Bull elephant surviving without the business end of his trunk

Bull elephant surviving without the business end of his trunk

My favorite character in the 1997 movie Jurassic Park is the quirky Dr. Ian Malcolm, ably played by the talented Jeff Goldblum.  Dr. Malcolm is a bit of an eccentric, a devoted proponent of some mystical concept he refers to as “chaos theory.”  The good Dr. Malcolm also has the annoying habit of being right just about all the time.  In one of the movie’s most pivotal scenes he is egregiously and presciently accurate.  He rejects Jurassic Park management’s insistent assertion that the dinosaurs they’ve generated are incapable of reproduction.  After a rousing debate on the issue, he solemnly and thoughtfully declares … “life finds a way.”  Discussion ended.

The eminent Dr. Malcolm was referring to life writ large, of course.  But life on the grandest scale cannot “find a way” without isolated incidents of improbable survival.  Life persists and, in fact, thrives in some of the earth’s most inhospitable regions.  In the seething, sulfurous thermals along the ocean floor faults, 700 degree Fahrenheit gas vents into sea water with temperatures barely above freezing.  In that boiling, methane-laced cauldron that never sees even a trace of sunlight, a variety of microbes have adapted and found a way to subsist.  In the most implausible of spots, life has found a way.  Our own remarkable species, much more physiologically complex, has existed for centuries in the icy world of the arctic and in the arid deserts on four separate continents.  We too, have “found a way” in some unlikely places.

From time to time I’m reminded of life’s resilience when I’m in the field taking photographs.  In 2010 I’d just finished a long and productive day in Ngorongoro Crater and was en route back to my lodge when I drove past a bull elephant on a steep hillside on the south rim.    This big guy caught my attention for a couple of reasons.  For starters, elephants don’t much like slopes.  Their great bulk and flat-bottomed feet cause almost insurmountable balance issues on precipitous terrain.  But the young bull seemed very much at his ease on the incline.  The second anomaly was the animal’s trunk, which was visibly and curiously abbreviated.  We stopped the vehicle near him to watch and learn for a bit.   After just a few minutes in the elephant’s presence his predicament became clear. He’d lost the end of his trunk at some point in the distant past.  He was most likely the victim of hyenas at a young age, maybe lions, or perhaps even an unfortunately placed snare.  Regardless, the primary vehicle for delivering food to his mouth was completely inoperable. But the elephant had “found a way.”  By braving the steep slopes he was able to use the elevation differential to his advantage.  With the grass on the hillside at mouth level he could access the bushes and tall grass that would keep him alive.  He was nearly full grown, and judging by his body mass, he was completely healthy.  I think the photo above offers compelling testimony to his will to live.

There was another time.  A couple of years earlier I’d been riding with my friend Chris McBride on the Kafue River in Zambia.  On three successive mornings we’d seen a young male lion stretched out on the riverbank about a mile above Chris’ camp.  He related the story of the animal as we cruised past on the third morning.  The lion was apparently a creature of habit, a daily fixture on that stretch of the Kafue.  Some time ago, – certainly not recently, he’d lost the better part of a back leg to a poacher’s snare.  As the lion hobbled into the forest, Chris’ wife Charlotte told us how she’d come to admire and respect this disadvantaged animal.  She’d reverently named him Triton after the trident wielding messenger of the sea.  Triton’s case was particularly sad.  His maiming was the direct result of human malice.  By some miracle, he was physically healthy, probably having adapted to a life as a scavenger.  On three legs he would never be a hunter.  And although he was magnificent by most any standard, he would never become the patriarch of a pride and live the social existence that seems to be so central to the lives of lions.  But he was alive… and that in and of itself was impressive.

Wildlife photography is, in many ways, the study of life.  Above and beyond the desire to capture images, it is this disproportionate fascination with the creatures of the earth that keeps people like yours truly in a perpetual state of planning and preparation for the next trip.  So I’ll end this with a note of respect for the bizarre character of Dr. Ian Malcolm.   Life does indeed find a way, and the struggles of our fellow creatures must be acknowledged, understood and appreciated.  And yes …. photographed as well.

