medical technicians was on hand to receive him and he was expeditiously cleaned, swathed in blankets and placed next to an exhausted but loving mother. He was safe from immediate physical harm and, unlike Sagan’s progeny, certainly has no memory of what must have been a less than pleasant accession to life on planet earth.

A newborn animal in the wild must surely be similarly bewildered and overwhelmed in the first few minutes of life. Spilling from complete maternal darkness to the powerful sunshine and pungent African earth must be a harrowing experience indeed. I suspect that the newborn initially sees nothing but blinding white light and hears a wild cacophony of strange and incomprehensible sounds. Within seconds, however, it would feel its mother’s presence and the quest for survival would begin in earnest.

An impala mother welcomes her daughter, just minutes old, to South Luangwa, Zambia and the world.

An impala mother welcomes her daughter, just minutes old, to South Luangwa, Zambia and the world.

Just beginning to try the new legs ... hope they work.

Just beginning to try the new legs ... hope they work. Notice the colors in the area mother selected for delivery ... a near perfect match to camouflage the newborn.

So far so good ... looking for Mom's teat.  This series of photos was taken by my son Joe.  One of the most special of many precious moments I've witnessed in the wild.

So far so good ... looking for Mom's teat. This series of photos was taken by my son Joe. One of the most special of many precious moments I've witnessed in the wild.

Unlike human offspring, animals born on the savanna are at risk for their very lives from the instant of their arrival. In addition to the inherent difficulties of adjusting to a new and hostile environment, a newborn’s challenges are compounded by the existence of other species that would view it as a quick and easy meal. Consequently, each animal has evolved protective mechanisms for the very young, but the effectiveness of these strategies varies widely from one species to the next.

The baby elephant is certainly vulnerable to lion attack, but the strength and size of its family are formidable obstacles against any and all potential predators. An elephant mother, aggressively supported by sisters and matriarch, is a determined and fearless protectress. This unique combination of family, size, strength and maternal love is usually sufficient to convince a hungry lioness to search for easier prey. For these reasons, elephant youngsters have a much higher survival rate than most species.

Elephant family steadying a new arrival.  The little guy was having difficulty navigating the uneven ground, but he had much love and help from a supportive family.

Elephant family steadying a new arrival. The little guy was having difficulty navigating the uneven ground, but he had much love and help from a supportive family.

More Amboseli elephants ... notice who's tucked away under the legs of the larger animals.

More Amboseli elephants ... notice who's tucked away under the legs of the larger animals.

The offspring of the great cats are in no way exempt from Africa’s trials. Mother cheetahs produce the cutest (and most photogenic) young of any African animal in my opinion, but those little ones are fragile, and susceptible to destruction by any number of natural enemies. Young leopards are subject to the predations of hyenas, pythons and even baboons. Lion cubs are also threatened by hyenas … and they are actively pursued by Cape Buffalo, who bear a hatred for lions that’s very nearly unprecedented in the animal world. And invading male lions always kill the young cubs when they assume control of an existing pride. This brings the females into estrus and enables the new leadership to mate almost immediately.

A lioness with her very young daughter at Amboseli.

A lioness with her very young daughter at Amboseli.

Tiny cubs in the Maasai Mara ... giving the nipple one hell of a workout.

Tiny cubs in the Maasai Mara ... giving the nipple one hell of a workout.

Survival is even more problematic for an ungulate offspring. A wildebeest calf must stand within minutes of birth and be able to maintain pace with the greater herd within three or four days. Baby gazelles have evolved an innovative survival strategy. They are virtually scentless at birth and instinctively become motionless when in the vicinity of a threat. Because their colors so closely match the savanna grass they are all but invisible and just barely detectable.

Another impala mom with little one in the central Serengeti.

Another impala mom with little one in the central Serengeti.

But none of these protective measures is perfect. Every birthing season is witness to the destruction of innumerable new arrivals. Nowhere on earth are the dual miracles of life and survival more visible than on the plains of the Mara and Serengeti. The birth, predator and prey cycle is one of East Africa’s most fundamental realities … and one of its most enduring fascinations.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,



Zebra smackdown in Ngorongoro Crater.

Zebra smackdown in Ngorongoro Crater.

I mentioned in a long ago blog post (July 31, 2009) that elephants are my favorite animals. The logic offered in that article was exhaustive, but at the heart of it all was my sincere belief that the depth of their feelings and power of their love make them unique in the animal world. But elephants are overwhelming … and for me that can make them difficult to photograph at times. Zebras, on the other hand, are eminently beautiful and forever entertaining. They are an impeccable combination of aggression and vulnerability, most beautifully parceled in black and white. For these and a succession of other reasons, they are far and away my favorite species to photograph – and have been since my first visit to Africa many years ago. And as with the giraffe, I’ve subconsciously evolved specific strategies for photographing them.

Zebras are social animals, and as they interact with each other they exhibit an absorbing range of moods and behaviors. In peaceful groups they often use each other for headrests, or stand in rows, alternately facing opposite directions – a twofold strategy to (a) optimize the predator watch by expanding the field of view to 360 degrees, and (b) take advantage of the next door neighbor’s tail to swish flies from their respective faces. These positions and postures represent a cornucopia of opportunities for the observant photographer.

