Bless the rains down in Africa. Part III
The main focus of my visit to Namibia were, of course, the caracals. And though Medusa showed me a few jumps, I was supposed to have a shoot with two jumping stars - two big powerful males called Luna and BC. These guys were much less familiarized with people and inhabited a large enclosure. We went to see them in the afternoon, but it soon became obvious that even for these wilder boys something was off. They showed practically no interest in communicating with us except to do a lot of hissing, kept a great distance between us and themselves, all while we were losing daylight. Colette, the producer, was getting worried, but she was more upset than I was. Working with animals means you can't take anything for granted. Nature is unpredictable, you just have to accept it. So I was pretty chill about it. Colette was having none of that though. She and the animal wrangler Armand went searching in the bushes for the cats and found a big bunch of feathers instead. A fresh kill. No wonder the boys didn't feel like working, their bellies were full! We did find out something important - the cats, apparently, could successfully hunt in their enclosure. Valuable info, but I wasn't there for studies on habitat enrichment.
We decided to keep a few other cats hungry for next day's shoot and go see if we could get face time with anyone else. Colette promised me I would get my shots tomorrow and there was iron determination in her voice. I still tried to convey my understanding of the whole thing, but I was very touched by the will and the effort to get me the material I came for.
This was all I got from the jumping aces.
Of all the animals that were available and willing to cooperate I chose the leopards. First of all, they are just so, so beautiful. Second of all, whenever I see leopards in zoos, they are usually put in enclosures with mesh or dense rows of bars or something of the sort. These precautions all make sense, leopards are bold, agile, intelligent and aggressive. But all of that fencing makes it hard to photograph them, so I thought it would be nice to add some leopard shots to my collection. I didn't have much daylight left, so the decision was made quickly.
This gorgeous lady was called Shakira. She had a male living with her, but he was not inclined to do much. He used to be a pet, but since people who get exotic pets rarely know how to take good care of them, he was in poor condition when he arrived at the rescue center. He was very used to people, which made him much more dangerous. Anyways, this boy was being a brat, he just flopped on his belly, made a lot of weird sounds I didn't even know were in a leopard's vocabulary and pawed the dust. He wanted treats and attention and refused to move at all. Shakira acted with more dignity.
Exotic pets were a major discussion point during my visit. A lot of animals I met were former pets and suffered greatly as such. For example, remember big cheetah Kovu? When he arrived at the sanctuary he was barely a skeleton with weak bent legs. Now, under expert care, he's a beauty. And I have to be honest, it vexes me so much that people consider it acceptable to purchase animals they know nothing about to keep as entertainment or status symbols. Even for scientists it takes a lot of efforts to provide for the needs of captive wild animals, so I cannot understand what makes some people act on childish impulses to grab onto any remotely cute wild animal. It's one thing to set up a terrarium for a pet store gekko and completely another - to try and keep a wild cat. This isn't the first time I encountered this issue, but every time I do it's just so frustrating. A lot of people struggle even with cats and dogs and yet we have an appaling fashion to get wild animals for pets.
There is a reason why animals that have been sometimes used in ancient times, like caracals and cheetahs, weren't properly domesticated. There's a survival rule that my dad taught me that I feel can be applied here just as well. If you see something you want to grab, ask yourself why noone has done it before you. Think, people! Think! We had plenty of time to see what suits domestication best and there's a reason why some domestication experiments stood the trial of time and some didn't.
My mother used to quote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry to me when I was little: “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” I meet these animals, I see their personality and I understand why people might want to connect with them. What I fail to understand is why they attempt to do it in a market consumer fashion. When there's a need for human involvement in the lives of wild animals it should be done responsibly and with certain expertise.
I am sorry for the rant, I don't intend to preach, but this is something that struck a nerve with me and I wanted to get it off my chest. Let's continue with the story.
Even though all she was chasing were little bits of meat, the fraction of Shakira's intensity that blead into that action was chilling.
I now love leopards even more than I used to.
To top it off I was treated to a breathtaking fiery sunset.
One session left and the pressure was on to get good caracal shots. We had a pretty extensive itinerary, there was a lot of ground to cover. One of my ideas was to film a caracal in some flowers carpeting the open spaces of the free range. Jumping cats were also still on the to-do list. We started very early. We had to pick up Misty, drive out to our location in the wide open savannah, set up at the right angle and prepare to shoot. Since it was Misty (aka Miss Bitey) we were dealing with, Colette invited an extra person to work with us. This man's task was to watch out for Misty and not let her get close to me, because to photograph her I would have to lay on the ground. Very, very unnerving when you're dealing with an animal notorious for a habit of locking jaws on human flesh. He also kept my bagpack safe, because I had to take my flash with me and needed the bagpack for the extra equipment, so I'm grateful for that too.
The sunrise was spectacular.
