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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Typical landscape from the heart of the Serengeti.  The great migration passes through here in June of each year.  This may soon be a busy roadway with all the associated infrastructure.

Typical landscape from the heart of the Serengeti. The great migration passes through here in June of each year. This may soon be a busy roadway with all the associated infrastructure.

A few years back, primate researcher Jane Goodall wrote a wonderful book titled “Reason For Hope: A Spiritual Journey.” Ms. Goodall covered a lot of territory in that little volume, which is part autobiography, part animal science and a general commentary on the human condition. After shedding light on the best and worst aspects of our species, our world and what we’ve done to it, she signed off with a cautiously optimistic summary. It was an eloquent discourse on her belief that the benevolent side of humanity will ultimately prevail over all its inherent frailties. Her writing was powerful and sincere, but not entirely persuasive. Nonetheless, the book did leave the reader with the vague impression that perhaps there really might be reason for hope for the future of our planet and the life that it so graciously hosts.

I wonder if Ms. Goodall would revise her predictions after reviewing the proposal of the Tanzanian government to build a highway across the northern Serengeti. This area is the primary corridor for the great wildebeest migration that circles across the border into and out of Kenya every year. A simple roadway in and of itself probably wouldn’t pose a real physical impediment to the most spectacular wildlife migration on earth. But the problem is that roads bring traffic, and vehicles require fuel, and drivers require places to rest, food to eat and drinks to drink. In the aggregate, the impact of this proposal on the great migration would be catastrophic. It would severely hamper the efforts of several hundred thousand wildebeest and zebra in their eternal effort to live and procreate. The route to the north represents much more than a grand spectacle designed to dazzle the eyes and fill the hearts of us humans … for the animals it is quite literally a lifeline they cannot survive without.

It goes without saying that the tourism industry will necessarily suffer … not just in Tanzania, but in Kenya as well. If the Maasai Mara is made inaccessible to these animals, the Kenyan economy would certainly be damaged, perhaps irreparably. No migration … far fewer tourists … substantially less income from outside the country.

The African Wildlife Foundation has taken a strong position against the highway. In keeping with the tradition that has made AWF my favorite charity, their website has offered a well-reasoned, entirely rational and non-confrontational argument against the highway. Also consistent with their usual methods, they’ve offered the Tanzanian government a perfectly viable alternative to this abomination that would satisfy just about all parties. Let us pray that their ideas are adopted by those in decision making positions in East Africa.

The destruction of the migration would be unforgivable … and even as I write this I find it difficult to accept that the highway proposal is even being seriously considered. If the road becomes a reality I doubt that I’ll ever visit the Serengeti again. I couldn’t stand to be reminded of what was once so grand and majestic, but so far beyond the will of humanity to preserve. I think I will have lost my reason for hope.

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African Wild Dogs resting on the shores of Lake Masek at Ndutu, Tanzania.

African Wild Dogs resting on the shores of Lake Masek at Ndutu, Tanzania.

The wild dog is one of Africa’s most interesting predators. It is a rare animal, its numbers having been systematically reduced over the past few decades as a result of human pressure. It has long been viewed as something more than a pest, having preyed on livestock and becoming mortal enemies of the Maasai and other tribes in the eastern and southern sections of the continent. Their collective efforts to exterminate it have come far too close to success. Wild dogs are also territorial, and because they are so wide ranging, they require more space than other predators. As humanity expands into protected areas, they are gradually squeezed out of existence. They remain one of Africa’s most endangered species.

The wild dog has also evolved in another way. As its physical numbers have dwindled, its names have proliferated. In recent years it has been referred to as the spotted dog, the painted dog, the hunting dog, the painted wolf and the ornate wolf. These “friendlier” designations were calculated to portray the animal as something less fierce and intimidating than its traditional reputation would imply. The hope was that the name change would alter historic views of the dogs, and possibly serve as the initial step in rehabilitating their fearsome image.

Wild dog at Lake Masek, checking out a wildebeest skull.

Wild dog at Lake Masek, checking out a wildebeest skull.

Because of the efforts of some dedicated conservation organizations, the African wild dog may be making a comeback. Reports from the Samburu area in central Kenya indicate that sightings are much more frequent, and the numbers seem to be climbing in the Serengeti as well. Still, the visitor to East Africa should have no real expectation of seeing these animals … which is why the opportunity to photograph them at Ndutu in February of this year came as a complete surprise.

Enjoying Lake Masek.

Enjoying Lake Masek.

There were seven dogs in the pack … initially they slept on the mud flat near the water at Lake Masek, rising from time to time to yawn, stretch and drink. Toward sunset they became more active, splashing in the shallows and turning a couple of laps around the land rovers before disappearing into the bush. The guides discussed the matter at some length and finally determined that it had been eight years since the last sighting of wild dogs at Ndutu. Once again I was lucky, but doubt seriously that I’ll ever see these animals again in the wild.

More sleeping dogs lie on the mud flat in the late afternoon.

More sleeping dogs lie on the mud flat in the late afternoon.

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Wildebeest in a scramble away from the Mara River after a croc scare.

Wildebeest in a scramble away from the Mara River after a croc scare.

Most of my visits to Africa coincide with the timing and location of the great wildebeest migration. The wildebeest is not a particularly photogenic animal, but the migration as a physical event is one of the most awe-inspiring sights mother nature has to offer. The sheer numbers of wildebeest are astounding. I’ve heard estimates as high as 4 million but none lower than 1.5 million. It seems to me that someone should send a couple of graduate students into the game reserves with clipboards and calculators and actually count them just to get a firm and accurate number (just kidding).

Taking it easy in the southern Maasai Mara.

