Bless the rains down in Africa. Part I
As a wildlife photographer I have been neglecting Africa from the get go. The African wildlife has been so heavily featured in every documentary that I didn't really feel like doing something that's been overdone. But when it was suggested that I go shoot jumping caracals in Namibia I did listen. Caracals haven't been overdone and they are truly impressive little hunters. I've admired them for a long time and here was this chance to shoot them with a lot of artistic freedom. And even though this was not the hardcore wildlife photography I hope to do more of in life, it was an interesting and valuable experience. With completely wild animals you never get this much flexebility and control over the process, you have to take what is given and that's it, no do-overs. Yes, you may do small things to improve your chances, but at the end of the day it is not you who has the final say. Here I had a chance to realise some of my ideas without waiting for ten years to get the shot I want. Overall, a nice change of pace, especially since I needed some positive results for inspiration.
I will not name the location where I worked those three days, but I will say that the cats I worked with came from a facility that does rescue, research and conservation work. But since not all animals can be returned to the wild, they become animal ambassadors and movie stars to earn money that will be used to save those who can be rehabilitated. This facility has worked with major photographers and filmmakers from agencies that include Animal planet, BBC and National Geographic. Not everything can be shot in the wild and not everyone in the photographic and film industry has the opportunity of working in the field for years and years like some scientists do to capture the one image. As long as we act ethically towards the animals and are honest about the source of our material, I believe that animal photography of this kind has a full right to exhist. And as for "lazy photography", well, let me tell you, some of these shots took more effort and patience than shooting real wildlife from a jeep. The animals are not tame or trained. They are just too familiar with humans to be safely released into the wild and can be asked to work with you. Doesn't mean they will. They live in very large enclosures where they are even able to hunt, and if they don't feel like interacting with you, they can just disappear into the bush and that's it, they're done for the day. At times it took a lot of coaxing and cajoling to simply make the animal walk where I needed it, or walk instead of trotting.
I worked with a wonderful team that was utterly devoted to their furry charges and also understood the needs of a photographer. Meeting people like that is also one of the things I love about being a wildlife photographer, these encounters can be very inspirational, not to mention educational. It was a great experience and I am greatful for it, so I will put credits at the end of my last entry about this trip. I immensely enjoyed working and talking to these people and I hope the results we got do justice to their commitment and their beloved animals.
I had four shoots with the cats, so on the day of my arrival we went for an evening session with three caracals. Unfortunatelly, we did start a bit early, so it was just too hot for the cats. They needed to take frequent lie-downs in the shadows and utterly refused to do more than hiss at each other. Instead of competing for food, they settled their disputes quite politely. But the time when the cats were resting like they had some Caracal Professional Union work regulations gave me a chance to see their personalities. I fell in love with the older female, Medusa. She was a darling, always purring, rubbing her head against my legs and asking everybody for backrubs. The younger girl, Misty, was a rascal with the cutest face. She looked sweet but liked to bite bagpacks and peoples' legs. And as it turns out, you really, really don't want a caracal to bite you, because it would take the jaws of life to pry them off you. So every time Misty approached me, I started moving around a little, but one time I did get distracted and missed her. Next thing I felt was a sweet kitty rubbing against me, then she wrapped a paw around my leg (no claws!) and bit down. Luckily, I was wearing baggy jeans, so all Misty got was a mouthfull of coarse fabric. She let go quickly and I got the impression this was more of a love bite that many cats do, rather that an attempt on my life.
Jupiter, being the less familiarized of the group, spent most of his time just hissing at everyone and occasionally arguing with the females over a piece of meat. This cat is actually an interesting case. He represents а problem that caracals experience in captivity. The kittens born in captivity and raised by their mothers (which is better for their chances of rehabilitation into the wild) have a horrible condition - brittle bones. For a cat whose life depends on athletic jumps in the wild it is a death sentence. However, handraised kittens who are fed the proper predator formula develop normally, but they get familiarized with humans in the process and that undermines the succes of their return into the wild. So far it is not clear what's going on there, but somehow the mother's milk in captivity lacks the calcium the kitten needs to develop properly. Why this happens, noone knows. Perhaps, as the cat gets heavier from her pregnancy she cannot preform those famous leaps and her diet changes. Something is going on there and I hope researchers will find an answer one day so that these cats can be raised strong and healthy and be returned to the wild where they belong.
Anyway, Jupiter could not jump (he did try to climb a tree stump once and he does jump occasionally, but not for photo sessions), so it was up to the girls to show me what caracals can do. Oh boy... seeing it on screen is one thing, but to see it in real life... It's like a tightly wound coil suddenly springs, bullet fast and precise. The tan body that seemed so soft and relaxed suddenly turns into a muscular missile, twisting and contorting as it flies through the air. And then the cat lands and it is a plushy cutie once again. It's over in a blink of an eye.
That evening I was just getting to know my subject, so it took a little time to figure out the trajectories, the phases of the jumps, so that I could predict the movement and work out the necessary technical details for capturing exactly what I wanted. The younger girl Misty was more athletic, but every time she jumped she turned her face away from the camera. After a few attempts it was clear that when she was positioned with her left side to me she turned right every jump. We started positioning her with her right shoulder to me and it did get better, but she was getting tired. With the boy and the youngster out of action Medusa entered the scene and showed us all how it's done. Yes, she was heavier and slower than Misty, but she was the better performer that day. She jumped with lazy grace and showed her sweet face and cuddly belly every time. Some caracal Kungfu performed by an old master.
