About Rich Laburn
Rich Laburn is filmmaker, photographer and writer who is based at Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. Spending his time capturing scenes of the wild and communicating the beauty of the African bushveld, he runs the Londolozi Blog as a way to entertain and engage people wishing to visit these wild lands.
Latest Posts by Rich Laburn
Spending as much time as I do in the bush, makes me realize my love for the outdoors. This appreciation goes hand in hand with a sincere love of animals. When we are in the bush, it feels as if our worries float away like a petal in the wind. The hustle and bustle of one’s normal lifestyle gets thwarted by the roar of a lion when drinking your early morning coffee. The disquietude of getting in your car and driving off to work takes a back seat for a couple of days. The outdoors is like one’s happy place where everything just seems to happen in slow motion. When one adds the relaxation to the potential to see some of the most majestic animals in the world, the outcome is often breath-taking.
People who come into the bush with me, have a genuine admiration of animals and the euphoria displayed by them in each sighting just cemented my thoughts on why more people come to the bush to shrug off the listlessness of their day to day lives.
A sighting that we had with elephants epitomizes this point. We had been fortunate enough to be in a couple of sightings with elephants. Approaching these pachyderms is something that should always be done with caution and one needs to know the signs the animals give you if they do not welcome your presence. We realised that these particular elephants were content and we approached… The herd then proceeded to walk past the vehicle within touching distance.
Elephants have an aura about them which when first encountered can lead to an incredible up-welling of emotion. Whether it be their size, their generally placid nature, or the fact that when you look into their eyes you know that they are working you out at the same time, they can humble even the most accomplished safari-goer.
Emotional experiences like this can potentially be brought on by any animal or situation when in the bush; the only part of the recipe you need to bring is a true appreciation for them, the space they inhabit, and what their continued existence represents. Not just for a visitor to Africa, but for all of us.
Photo credit: BBC
One of the most iconic sounds when you stand on deck early in the morning is the sound of hippos grunting after venturing back to the water after a night time feeding bout. Despite the hippo’s appeal, these animals have often been misunderstood. Here I discuss five myths about hippos that, by simply spending time observing them with an open mind, we have come to understand.
1. Hippos Sweat Over Blood
Early roman naturalist Pliny the Elder was one of the first to notice a red secretion from hippos and suggested that hippos, which he described as being “over-gross and fat” were pricking themselves on sharp reeds, causing them to bleed and relieve their bodies from the swelling. Fortunately for us, a substantial amount of research has since been done on this substance that hippos secrete and the purpose it serves. Researchers have shown that what hippos actually secrete is a type of red gel secreted from glands under the skin. This substance helps to keep the skin soft and pliable and could even shield hippos from the harsh sun. Hippos constantly fight, particularly bulls, which often results in gaping wounds; the substance in question also has antibiotic properties which could help heal these wounds. But here’s where things get interesting. When this substance is initially secreted it is clear, very much the same colour of human sweat, but when exposed to sun for a long time it takes on an orange-brown hue, which is probably what early naturalists interpreted as blood.
A pod of hippos lay up next to a crocodile on the bank of a waterhole. During stressful times, hippo will secrete a reddish substance from their skin which helps to keep the skin soft and pliable, and also has antibiotic properties.
2. Hippos Stamp Out Camp Fires
In certain parts of Africa, folklore abounds about hippos running through campsites, trampling out campfires and knocking supplies about. Although hippos have almost certainly run through some campsites and stamped out fires, whether this was intentional could simply be a misinterpretation. Explorers and hunters would often set up camp close to water in the early pioneering days and run-ins with hippo could have been related to this. Camping close to water was not only convenient for the pioneers, but setting up camp was easy due to open clearings and prominent pathways created by hippos that venture out of the water each evening to forage. Hippos that encountered these campfires most likely trampled them in an attempt to run back to the water, which they would consider to be their safe refuge.
In the early pioneering days, camp sites were often made close to water for convenience and in open clearings close to prominent hippo paths. This could explain tales of hippos stamping out campfires.
3. Hippos Are Good Swimmers
Although hippos can spend almost 16 hours a day submerged in water, they cannot swim. At least, not as we consider it. Hippos lack webbing on their feet and have short stumpy tails, neither of which are adapted for swimming. Instead, hippos are bottom dwellers, walking along the river bed while keeping their nostrils above water to breathe. Although they can hold their breath for about five minutes, when hippos reach deep sections of a river, they will often “hop” along the bottom until they reach a section of river shallow enough to rest up in. Hippos are a vital species in river and waterholes, opening up water channels that would otherwise become clogged with reeds, and churning up silt that would otherwise collect at the bottom of deep pools. This silt contains vital nutrients that support a myriad of other life forms such as snails and insects, which in turn feeds a multitude of other animals.
