The Himalayan understudy

16 07 2014

One of the most sought after animal species in the world to see and photograph has to be the secretive snow leopard, and rightly so, but what most people don’t know, is what else is also running around high up on the Himalayas. The main prey species for the snow leopard is the blue sheep, or bharal to the locals.  These antelopes (the name is quite misleading – it is not a sheep at all, but a true antelope) generally live high up in the mountains between 4000 – 6500 meters (13000 – 21500 feet).  Their ability to manoeuvre up and down seriously steep cliff faces is remarkable, and is often their go-to defence against the smarts and cunning of the snow leopards. They come down into the valleys in the late afternoon, which is when they are at their most vulnerable.  If they get spooked while in the valley, they scramble for the nearest cliff, at a speed that makes you feel like a geriatric tortoise on a treadmill.  It is simply stunning watching these antelope navigate the rocky slopes of the mighty Himalayas.

The only way to see them and possibly get some photographs is unfortunately to climb up the mountains yourself, which starting at 400 meters is no easy feat.  On the up side, when they are comfortably settled on a sheer cliff face, they generally stand still and let their camouflage do the work, allowing you to get close enough to photograph them.  Once you get into position, have found your lungs again and managed to catch your breath, they are well worth the effort.  Their markings are striking, their behaviour both fascinating and slightly comical, and you really feel privileged to be in the company of a brilliantly designed animal.  The only trick left is getting back down the mountain…

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When tigers play the game

25 06 2014

Photographing wildlife usually involves a lot of patience, and a lot of frustration.  This is normally the case, but sometimes it all comes together and you find yourself in the right place at the right time.  This is what happened when I was hosting a photographic safari in India.

Photographing tigers is a tricky business; they are designed to not be seen, which always makes things a little interesting. The next part of the challenge is finding a tiger that is happy to be photographed and comes and sits right out in the open.  Given the dense jungles of India, this doesn’t happen very often, but we have managed to find a place where the tigers are quite at ease in the open meaning they can be found with some regularity, giving us good shot.  On my recent photographic safari, we managed to find a large male, who was playing the game.  We found him lying down in a dried up river bed, quite a distance away from us, and decided to wait with him to see if he came any closer.  A solid two and a half hours later, he did just that, and let me tell you, it was worth the wait!  He approached us directly giving us great head-on photos, before moving past us while stalking a spotted deer.  He then made his way, very casually, to a small water hole where he stopped for a late afternoon drink before flopping down into the water to cool off.  Needless to say, the cameras were clicking away furiously!  It was photographic heaven.

I will be leading the Tiger Safari again next year, and cannot wait to see if we can see more of the same from these enormous cats!

To join us on safari, click here!





Searching for snow leopards: Part 2

24 02 2014

Attempting to follow the tracks of a wild snow leopard is a fool’s game, but we were fools on a mission, and when we woke on the fifth morning of our safari to find two sets of tracks that went straight through the camp (literally within fifty meters [±150 ft] of my tent), we were off like a shot.  The camera bag with all the attachments got slung on my back in no time, and the trek up the valley began.  This is one of those moments where you need the utmost speed, but that speed is a gentle walk at best (the altitude still winning all the fights).  We made good time, but not snow leopard time.  By lunch, the tracks were starting to melt in the warm minus three-degree (26°F) sun, and I actually think we were further away form the leopards than we were when we started in the morning.  The walk back down the valley was a little disappointing, but we were one step closer than we had been on the previous few days.

The sixth morning started out the same way – two sets of tracks walking right alongside the camp, but this time in the other direction.  Realising the optimism involved with attempting to track a snow leopard high in the Himalayas, we were gearing up a little slower than the previous morning, understanding better that we were perhaps ill-equipped physically to track down these two cats.  A cup of tea later, and a very excited guide came running up the valley towards our camp (yes, the guides can actually run up there, they don’t seem affected by the altitude at all; read jealousy) waving his arms, and telling us they have found the leopards!

Packs on, tea drunk and doing the fastest slow walk I could muster, I was racing down the valley, heading in the direction of the tracks.  We found the guide who had spotted the cats sitting up on a ridge, so made the climb to join him.  Trying to look through the spotting scope while dry heaving is not the easiest, but the leopards were indeed sitting in the middle of the spotting scope.  They were easily three kilometres away!  We made our way as close as possible, (still between one and a half and two kilometres away) and spent the rest of the day watching the cats.  The cameras were quite ineffectual until late in the afternoon when they started to move around.  Even then, the best I managed was a record shot.