This lovely older cat did get tired pretty soon and she got her well-deserved reward and a bit of rest while Misty took center stage.
Now that it was cooler she was much more cooperative and gladly climbed up a dead tree trunk. Even though caracals are more of a ground level cat and roam Asian and African landscapes that aren't that rich in trees - savanna, semi-desert, dry woodland, arid hilly steppe, and dry mountains, they have been known to climb trees to hide their larger prey from other predators and are good climbers. And here you can see the long powerful legs that help these cats jump so high. With their back limbs that much longer than their front legs, caracals aren't great runners, but as an ambush predator running isn't the skill they need too often. They are the fastest and largest of African small cats.
Another eye-catching feature is the caracal's ear tufts. For a while these tufts threw off the biologists who had to classify the caracal. The cat has ear tufts of a lynx and the morphology of a cougar, but the latest studies show that it is much more closely related to the African Golden cat and another African wonder cat - the Serval. Right now the caracal has its own Genus with several subspecies. As of 2017 three subspecies are oficially recognized and mentioned in English scientific literature whereas the Middle-Eastern, Russian and Asian biologists recognize 8-9 caracal subspecies. But getting back to the ear tufts, they are actually the feature that gave this cat its name. The word caracal comes from Turkic 'kara', black, and 'kulak', ear. There are several theories as to why these tufts have become so prominent a feature, but the one people are going with these days is that the cats use the tufts for communication. The message Misty was trying to get across? GIMME!
As you may remember from my recent post about the Leipzig Zoo, I had and idea about cheetah eyelashes. So when on the day of my arrival Colette proposed that we devote one of our four sessions to cheetahs, I jumped at the opportunity. My idea was not something that you could easily arrange in a zoo and definately not something I would soon get in the wild. But oh boy, I got so much more than I expected!
I always start very early, so my team picked me up at 5.30 AM and took me to meet the cheetahs, scout their enclosure for best shooting angles and set up. I always say that I can eat and sleep when I get home. So far this working habit of mine has served me well. Even if it's too early or too late to shoot I get to see beautiful things.
I was working with four cheetahs, one of which was a male and first to greet me. During the entire work process all of these cats were purring so hard and it was one of the loveliest sounds in the world, I swear! I was warned in advance that cheetahs aren't the sharpest tools in the shed and Kovu, the boy, also was dubbed Mr.Duh (at one point drool actually came out of his mouth in a long string). At first I didn't believe it, but soon it was proven to be true. Especially for Kovu, bless his heart. He was happy and more eager to cooperate than the still sleepy girls, but whenever he did something right it was more likely on accident than on purpose. But the cats were so mellow and friendly that even when they were being slow (and wow, cheetahs can be slow!) or only agreed to work for chicken and we had to wait for some to be brought in, I didn't get agitated or annoyed. I was loving the whole experience. Gold morning and purring cheetahs and life was just wonderful.
Since this part of Namibia hasn't seen rains in decades until very few days ago, everything green was growing and blooming. So I found this spot with lovely tufted grass and we concentrated on getting the cats to pose there.
I moved around to find more angles and look for different takes on the scene. And I got two of my favorite shots.
Meanwhile the girls were mostly messing around. They went to study my gear and dropped the tripod. After toppling it and scaring themselves, like any cat does, they pretended nothing happened. Cats just never change no matter their shape or size. After that two sisters, Amber and Athena, decided to take a pause to play a little.
Roadie (aka Roadkill Cheetah) climbed a tree. I've never heard of a tree-climbing cheetah, but here you go. Kovu tried to go after her, but instead got himself stuck, not knowing what to do and blocking Roadie's way down. It was hilarious to see him try and figure it all out, you could hear the gears turning in his straining mind! They figured it out eventually, taking the easy way out and just jumping off. By the way, note that slope in Roadie's spine. Apparently, only wild cheetahs have that posture, and since Roadie was raised in the wild until her mom was killed by a car (hence the name), she retained it. She was also the first one to start climbing trees, is better at it and the only one who seems to understand the purpose of it. The rest of them really suck at climbing and do not understand why they are doing it whenever they take a shot at it.
Now that I had nice wider-angle shots it was time to work on portraints. The light was still very gentle and romantic, but that wouldn't last too long.
I was fixated on getting a shot that showcases the eyelashes. But shooting fom the level of the cat didn't yield the results I wanted. The cat's eyes were set too deep. Even getting a little below the cat didn't work. What was I to do?
Go even lower. There was a mound in the enclosure and while I didn't really like it, it was a good place to try and get the headshot I wanted. The mound had a ditch right in front of it, so when Amber went high, I went low. And we got the shot.
I think this was a great shoot and an absolutely precious overall experience. I will add the golden cheetahs to my treasure collection of good memories and a cheetah might pop into my mind the next time I hear Sting's "Fields of gold".
TO BE CONTINUED...