A marsh terrapin rests on the back of a hippo. Hippo dung releases nutrients into deep pools, sustaining a variety of other lifeforms such as insects and crustaceans, which this terrapin will eat.
4. Hippos Eat Meat
When a hippo opens its mouth the incredibly large canines and incisors could easily give the impression that these animals should be carnivorous in some way or another. It does actually happen that hippos occasionally scavenge meat. However, these large teeth are usually used for self defense. Hippos are almost exclusively vegetarians, coming out at night time to feed on around 30 kg of grass in an evening and returning to the water before sunrise. The large teeth play no role in cropping grass, which is plucked off using the very broad lips. As a result of the recent El Nino, we had lower than average rainfall and as a result, grass cover has been limited in some areas. The hippos are adapting to it, venturing further in the evenings to feed. In fact, when food is scarce, hippos can even cover distances of up to 10 km or more in search of grass.
A hippo opens its mouth, displaying its impressive canines and incisors which are used mostly for fighting and self defense. The molars seen toward the back of the mouth are used to grind down grass cropped up by the lips.
5. Hippos are the Most Dangerous Animals in Africa
Hippos are often described as the most dangerous animal in Africa, and based on the figures of human fatalities, this statement is true (approx 2,900 deaths per year!). Hippos should certainly never be underestimated and have the potential to be extremely dangerous. However, the fact that hippos come into contact with humans more than any other animal in Africa has a lot more to do with where hippos live, rather than them being bad tempered, aggressive animals. Throughout Africa, hippos live in large rivers and permanent water sources both inside of and out of conservation areas.
Many rural people, who live in these same areas are dependent on the same rivers that many hippos call home. On a daily basis people walk from their villages to rivers and waterholes to wash their clothes and collect water for drinking and crops. On many occasions people walk down the well defined pathways created by hippos previously discussed. When confronted by humans, a hippo will almost always attempt to move back to the safety of the water, which can often be tragic if the bystander is blocking the hippo’s immediate pathway.
Dawn on the Sand river. Africa’s rivers are home to hippos, but they are also the lifeblood of many rural villages, where locals venture to rivers to collect water on a daily basis. As a result, humans come into contact with hippos more often than most animals.
Let’s face it – as humans, we don’t have the ability to walk or talk from the moment we are born, we learn it. The same applies for some animals. Yes, most are able to walk within minutes of birth, but there are certain actions and behaviours that are learnt, either by observing their mothers, or through trial and error.
We have the privilege of observing these cute youngsters learning the ropes on a daily basis; be it a young impala realising its legs have the ability to hurtle its body 2 metres into the air, or a leopard cub practicing its stalking skills on its mothers tail. The youngsters may just be doing this for fun or because they’re emulating their mother but what they don’t realise is that it’s teaching them crucial life lessons for survival.
Seeing any young animal is always a treat and no doubt entertaining, but my absolute favourite and the one that always gets me giggling are young elephants. A few weeks ago my guests and I had one of the more entertaining elephant sightings I’ve ever had in the bush.
We were watching a herd of elephants approaching a watering hole, which is always exciting as elephants in general love water. The adults seem to get rather excited and the youngsters become uncontrollably animated. We noticed there was a very young calf in the herd following its mother towards the water. It couldn’t have been more than 1,5 – 2 months old, so it was still quite wobbly on its oversized feet and certainly not in control of this “thing” hanging off its face. This appendage of course being its trunk.
They reached the water’s edge where the mother, who’s well rehearsed in the use of her trunk, dipped it straight into the water and started drinking without a hassle – a seasoned professional. Her calf on the other hand, who has only just mastered the art of stopping, seemed to look up at her with amazement, wondering how and what its mother was doing with this ‘thing’ hanging off her face. The youngster seemed to take a moment to work it all through in its head and decided it was going to give it a go. It dipped its miniature trunk into the water and lifted it towards its mouth, spilling every last drop it had so cleverly “sucked” up. It tried time after time, each time getting a little closer, but after about 7 attempts it still had a dry mouth.
The youngster seemed to be getting a little thirsty now and was obviously very jealous of the gallons of water that its mother was pouring down her throat, so he decided to change his approach. He eventually decided to cancel out the middle man and disregard the trunk altogether. He was now going to drink with his mouth.
He dived head first into the water with some serious force, more than likely leaving a perfect imprint of his face in the mud, in order to get the optimal amount of water into his now very parched mouth. Success.
He realised immediately that this new tactic was a winner; it was also helluva fun and so threw his face into the water a few more times.
When it was time to go, the youngster faced his next challenge, namely getting out. This seemed like an easy task, all he had to do was stand and move his legs; much easier said than done for a month and a half old elephant. The mud was now rather thick after all the splashing and the second obstacle was the now drenched bank where he would have to exit. He struggled for a little while but with the help of his mother and a sibling, he managed to get out.