Taking it easy in the southern Maasai Mara.

The wildebeest do not travel alone. They are accompanied by hundreds of thousands of zebras, and there are usually a few adventurous gazelles on the circuit as well. Much of the appeal – certainly from the photographer’s perspective — is the dynamic level of energy and activity that are the natural by-products of the movement of such an incredible mass of living creatures. They form enormous, bawling queues on the riverbanks and in the open fields as they prepare to run the crocodile gauntlet in the Mara, Talek and Grumeti Rivers. They coalesce into a dark, staring phalanx at the sight of a cheetah … and they lock focus onto lions of any size, ready to bolt in an instant if the big cat even looks their way.

Forming a wall against the danger.

Forming a wall against the danger.

I’ve been witness to the migration in the central Serengeti, at Ndutu (southern Serengeti) and in the Maasai Mara. Each location is spectacular in its way. The great herds can usually be found in the middle of the Serengeti in the May and early June time frame as the rainy season comes to a close. The grass is green and tall in places, but it fades quickly as June wears into July. Then the monstrous aggregation of animals works its way north, arriving in the Maasai Mara in late July or early August.

On the move to greener grasses.

On the move to greener grasses.

The Maasai Mara in the months of August and September is certainly the most vibrant place on earth. The rolling hills are speckled with wildebeest and zebra, and the lions are on patrol and open for business. The Mara, during this season, certainly hosts the largest and most visible concentration of wild lions in the world. As the short rains begin in late October and early November, the migration swings south again and lands at Ndutu by February. The cycle begins anew here … nearly all the wildebeest in the region are born at Ndutu in late January and throughout February. It all makes perfect sense. The grass is green, thick and nutritious … the mothers eat well and manufacture plenty of milk for their little ones. But Ndutu also illustrates how cruel nature can be. One lazy charge from a half-interested predator is sufficient to scatter a herd and separate mother from newborn. A young wildebeest’s life is measured in hours if it loses track of Mom … and the shores of Lake Ndutu are dotted with the carcasses of little ones who strayed too far from their mother’s protection. The sight of a baby wildebeest looking for a parent is heartrending. This past February my guide and I found a solitary young one on the beach at Lake Masek looking for its mother, but attempting to bond with anything … zebras, gazelles or even the trunk of a large tree. We sat and watched the confused animal for several minutes and it eventually ran to the shade of our land rover, clearly hoping that we’d become its adoptive parents. I was tempted to exit the vehicle and give it some much needed comfort and affection. But that interference, although well intentioned, would ultimately only prolong its misery. Toward sunset we turned back toward camp and the newborn followed our rover … we eventually lost sight of it in the dust and darkness.

Very young wildebeest (see the umbilical stub on its underside) orphan looking for anyone or anything to adopt it.

Very young wildebeest (see the umbilical stub on its underside) orphan looking for anyone or anything to adopt it.

The wildebeest may number in the millions. But on an individual level, the 24/7 goal is to stay alive. And this applies to newborns as well as migratory veterans.

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Maasai Mara grasslands in the heart of the "dry" season

Maasai Mara grasslands in the heart of the "dry" season

The Serengeti plain touches the Kenyan border along its northernmost edge. From there, it extends southward into Tanzania for many miles, with the Ngorongoro Conservation area to its east and the legendary Lake Victoria to the west. I’m told that the word “Serengeti” is derived from the Maasai language, meaning “endless plain that touches the sky.” If that definition is correct, then this must surely be the most appropriately named place on earth.

The Serengeti is contiguous with the Maasai Mara, which stretches north, well into the heart of Kenya. Despite the similarity of their wildlife and the ubiquity of the Maasai people throughout, these two parcels of terrestrial heaven seem to have their own characters and temperaments. The Serengeti is hauntingly beautiful. Flatter than the Mara, its expansive grasslands are dotted with isolated stacks of boulders called “kopjes” (pronounced much like the word “copy” with a slightly elongated “o”). These odd, eye-catching formations were created when molten material pierced the earth’s surface and cooled as enormous piles of igneous rock. They punctuate the landscape under skies that always impress and frequently overwhelm.

Serengeti in February ... "the endless plain that touches the sky" with kopje in the right side of the frame

Serengeti in February ... "the endless plain that touches the sky" with kopje in the right side of the frame

The Maasai Mara conveys a slightly different mood. To the farthest horizon its hills are speckled with acacia and fig trees, randomly dispersed islands of green on a golden sea. But what makes the Mara transcendently beautiful is the quality of its light. In the heart of the dry season, the Serengeti sky can be almost blinding, and full days and even weeks may pass without even the trace of a cloud. Not so with the Maasai Mara. Its “dry” season is never completely dry … which is why the vast herds of wildebeest continue to turn up each August, just as they have for many centuries. The clouds seem to gather every afternoon … their shadows dapple the low hills and accentuate the pure colors of the African sky.

Typical late afternoon Mara sky ... captured in the month of September

Typical late afternoon Mara sky ... captured in the month of September

After I return from a trip to East Africa, I spend many hours and even days poring over my images, performing a sort of photographic triage. So many times I’ve paused in disbelief over a landscape and silently questioned my cameras, lenses and filters. Was the sky or the grassland really that color? Or could there be some luminous anomaly at work, altering the hues to some fantastic shade that couldn’t possibly be real? The only sure way to validate the quality of light and color is to return for a personal assessment … once a year at a minimum. Research commences again two weeks from today.

Last light of day in the Mara after a tremendous June thunderstorm ... personal favorite of all my photos, I don't think I'll ever see light like this again

Last light of day in the Mara after a tremendous June thunderstorm ... personal favorite of all my photos, I don't think I'll ever see light like this again

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