Misty was in a wonderful mood. She was very happy to go for a long walk in the open field and seemed to love everyone and everything around her. She was even kneading the ground with her paws and purring like crazy. But she was a bit hyper and distracted, so we decided to start her off with a few jumps, just to work off the excess energy. Little did I realize at that moment that a simple excercise would yield one of my favorite shots.
Photographing a jumping caracal is tricky business. These cats are increadibly powerful, so when they launch themselves into the air, they twist a lot and they do it very, very fast. That means that if you focus on the cat there's actually less chance of getting it into focus properly. I had to fall back on my Costa Rica experience to get what I wanted with caracals. Instead of trying to follow the cat with my lens, I focused on the lure. Caracals are good hunters, so their aim is very accurate. For me it meant I could predict where the cat would be and increase my chances of getting nice images. Depending on your artistic goals this strategy may or may not suit you, but for me focusing on the same target as the animal has proven most successful time and time again. I used it with animals as small as bats and as large as a Siberian tiger.
Still, it was a hard task, I don't even want to try and count the number of ruined shots or ones with just the part of the cat. This was a game of numbers and at times it was very frustrating. You try to capture this great cat at its best and you are lucky if you get a charismatic butt shot.
But all of that frustration payed off, because I got the shot. It is one of my favorite images from this trip and it already became editor's choice on NatGeo Russia website. I love it when everything comes together like this - the moment, the light, the mood. That magic is so etheral, so difficult to grasp that it stays with you forever if you manage to succeed.
And personally I adore that little toe sticking out on her hind paw. For some reason caracals do that when they are in this phase of movement - just one toe.
The previous night I wanted a shot of a jumping cat and the moon but didn't get it, but I got a caracal and the sun instead and I ain't complainin'.
Unfortunately, after this experience I have come to a conclusion that it is nigh impossible to get a shot of a jumping wild caracal unless some kind of bait is used. In the wild these cats are so secretive that it is hard just to find one to simply observe, let alone jump, and the jump itself is too quick and unpredictable to be successfully captured without some kind of control over the process.
As it were, Misty worked off some steam, and, as the sun rose, the flowers opened up enough to be filmed. My goal was to get those flowers highlighted by the sun, so they would appear to be glowing. For this I needed a specific angle of light and a very low viewing point. Being a wildlife photographer means you can't be squeamish about getting dirty. Without hesitation I lay myself down on the ground, grateful for the lack of dung (not that that has ever stopped me).
Misty was still playful and lovey-dovey even after her excercise, she would rub her entire body against the rough little bushes, and her short but surprisingly muscular tail would twitch and twist as if it had a mind of its own. That tail was something that surprised me about caracals. It's so strong that when a cat rubs up against your legs, the tail wraps around you like a little arm. Feels weird, but I guess these cats need such a strong tail to perform their stunts.
By the way, if you ever wondered why some wild cats have shorter tails, it's all because of their lifestyles. All short-tailed species are the smaller cats who tend to hunt primarily on the ground. they can still be great climbers, but they will prefer to grab their prey on the ground. Lynx specializes in rabbits, caracals hunt birds on the ground, the Pallas cat hunts small rodents on open plains etc. Here a long tail becomes a liability, it can give away their location to predators (even to their long-tailed cousins who are apex predators and couldn't care less about tail length) or potential prey while not being all that useful in ambush-style hunts. They still use their tails for balance and communication, however. And boy, was Misty chatty that morning!
Here are some bloopers of Misty being cute and silly.
As fun as that was, it wasn't my goal. Misty was asked to walk down an imaginary line where I found the light that I wanted for her. I felt like a fashion photographer asking a model to walk down a catwalk in a certain way. Misty started off walking calmly, but towards the end (which just happened to be the place where I needed her) she would start to trot. I wanted both the cat and the flower to be in focus, so we had to come up with a way of slowing down our feline star.
I'm sure that not everyone would notice that in her trotting images something is off. But I do. Note how her head is raised and even though you are not viewing the phase of the movement from the side, the extra action of her legs is noticeable. Combined together these details change the mood, they add intensity which doesn't fit the serenity of the scene.
I am glad that my team saw my point and figured out a way to slow Misty down. See how much better she looks at a slower pace, relaxed. She's like a Disney princess. This is also one of my personal favorites from this trip.
As you can see here, Misty - Miss I-love-to-munch-on-people - is walking right at me. And I am laying down. Thankfully one of our team would always stand next to me. It was funny how when Misty would get too close for comfort it was enough for the wranglers just to turn her around and she would continue walking in the new direction like nothing happened. The thought of a caracal peeling off my face vanished from my head pretty quickly. I felt totally at ease, trusting my team and even the mischievious Misty.
We tried her with some other flowers and you can see those photos in the album, but since I already showed you my favorite shot, I will move on with the story.