As the herd departed the waterhole, the youngster followed in its midsts, thirst quenched and covered in mud. And we were left grinning ear to ear. A truly remarkable sighting.
Recently, I decided to explore parts of the Kruger National Park that I hadn’t been to, and spent a week bumbling around the northern parts of the reserve until I found myself on the border with Zimbabwe and Mozambique. During a day of driving through the Kruger you have plenty of time to get lost in your own thoughts, and only after I had solved all of the world’s problems and then spent the greater part of the morning wrestling with the question of, “is it too early for a beer?”, I found myself staring at a map of where I was and began thinking about just how special the Kruger National Park is even for a park ranger.
A dazzle of Zebra in the Kruger early morning light. Photograph by James Souchon
Most people have heard about the Kruger National Park in South Africa as it prides itself on being one of the most famous game reserves not just in the country, but also in the whole of Africa. The Kruger National Park was officially proclaimed in 1926. It was the amalgamation of two game reserves that had been established to try and control hunting in the region and to protect the different species of animals whose populations were decreasing. The reserve now covers an area of 19,485 square kilometres, extending 360 km from north to south and averaging 65 km in width from east to west. To put this into perspective, the Kruger National Park is approximately the same size as Wales or about the same size as the state of New Jersey in the US!
The early days of Kruger Park self-drive safaris. Photograph by krugernationalparksafaris.blogspot.com
What makes it even more exciting is that the Kruger is also part of the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park, which is an exciting project to join up other game reserves in the neighbouring countries of Zimbabwe and Mozambique. If all goes according to plan over the next few years there could potentially be a game reserve covering an area close to 100 000 square kilometres, which is more than 5 times the size of what the Kruger National Park is today.
The proposed Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park. The dark green areas are already protected game reserves and the light green areas are the proposed areas to be included in the park. With an area of wilderness that big it meant that animals could now travel further and wider in search of food and water when the conditions got tough. Territorial predators like lion and leopard could disperse as young males and moved away from the dominant males in their areas and set up territories of their own without encroaching onto neighbouring farmlands. Grasslands weren’t getting overgrazed because wildebeest, zebra, buffalo and rhino could move on to new areas, giving depleted grasslands a chance to recover.
It is not uncommon to see herds of elephant making their way through the Sand River. The Kruger National Park is vital to conservation in South Africa not just because of the wilderness area it preserves but also as an educational tool. It is the most accessible game reserve to get to for a large number of South Africans as well as the hundreds of thousands of tourists that visit South Africa each year. About a million visitors go through the gates of the Kruger Park annually. School trips with the Good Work Foundation and family holidays to the Kruger each year play a big role in shaping the young minds that will be our future conservation heroes in the years to come, when preserving our wild areas is going to be even higher up on the agenda than it is today.
The children of Tfolinhlanhla Primary School get ready for their first ever game drive with “Kids in Parks” Facilitator, Oriel Mhlongo (centre back). Of the 40 children who were part of this outing, not one had ever visited Kruger. Photograph by Accolade Ubisi
People can choose to experience the Kruger in a host of different ways, depending on their preferences and budgets, and whether it is a camping, self-drive holiday where you explore the reserve on your own with the help of a map, or visiting an exclusive concession within the reserve with an experienced guide who takes you around, the reserve has something for everybody. It’s a part of South Africa’s heritage and has provided countless campfire stories for millions of people across the world since it’s proclamation. Some of my fondest childhood memories are helping my Dad pack the family car and heading off for a holiday to Kruger. We would ‘braai’ (barbecue) each night and then my sister and I would fall asleep staring into the burning embers of the fire as the adults continued to chat around it. Each morning we would be queuing at the camp gate with flasks of coffee waiting for the guard to open it so we would get out and start searching for animals. It was those trips to the bush in my early years that made me decide that I wanted to live and work out here.
My best memories from family holidays to the Kruger National Park are sitting around the campfire at night cooking dinner and listening to everyone’s stories. Photograph by James Souchon
Contributed by James Souchon.
Days of the year can get pretty confusing. Not from a date point of view but rather what celebration should be taking place. When one starts getting into the realm of International Blueberry Pie Day, the waters can get a bit murky, and one starts wondering if these days actually exist. International Astronomy Day falls on May 14th this year. With people (including us) getting confused as to when we should really be jumping up and down and celebrating the night sky, we realized that since we do it most nights in the African bush, we should explore a little deeper.
Whether it’s national or international, any Astronomy day is a day to raise public interest in the science and encourage interaction between the general public and astronomers and other space enthusiasts. The great thing about star gazing is that you don’t need to be an expert or even have any expensive equipment to look up at the night sky and feel an overwhelming sense of awe.
Deep in the African wilderness and far away from any light pollution, the night sky is revealed with more clarity. One is able to gain and appreciate a greater awareness of the movements, phases and events of the celestial bodies.