Zebras as headrests ... central Serengeti.

Zebras as headrests ... central Serengeti.

Alternating strips ... widens the field of view and enables usage of the neighbors tail to swish flies.

Alternating strips ... widens the field of view and enables usage of the neighbors tail to swish flies.

The babies of all species are photogenic, even those of the most visually unappealing adults (e. g., the hyena). Zebra youngsters are not only spectacularly beautiful, they are wonderfully curious. They have been known to elude the protection of their mothers and bounce directly toward the camera for a close-up portrait. They also make excellent subjects when huddled close to Mom or bucking through a field, trying out the spindly new legs. Some samples:

Baby zebra approaches the camera at Amboseli.  Mom in the near distance.

Baby zebra approaches the camera at Amboseli. Mom in the near distance.

Mother and very young one standing in Lake Masek at Ndutu, southern Serengeti.

Mother and very young one standing in Lake Masek at Ndutu, southern Serengeti.

Peace and harmony are not universally practiced in zebra society. When observing a large herd spread across a hillside I usually set the camera down (but leaving it in the ready position) and take a few minutes to study the herd as a whole. The animals graze quietly but audibly, companions form tight groupings and mothers maintain a wary eye on their vulnerable offspring. But somewhere in the crowd there will unfailingly be a single animal bawling incessantly, prancing through the host with head elevated and ears pointed skyward. This zebra should be observed and tracked closely, because he is, in fact, a troublemaker. And he will almost certainly generate the raw behavioral material for many an interesting photograph. The action will begin when the rogue zebra physically intrudes on a peaceful group and harasses them to the limit of their collective endurance. Eventually, one of the imposed upon animals will stretch neck and head backward to his flank and touch noses with the intruder. The action then begins within seconds. By this time the viewfinder should be clamped against the head to capture the imminent sequence of bites and kicks.

Trouble maker takes a chin shot.  Central Maasai Mara.

Trouble maker takes a chin shot. Central Maasai Mara.

An all out zebra fight for mating rights can be a very serious matter. The wild-eyed animals grab sizable chunks of their opponents’ flesh and deliver powerful kicks that occasionally find their target. Most dangerously, they circle each other aggressively … attempting to clamp down on their rivals’ lower legs. A zebra with an injured leg, particularly a foreleg, is a doomed animal. East African predators have a natural instinct for identifying and eliminating the vulnerable.

Another zebra smackdown in the southern Serengeti.

Another zebra smackdown in the southern Serengeti.

Zebra fight at Ndutu.  Serious business here ... an injured foreleg can be fatal for one of these animals.

Zebra fight at Ndutu. Serious business here ... an injured foreleg can be fatal for one of these animals.

I don’t know of any African animal that isn’t photogenic in its way, but for me the plains zebra is the most consistently cooperative subject. Other opinions are, as always, very welcome.

Drinking in the Mara River.

Drinking in the Mara River.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,



Bob Parsons, Mack Daddy of the web hosting company Go Daddy, recently generated a bit of a firestorm when he posted a video clip of himself executing a “musth bull problem elephant” in Zimbabwe. According to Parsons, the elephant was destroying crops, and the farmers were in desperate need of his assistance. Apparently, this is the second year in succession that Parsons has visited Africa to “help” the agrarian community in this way.

There are instances — more each day, sadly – when elephant and human contact results in tragedy in one direction or the other. I won’t pass judgment on the abjectly poor farmers who depend on their crops for their livelihood and survival. But I don’t mind passing a little judgment on Parsons. In the spirit of good will and friendship I offer him the following hints.

Notes to Bob:

– Don’t cast yourself as heroic. You’re precisely the opposite of that. There’s no glory whatsoever in killing an elephant. Hell, anyone who can lift a weapon could do it. You were well-armed … the elephant just wanted to eat. There may be people in this world who are ignorant enough to be impressed by what you did, but I doubt that anyone who’s reading this post would be among that number.

– Don’t claim that your motive for the destruction of the animal was in any way altruistic. You did not travel all the way to Zim at great personal expense to “help” anybody. If you actually wanted to benefit humanity there are quite literally countless ways to do this that don’t involve firearms. The fact is, nobody … I mean NOBODY … believes that your purpose and intent was to rid the farmers of a menace to their crops. The reality is … you wanted very badly to kill an elephant, so that’s what you did. To frame it any other way is a flat out lie.

– Be honest about what you shot. This is a cautionary admonition, because there’s just a little room for doubt about the gender of your “Bull” elephant. Based on the video you very generously shared with us, it’s doubtful that there’s enough physically remaining of the animal to ascertain its sex with 100% accuracy. But elephant researcher Joyce Poole has examined your video and stills, and she deems it highly likely that your “Bull” was a young female. I have considerably more faith in her best guess than I do in your integrity.

– If you want to perform an act that’s simultaneously destructive, dishonest, selfish and mindless, I recommend very strongly that you don’t videotape it and then post it for display like a badge of honor. Only a jackass would do that.

I’m always ready to help, Bob. If you’re ever again in need of my mentorship and guidance, by all means let me know.

Tags: , , ,



This blog has been offline for many weeks for a variety of weeks. Most significant among these was its recent transfer to a new web hosting company and a complete overhaul of the website to which it is appended. The blog is back now.