The sun was rising and I still had stuff to do. Misty was getting her belly full of meat which meant that she could bolt into the bush just for the fun of it. Given that this cat lacks the life experience and the fear of humans she needs to survive, that would have been very bad. So we wrapped this session up and took the very happy cat to her enclosure. There she found a cozy spot to rest, flopped on her side and spent the rest of the time grooming herself and resting. She was one happy cat.
Medusa stepped up to the plate to give me some more jumping shots. My, what a sweetheart! Such a gentle and friendly cat! At one point when I directed my attention elsewhere she came up for a back scratch. I moved away to continue working. Medusa looked over her shoulder in slight dismay and backed up her butt closer to me, even vocalizing her demands. I just love getting to know animal characters. And I don't really like antropomorphizing them, because it's so much more interesting to try and understand a mind different to a human, see where we part ways or where we connect. And even though I consider the humans to be essentialy an animal (which, scientifically, we are!) it's much more fun to try and see how animal minds work than to project a human point of view onto them. And it's so satisfying when you do find that understanding, you get a deeper view of things and an appreciation for the diversity of life around you.
This time Medusa was much more willing to jump, but she still looked cute and cuddly while doing it.
She wasn't so cuddly when arguing with poor Jupiter, however. She seemed to dominate him. Even with his disability the larger younger male could have stood up to her, but from what I've seen it's common for males of all feline species to avoid brutal conflicts with females, especially with ones they know.
Medusa apparently has more influence than Misty, because I did see Jupiter acting more confident with Misty than he is around Medusa. I was a little surprised by this, because Medusa is, by caracal standards, an old lady and she does show signs of wear and tear. But she wasn't just irritable, as many older animals tend to be, no, she was bossy! And others seemed very reluctant to challenge her authority, especially Jupiter. Misty even got a smack on the head once, whereas Medusa got mostly defensive hisses and paw swiping. Even though they do not breed, these cats seem to establish the same kind of relationships as if they were at least potential mates. To me this indicates that we should review our perception of cats as "anti-social loners". They may not live in prides or packs, but they do have social interactions and bonds among non-related individuals. With all the misconseptions about cat behavior I think this angle deserves more attention.
And in this particular example I saw how much all cats have in common. My own cat, who is a real tough guy and somewhat crazy, is a complete pushover when it comes to a certain golden butterball with emerald eyes, even though they aren't a breeding pair. And again, he's like that only with one female, the one he's twitterpated with. So cats have their preferences, their own ways of establishhing and maintaining relationships and that seems to be a common thing, not species-specific. They socialize, just not in ways we are used to. This for me is an endless source of interesting personal observations.
By the way, that parallel between Jupiter and my own cat made me sympathize with the male carcal even though I have fallen under the spell of Medusa's charm. Hang in there, bro.
After a nice eventful session Medusa, too, decided to rest. She was confident enough to spend a lot of time just rolling around, exposing her belly and giving me plenty of opportunity to marvel at her cuteness.
This cat has so much character. There's a story I was told that reflects her personality perfectly. One day Medusa escaped her enclosure and went walkabout. Since she's not prepared for survival in the wild, her caretakers were worried sick. A few days later one of the sanctuary staff was returning with a truck full of chicken from Windhoek. On the side of the highway he saw a caracal. The cat was just sitting there calmly, so he stopped, thinking the animal was injured. It was Medusa. She was just fine. She sauntered over to the car and a door was opened for her. She got in like nothing happened and demanded chicken and a ride home. Needless to say, she got what she wanted. What a queen!
Obviously, we were done for the day. I returned to my house to review the footage and look around to see a rare sight around these parts - a storm rolling in.
And here I get to the song that I used to give a title to this story. When I was a toddler, listenning to rock music in the backseat of my dad's car as we travelled for miles and miles, Toto's song "Africa" captivated me. Much later I read that one of the band members described the idea behind the song as "A white boy trying to write a song on Africa, but since he's never been there, he can only tell what he's seen on TV or remembers in the past." I was disheartened, because it didn't feel that way when I was a kid and it didn't feel that way now, when over the entirety of those few days in Africa the song fit perfectly with my admittedly brief experience.
I now got a small taste of what made Hemingway, Durrell and many more fall in love with Africa. There are several places on the world map that possess such inexplicable magnetism. I can't say that this is the place my heart got lost in, but it is a place I want to return to and get to know better.
For now, yeah, I just have to say "I bless the rains down in Africa".
I hope one day my path will lead me back here, but for now I will treasure the memories and the images I take away from this wonderful trip.
My first "thank you" will always go to my loving and supportive family
Veleriy Maleev, for all of his help with this trip and talking me into this in the first place
Sergei and Julia, for taking care of me during my stay
Colette and Armand, for being the greatest team an animal photographer needs
Everyone else who made my life and work that much easier and pleasurable, especially Mr.Hardus Swart who looked out for me during my last shoot and prevented Misty from biting me
My lovely stars Medusa, Misty, Jupiter, Amber, Athena, Roadie, Kovu, Shakira, and even Luna and BC for reminding me never to take animals for granted.