At this time of the year in southern Africa, we can enjoy an extravaganza of night sky sightings on starlit journeys back to camp. For about another month the three brightest stars of the night sky, Sirius, Canopus and Alpha Centauri are all visible. The ever present Southern Cross as well as the famous constellations Orion, Virgo, Leo and Gemini are also seen during autumn.
Jupiter and its Galilean moons are being observed alongside the constellation Leo, and if you are awake just before sunrise for your morning game drive, Saturn and Mars are clearly illuminated alongside Antares, the red giant in the constellation Scorpio. In the next few weeks Venus will be spotted on the horizon.
Many of the constellations and star names we know today come from the early Middle Eastern, Greek and Roman cultures. However it is important to remember that these early celestial observers were not alone and you probably wouldn’t find a part of the globe that doesn’t have a rich history of astronomy. From the Mayans and Egyptians to Indians, Chinese and Aboriginal Australians, stars and planets were an important part of any early civilisation or hunter gatherer bands, and Southern Africa is no different.
Early humans have used the movement of stars or planets for navigation, cues for when to plant and harvest crops or a sign of the changing seasons not to mention the cultural and mythological beliefs.
The Southern Cross and two pointers (Alpha and Beta Centauri) are the most recognisable stars of the southern night sky and are prominent in Southern African star mythology. These stars were called Dithutlwa, “The Giraffes” in Sotho, Tswana and Venda traditions. The bright stars of the cross were seen as male giraffes, and the two Pointers female. The Venda called the fainter stars of the Southern Cross Thudana, “The Little Giraffe”. For the Sotho, cultivating season begins when the giraffe stars are seen close to the south-western horizon just after sunset.
The second brightest star of the night sky is Canopus and is commonly known in Southern Africa as Naka or the horn star and marks the coming of winter. Naka is seen towards the end of summer, when days become shorter cooler and the bush turns brown. This is when the Tswana would know to start breeding their sheep. In Venda and Sotho tradition the first person to see this bright star in the night sky that season would climb a hill and blow a sable antelope horn to receive their prize. The /Xam Bushman believed Canopus influenced the availability of ant or termite eggs and so called it “The Ant egg star”, while the Zulu saw it as a signal of beginning of their harvest time.
For most of summer, the well-known Orion constellation, flanked by Taurus the bull, Sirius (the brightest star in night sky) and the Pleiades cluster are visible in the southern hemisphere.
The Namaqua Khoikhoi have their own alluring mythical tale relating to these stars and a hunter of their own. To them Pleiades were the “Stars of Spring” and called the Khunuseti. The seven stars which make up the Pleiades cluster were the daughters of Tsui /Goab, the Dawn or Sky God. One day, the story goes, the Khunuseti told their husband (Aldebaran of Taurus constellation) to go out and hunt the three zebras (three stars of Orion’s Belt). Without question, the husband went out, but with only one arrow. He aimed and shot at the zebras, but missed. His arrow (Orion’s Sword) fell beyond the zebras, and still lies there today. He was unable to retrieve his arrow as there was a fierce lion (the star Betelgeuse) also watching the zebras. So the hunter remained there for eternity, shivering from the cold and suffering from thirst and hunger, unable to return to his wives in fear of their anger and unable to collect his arrow for fear of the lion.
Tribal lore is full of stories like this, all woven into the incredible tapestry of the sky.
As we head into winter, the skies are going to become ever clearer, and the star-gazing season is really upon us. Here are some dates to diarise:
- May 6: New Moon. The Moon will be situated on the same side of the Earth as the Sun and will not be visible in the night sky. This is the best time of the month to observe faint objects such as galaxies and star clusters because there is no moonlight to interfere.
- May 5-6: An above-average Meteor Shower, which means more shooting stars (up to 60 an hour at its peak). This activity will be best viewed in the Southern Hemisphere. It is produced by dust particles left behind by comet Halley, which has been observed since ancient times. The new moon will ensure dark skies this year for what could be an excellent show. Best viewing will be from a dark location after midnight. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Aquarius, but can appear anywhere in the sky.
- May 9: Rare Transit of Mercury Across the Sun. The planet Mercury will move directly between the Earth and the Sun. Viewers with telescopes and approved solar filters will be able to observe the dark disk of the planet Mercury moving across the face of the Sun. This is an extremely rare event that occurs only once every few years.
- May 21: Full Moon, Blue Moon. The Moon will be located on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun. Its face will be will be fully illuminated.
- May 22 : Mars will be at its closest approach to Earth and its face will be fully illuminated by the Sun. It will be brighter than any other time of the year and will be visible all night long. This is the best time to view and photograph Mars. A medium-sized telescope will allow you to see some of the dark details on the planet’s orange surface.