Male lion on the Kafue

Male lion on the Kafue

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In past blog posts I’ve written exhaustively about elephants, which I’ve repeatedly identified as my favorite animal. I also have a favorite photographic subject, which is the plains zebra. My blog post dated April 18th of this year describes my strategies for photographing their extraordinary range of behaviors. But there is another species that holds a special place in my heart for deeply personal and historic reasons. That would be the elegant and beautiful, but highly implausible Maasai Giraffe. Here’s why …

In 2001 I traveled to Tanzania with a couple of friends to climb Kilimanjaro. Thinking our trip would be a “once in a lifetime” expedition, we programmed a few extra days into the itinerary to see Africa’s wildlife. Understanding perfectly well that one cannot travel to East Africa without a camera, I purchased my first SLR … the lowest end Canon edition with a ludicrously cheap kit lens. Before leaving Tanzania my friends and I visited a very damp Arusha National Park, Ngorongoro Crater, and the dry and dusty plains of the Serengeti. During the course of that initial 15 day trip I captured about 780 photographs, which at the time seemed an astronomical total (that figure now represents about a half day’s work). I was completely captivated by Tanzania’s landscapes and wildlife and spent a disproportionate amount of time looking through my photos after returning home. The months marched on but the desire to return never dissipated, and I became obsessed with finding a way to do that – often – without being consigned to debtor’s prison. I’d received some warm praise for those first photographs I’d shot, and it’s just possible that some of it may have been sincere. There was one particular image – which happened to be my favorite from the trip – that elicited a stronger response than all the others. Because of the encouragement and feedback I received on that one picture I began to study the art and science of photography. Here’s the shot:

First ever morning in Africa with a camera.  Sometime in mid-July of 2001.  Captured by a clueless photographer at Arusha National Park with Kodak 400 speed print film.

First ever morning in Africa with a camera. Sometime in mid-July of 2001. Captured by a clueless photographer at Arusha National Park with Kodak 400 speed print film.

And voila … by 2007 my images were not only fully subsidizing my travel, they’d enabled me to purchase a world-class arsenal of Nikon photo gear. So the giraffe, from my perspective, is in a class of its own. That’s because I’m deeply indebted to the animal for a life-changing encounter on a gray and rainy morning at Arusha National Park in July of 2001. And it’s about damned time I started making payments.

More to follow on this …

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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.

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Rufous-tailed weaver eating bread out of my hand at Ngorongoro Crater.

Rufous-tailed weaver eating bread out of my hand at Ngorongoro Crater.

Sorting photographs after a trip is always a time consuming process. I spent most of February in Kenya and Tanzania and captured just over 22,000 images. I started going through them in earnest this morning and have reviewed about a folder and a half of pictures so far … only 73 folders to go. Just looking at this initial batch made me realize that I may really be a “birder” at heart.

 

Please, sir ... may I have some more?

Please, sir ... may I have some more?

A longer post on this later … just wanted to include a few samples while it’s on my mind. These photographs were all captured between 6 am and noon on the last day of January of 2010 … all from Ngorongoro Crater.

 

Kori Bustard, inflated and in full mating display.  Ngorongoro Crater, January 2010.

Kori Bustard, inflated and in full mating display. Ngorongoro Crater, January 2010.

Ngorongoro Crater is also a great location for photographing water birds, although it doesn’t have the reputation that Lake Manyara has.

Black-crowned night heron at Ngorongoro Crater

Black-crowned night heron at Ngorongoro Crater

Black kites are are very common in Ngorongoro Crater.  They’ve been known to swoop and steal food from the hands of tourists around the hippo pool.

Black Kite on the floor of Ngorongoro Crater.

Black Kite on the floor of Ngorongoro Crater.

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