Go find somewhere quiet, away from bright city lights and enjoy the show. It hasn’t been the same for the last 13 billion years!
Contributed by Nick Sims.
You can imagine that if you head to Africa and plan to go on a safari, you have visions of the Big 5 in mind; lions, leopards and elephants are what they anticipate seeing, and hopefully are also what you get to see.
However, the feathered inhabitants in the African bush often get overlooked, and this is a real shame, seeing as how their sheer numbers and diversity are far greater than those of the mammals.
Where to start, though? That is the tricky part. It can be a daunting prospect setting out to try and identify a few hundred birds. But as Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So too should birding. Start with a few basics, learn ten or twenty different birds, and hopefully this will be enough to pique your interest.
Learn these and I can almost guarantee you’ll start to want to know more…
- Emerald Spotted Wood Dove
Photograph courtesy of Wild Eye View
The difference between a pigeon and a dove is pretty vague, so don’t even ask. Secondly, a number of them can look quite similar, so I thought I’d avoid those, also avoiding the green pigeon which, although beautiful, can be a difficult species to spot as it spends its time in the dense canopy of fruit trees.
The Emerald Spotted Wood Dove is an easily recognisable species. It spends much of its time on the ground foraging, and when startled flies off with rapid wingbeats. A patch of cinnamon is visible on the trailing edge of the wings at it flies.
The bird gets its name from the brilliant emerald spots seen on its wings, although the emerald is not as iridescent and is a little bit harder to make out when the bird is in shadow. In direct sunlight however, it certainly does look like two brilliant jewels are embedded in the wings. As DNA analysis and species classification has developed in recent years, so too have a number of birds had their names changed in order to keep up with the times, and the emerald spotted wood dove was changed to the emerald spotted dove, and then the far less romantic sounding green-spotted dove. Thankfully however, the powers that be reinstated the original name, and the emerald spotted wood dove is what it is today. You should see a number of these pretty little birds during your time here, whether in the camp or out on drive.
2. African Fish Eagle
Photograph by Sumeet Moghe
One Africa’s – more iconic birds, the African Fish Eagle is often to be seen (and heard) soaring above the Sand River in front of the camp decks. A pair of them actually nest on the opposite side of the river, and their courtship flights during the breeding season are something to behold. Although it’s difficult to tell male from female on appearance, they can be distinguished when calling in duet, as the male has a higher pitched call than the female.
The Fish Eagle obviously gets its name from the fact that it eats fish, and so successful is it as a hunter that it only needs to spend about 1% of its day actually engaged in the activity of fishing. Having said that, these large eagles often find it easier to simply steal from other birds, and on many occasions I have seen them watching and waiting for a heron or stork to snatch up a fish, and then swoop down to scare the rightful owner of the catch away.
Look out for fish eagles flying above camp in the day time, or perched above a waterhole in the morning or evening.
3. Giant Kingfisher
Photograph by Marco Valentini
Continuing the waterbird theme, we thought we’d introduce the Giant Kingfisher. As the name suggests, this bird also catches fish, plunging into the water to spear them with its powerful sharp bill. A highly vociferous bird, the giant kingfishers of the river can often be heard uttering their nasal chatter as they fly.
The bird in the picture above is a female, identified by the russet only starting low down on her belly. The male giant kingfisher has the russet patch higher up towards his chin. If you imagine the male wearing a russet shirt and the female a russet skirt, it makes it easier to remember…
4. Grey Heron
Photograph by J.J. Harrison
One of Africa’s more ubiquitous waterbirds, the grey herons are often found at large waterbodies, either wading in the shallows or perched on the bank or a prominent feature. Their colouration makes them almost impossible to confuse with almost any other heron here, except occasionally the black-headed heron, although since the black-headed heron is quite rare in these parts and doesn’t frequent water-side habitats as closely, the situation should not arise.
Looking at the photograph, it is easy to see how the body structure of the heron is perfect for stabbing at fish. The long neck provides the thrust and the sharp bill is the weapon.
5. Pied Kingfisher
Photograph by Marco Valentini
Another relatively ubiquitous bird, the pied kingfisher is significantly smaller than the giant (25cm vs 44cm) yet is far more numerous, with multiple individuals being found along most stretches of the river.
The pied kingfisher is difficult to overlook, as it fishes from a hovering position (flying stationary in one spot) above a pool, diving vertically onto its prey. Kingfishers (and other fishing birds) have a unique ability to compensate for the refraction of light through the water. In essence, the fish or prey species they are looking at under the surface is not actually where it appears to be, yet their brain makes calculated adjustments that sees them diving down to the right spot.
6. Purple Crested Turaco
Photograph by Richard Daniels
This is a bird that is heard far more than it is seen, but is worth including for its sheer beauty. A frugivore, it spends most of its time in the densely foliated canopies of the riparian trees that are found dotted throughout the bush, particularly the figs and Jackalberries. It’s loudkok-kok-kok call is usually the first giveaway of its presence, possibly followed by a brilliant flash of scarlet as it spreads its wings and flies to the next tree. The bright red pigment, Turacin, that forms this colour, is unique to the Turaco family, as is its counterpart, Turacoverdin, that gives some turacos their green hues.
7. White-Browed Robin Chat
Photograph by Dirk Human
Another bird that is heard more than it is seen, the white-browed robin chat has a beautiful melodious call, which we often associate with the robins. This bird has also changed its name, as it used to be called the Heuglin’s robin (after German explorer Theodor von Heuglin) but it is its distinctive white eyebrow that gives it its name today.
Leopards and cheetahs are two very different cats and yet so often people get them mixed up. Let’s discuss some of the obvious and not-so-obvious …
Leopards and cheetahs are two very different cats and yet so often people get them mixed up. What I’d like to do is share some of the obvious and not-so-obvious differences so that you won’t have a problem telling them apart again.
Size and body shape:
Although cheetah are taller at the shoulder than a leopard and therefore stand higher above the ground, they are substantially more slender in build. The weight of a male cheetah is about 54kg and a female about 43kg. Male leopards in this area weigh closer to 60-70kg and the females 30-40kg. These rather insignificant weight differences may make you think that they look very similar but this is not the case.
A cheetah is much more slender in build. Notice the small head, long body, thin stomach, high chest and exposed shoulder blades.
Notice the robust body structure of these leopards. Even the female leopard in the foreground of this photograph is stockier and stronger than the male cheetah in the photograph above.
Remember that a cheetah is the fastest land mammal and is built for speed. As such, a lot of their muscle has been sacrificed to make them more stream-lined. They have very long bodies with an unusually flexible spine to allow for rapid changes in direction when following prey and their head and forequarters are petite. These cats will capture their prey by tripping them using their dew claws rather than leaping on them and therefore do not need as much strength. A leopard on the other hand is a stalk-and-pounce predator and needs to get close to its prey before leaping on it. It often has to crouch, low to the ground, for long periods of time and is therefore much more stocky and strong, with much bigger muscles around the shoulders and neck.
A cheetah chases after an impala. The antelope that these cheetah hunt are incredible quick and so cheetah have had to evolve to cope with this.
A female leopard displays the stalk and pounce method of hunting described above.
Shape of tail:
A cheetah’s tail is also much more flat in shape. Almost think of it as a rudder that the cheetah can use to steer itself when it’s running at top speeds. A leopard’s tail is much more tubular in shape. The importance of the tail for a leopard is balance, particularly when they’re hoisting carcasses, climbing up and down trees or teetering on spindly branches high above the ground.
Notice the flat, wide, rudder-like shape of this cheetah’s tail.
The Mashaba young female uses her tail for balance as she ascends this Tamboti tree.
The tail of a leopard curled up. This photograph shows the tubular shape very clearly.
Cheetah have spots where leopards have rosettes. The spot of a cheetah is a clear, single, black spot separated from the other spots on the cat’s body. A leopard however, has smaller irregular shaped spots that group together in circles to form rosettes. Have a look at the photographs below to see the difference.
Notice the individual spots on the cheetah’s coat.
Notice the black spots that form a rosette on a leopard.
Another fairly obvious distinction is the markings on the face of a cheetah. Cheetah have black ‘tear marks’ that streak from the inner corner of their eyes and down their cheeks. We are not sure what the reason for these markings is but one theory suggests that it helps to absorb sunlight and reduce glare into the cat’s eyes while it hunts during the day. These markings are completely missing from a leopard’s face. A cheetah also has more amber coloured eyes as opposed to the more green-blue colour of a leopard’s eyes.
Leopards have bigger front feet than back feet due to their large heads and necks, necessary for hoisting carcasses. The front feet carry the weight of the heavy forequarters of the leopard and are therefore bigger to compensate for this. The cheetah on the other hand requires explosive speed and therefore has really big back feet that allow for massive acceleration.
This leads us onto their claw structure. Because cheetah require rapid acceleration and because they are turning at such high speeds, they have non-retractable claws to give them extra traction. Leopards on the other hand, do not need this as much and so their claws retract. Leopards will only use their claws when necessary, such as when climbing trees, jumping on prey or fighting for example. Even if you only look at the tracks of these animals, you should see this difference immediately.
Even though this cheetah is stretching and clawing the tree, these claws will be exposed at all times to allow for better traction when chasing prey.
A close up of a leopard’s paw, showing how the claws are retractable.
The track of a cheetah, showing the claw marks clearly on the ground
The track of a leopard, which lacks any claw mark indentations.
These animals also favour fairly different habitats. Because a cheetah hunts at speeds of 114km/hr, they need fairly open spaces to get to those speeds safely. Leopards on the other hand, hunt by using their camouflage rather than sheer speed and so they prefer to roam through areas that are much more densely covered and which make it easier for them to hide in. Although the habitats of these cats do overlap, there are definitely areas that are more suitable for one than for the other.
Cheetahs prefer big open spaces. This makes it easier for them to hunt as well as stay safe because they are more likely to spot larger predators from far away and can then make a hasty escape.
Leopards, however, prefer to hunt and spend time in much thicker vegetation.
Leopards also spend a lot more time in trees than cheetah. Although a cheetah can climb a tree, they are not nearly as strong as a leopard and certainly wouldn’t be able to hoist a kill into a tree. Sometimes they will leap onto fallen over trees or scramble into the lower, more sturdy branches of a tree to gain a good vantage point but they are not nearly as comfortable above the ground as leopards are.
A cheetah utilises this fallen tree as a vantage point from which to scan for prey.
A female leopard rests comfortable in the boughs of this tree, high above the ground.
Cheetah are diurnal cats meaning they move about more during the day than at night and leopards are nocturnal cats, moving about more frequently at night than during the day. Again, this is not always the case and cheetah may well be found hunting under the light of a full moon but typically they will avoid moving around when larger predators are more likely to be active.
Because cheetah are physically weaker than leopards and are lower down on the predator hierarchy, they also have a lower survival rate with their cubs. As a result cheetah normally give birth to 4-6 cubs, hoping that they will be able to get some of these to independence. Leopards on the other hand normally give birth to 2, sometimes 3 cubs because they have a slightly better chance of raising them successfully.
Four cheetah cubs rest below the stomach of their mother. Female cheetah can have as many as 6 cubs in one litter.
The Mashaba female and her most recent litter of two cubs. Although female leopards can give birth to three cubs, it is much more common for them to only have two per litter.
Relationship to humans:
Although both species are generally quite fearful of humans in the wild; cheetah are even more so than leopards. Although there are many records of leopards killing humans in the wild, there is not a single report of a cheetah having done so. In fact in the past, cheetah were even domesticated by Indian sheiks and kept as pets where this is not possible with a leopard.
The Mzanzeni female snarls as a hyena strolls past. In general, leopards are also more aggressive towards humans than cheetah.
Let’s talk about low level photography, which is the nemesis of most visitors to the African bush or when shooting wildlife when they travel.
For seasoned professionals and beginners alike, low-light photography can be frustrating. Be it in the dead of night or just before sunrise, or even on a cloudy day, the lack of adequate light can wreak havoc with your photographs. I know how frustrating it can be to not have a single photo come out the way I envisaged, especially when right next to me other photographers are producing crystal clear, razor sharp images. Some may argue that it simply comes down to better and more expensive equipment, and although I will agree to a certain extent, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to capture at least a few decent photographs with some very intermediate camera gear.
Let’s look at a few situations in which light becomes a problem, and how you should handle them…
First and foremost, I want to say that low-light photography is like being in a relationship; you need to make a decision and you need to commit. Now while many will say that I’m the last person that should be dispensing relationship advice, and I’ll agree, that doesn’t mean the low-light thing is wrong. When confronted with a low-light situation, you need to decide what type of photograph you want to take and adjust your settings accordingly. The adjustments required can sometimes be minor, but most of the time they involve the manual manipulation of a number of settings, and switching back and forth between picture modes is going to be inconvenient and time consuming. Decide what you want, adjust your settings and go for it.
Please note that for the purposes of this blog, all settings discussed will be based on the camera being in Aperture Priority mode. That is Av on Canon Cameras and A on Nikon.
Low Light With No Movement
This is the easiest situation to have to deal with low-light in; when your subject isn’t moving. Stabilise, stabilise, stabilise, should be your mantra, so if you’re not shooting with a beanbag or a monopod, or at the very least resting your camera on something stable, you can forget about a decent picture. If the camera is dead still and your subject is also still, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to capture a sharp image with even a slow shutter speed. Take a look at the following photo of the now-deceased Tu-Tones male leopard:
This picture was taken at 1/25s shutter speed at dusk. Any photographer will tell you that this is an abominably slow shutter speed for wildlife photography, yet because I had the camera stable and the leopard wasn’t moving, the picture came out sharp. This was also taken when I was just starting out with photography, and was using a Canon 1000D (the equivalent of the Canon Rebel XS in the USA), which does not have great low-light capabilities, yet it shows what can happen if you have decent stability of the camera and an immobile subject.
Low Light With Movement
This is now getting more into the tricky end of the spectrum. If you are reasonably familiar with the exposure triangle, you will know that a lot of photography is about compromise. To capture a sharp image of movement, you need a high shutter speed. If you want to maintain high shutter speeds in low light, you need to do two things; boost your ISO and widen your aperture. Higher end cameras these days perform superbly at high ISOs. Whereas a few years ago one would notice some serious noise creeping into pictures at anything over 1000 ISO, these days some cameras can be shooting at closer to 6000 without noticeable difference.
Secondly, by opening your aperture as wide as you can, you allow the maximum amount of light to enter the lens, thereby maximising shutter speed. The extent to which you can open your aperture will be dependent on the lens you are using. Most beginner to amateur lenses will have a maximum aperture of between 4 and 5.6, while more expensive lenses will go to 2.8, 2 or even wider in some shorter lenses.
Back to what we were talking about; a high shutter speed in low light will generally need a significant boost in ISO and the widest aperture possible to achieve. Your ranger will know how to make these adjustments for you. Of course, you want to have the camera stable again, so use a beanbag or some kind of mount.
A photo that doesn’t quite work. This was taken with a Canon 1000D at an aperture of f4. My ISO was on 1600, and the best shutter speed I could get with those settings was 1/15th of a second, which is nowhere near fast enough to freeze motion. No matter how still I held the camera, the movement of the lions as they fed on the kill was always going to make for a blurred and unclear image.
Eventually though, especially if you’re not shooting with top-of-the-line gear, you are going to run into a wall. You won’t be able to raise your ISO anymore, and your aperture will be as wide as it can go. Don’t despair, as you still have a couple of options, but we’ll only go into two here.
Your first option is to use a spotlight. A spotlight can be a wonderful tool to provide extra light even before darkness has fallen, or before the sun has come up. It can also be very effective on a cloudy/rainy day.
Even though the sun had not yet risen, I was able to get a reasonably sharp image of the Matimba males walking, thanks to Trevor McCall-Peat using a spotlight from the next vehicle to provide some extra illumination.
Another option is to change your metering mode and use the spotlight without a filter, although this is something one has to be sensitive about in order to not impact the animal(s) you are viewing. It is best used when there is still some light so the contrast between the ambient light and the spotlight beam is not too great.
Most of the time your camera will be using what is known as Evaluative Metering. This is when it looks at 90% of the image, asseses the amount of light available, and makes calculations accordingly as to what exposure to give. If you are using a spotlight on beam with Evaluative Metering, you will most likely get a picture with a completely blown out area where the light is shining, surrounded by blackness.
Spot Metering is different in that it only takes an area roughly 5% of the total image size and calculates the exposure required based thereon. This point will be where the little dot in your viewfinder is (your focus point for most cameras, unless you have customised your camera buttons, which is a post for another day).
Now, by pointing the beam of the spotlight on the subject and focusing your camera on where that beam is illuminating, the camera will disregard all the darkness in the rest of the photo and calculate a shutter speed based on the amount of light it sees at that point.
The various icons for metering modes on a Canon camera. Disregard the Partial and Centre-weighted Average for now.
This photo of the 4:4 male was taken using Spot Metering mode. The camera disregarded what was happening in the rest of the picture and only calculated shutter speed based on the amount of light coming off his head. My ISO was on 1250 and my aperture was as wide as I could make it (2.8), and from these I was able to get a shutter speed of 1/1000s – more than enough to freeze the action.
Note that the closer a subject is to the light source (spotlight in this case), the more light your camera will be able to pick up. Again though, sensitivity must be stressed. Using a bright spotlight beam can potentially be intrusive, so we minimise its use; a quick photo and then we put the filter back on, which casts a much softer glow on everything.
Apart from switching to Spot Metering, a Panning photo is a good second choice when the light is low, although this can be very hit-or-miss.
A panning photo involves a slow shutter speed, and the tracking of the animal with your camera, keeping th ehead in focus while blurring the background to create the impression of movement. This is what I was talking about at the start of the post when saying how you should choose what type of photo you want to get and stick with it, as switching from panning settings to spot metering and trying everything in between is only going to make things confusing.
For a decent panning shot, I recommend a shutter speed of between 1/50s to 1/80s, although if an animal is moving quickly you can still get decent motion blur at 1/125s and above. Focus on the face of the animal you are photographing and pan the camera along with its movement across your field of view. Take as many photos as you can to maximise your chances of capturing a usable one; if you have a Continuous Shooting mode on your camera, I suggest using it. Ideally, you should get at least one photo with this kind of effect:
A spotted hyena drags an impala carcass back to its densite. A slower shutter speed of 1/50s was just enough to keep the hyena’s face relatively sharp while blurring the background.
The beauty of digital photography is that you can snap away and not pay for extra pictures, so practice as much as you can. In the next couple of weeks we will delve a bit deeper into proper night-time photography and look at Manual Mode, in which you have full control of your settings.
Ultimately, it is important to recognise when the scene in front of you does not lend itself to photography in the slightest. At that point it’s important to put the camera down and just soak it all in…
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