The last day, and our last chance to try get a good photograph of wild snow leopard.  There were tracks in the snow, high above our camp heading up a different valley.  We gave it a shot, as it was all we had.  We made it quite far up the valley, but all the signs of the leopard had disappeared.  Now knowing the capabilities of the snow leopard, it came as no surprise that the cat had long gone, leaving us guessing, again.  We did get a quick glimpse of a Himalayan wolf, a very difficult species to see, so that felt like the reward for the long trek.  We decided to head back to camp slowly, having one last look through the valley in a desperate attempt to get the photographs we had dreamed of.  One of our guides had gone on ahead, and we spread ourselves throughout the valley, searching every crevasse, every rock ledge, and every possible snow leopard looking bump.

The call came in, and just from the tone of the voice on the other side of the radio, I knew we were in business.  The guide that went ahead had spotted a snow leopard sitting on a rocky ledge, not too far from the trail.  With full gear on and in the snow and ice, I ‘ran’ (walked quickly) as fast as I could down the trail to where the guide was waiting.  It took a while to see it, mostly because I couldn’t breath.  Before I had even confirmed its position, I had the camera setup, and was ready to shoot.  There she was, sitting behind a rock, just the tail sticking out (well done to the guide on that spot).  It took a freezing couple of hours for her to move about, but when she did, I was in heaven!  All the hard work, all the planning, all the pain of walking up those mountains and valleys, all worth it for a ten-minute show that to me is priceless.  I got images I never dreamed I would get and I got to experience a moment with a snow leopard I never thought possible.  The moment was ended soon after she went over the ridge by fingers that felt like they were about to fall off, and my body was shaking uncontrollably from the cold, but the walk back to camp was the easiest walk I have done in years.





Searching for snow leopards: Part 1

21 02 2014

Heading into the Himalayas to search for the elusive snow leopard, two things immediately struck me – the incredible beauty of these mountains, and the enormity of the task at hand.  The realisation that followed shortly after (when disembarking the aeroplane), was that this was not going to be a warm safari – a cool minus five degrees Celsius (23°F) welcomed us (what turned out to be a rather warm minus five, things would only get colder).  After spending two days acclimatising to the new (and for most people, extreme) altitude we headed into the snow leopard reserve to begin our search, and take on this seemingly futile challenge.

I only had one real hope for this safari, and that was to see a wild snow leopard, photographing one would be a bonus. My dream was realised on the very first morning!  After a rather chilly minus fifteen degree (5°F) sleep in a tent that offered little to no protection from the elements, it was a great surprise to wake up to two snow leopards (a mother and a sub-adult cub) taking a rest on the ridge above the camp.  The ridge was quite a distance away, and even the big lenses struggled to find the cats, but alas, there they were.  Not only had I seen wild snow leopards, I had a cup of tea in my hand at the same time.  Very civilised. This was a great bit of luck, but it was also the last bit of luck we would have for a few days, as things got really tough from there on.

Temperatures dropped, as did reports of snow leopards along with any other signs of the big cats.  The next two days were spent trekking high up into the mountains to no avail.  The satisfaction of already having seen the leopards was pretty much the only thing to hold on to (the ridges we were climbing were very steep with no vegetation, so there was literally nothing else to hold on to).  The assault predicted on the legs and lungs was in full swing, and even the most remedial task (like putting on your shoes) took all your breath away – a ten-meter walk felt like a ten kilometre hike.  Things were tough…

A nightlong snowfall changed our luck a little.  We were now able to spot the tracks of the snow leopards, and this we did. There was great excitement around camp, when we found a set of tracks high on the mountain, and began to follow.  Unfortunately, the great distances that these magnificent cats travel, and the speed at which they travel left us chasing a ghost, but at least there were now signs that the cats were back in the area.





A taste of India

9 05 2013

The mysterious sub-continent of India has a lot to offer wildlife photographers, but like many, I went there really only hoping to see one thing – the magnificent Bengal tiger!  I was living out my dream to see one of these awesome predators recently on a photographic safari, and had more luck than I could have ever expected.

 

Things started off slowly with no tiger action on the first two drives, but they did give us a glimpse of the extreme beauty that the Indian landscape has to offer.  Wild peacocks, jungle fowl and treepie’s were out in full force adding colour to the bush that was drying up in the anticipation of summer.  Spotted deer (the tiger’s most common prey) and the unusual looking barking deer would pop up from time to time, giving our cameras practice runs for when they were aimed at the prized target.  The real excitement of the first two safaris however, was the anticipation of seeing a wild tiger. We searched through the thick forest vegetation, finding nothing but tracks (which were photographed of course); we waited at the popular waterholes with only the playful langur monkeys coming down to greet us; we would even stop and listen at random intervals for sounds that a tiger was near – all very exciting stuff.  As much as I enjoy the anticipation of seeing a tiger, it was dwarfed by the excitement, on our third drive, when we heard the gruff call of a tigress nearby.  The engines started up, and we raced off in the direction of that beautiful sound.  Two minutes later, I was clicking away furiously as my first wild tigress walked straight towards us.  We must have looked ridiculous – a vehicle where only smiles and cameras could be seen!  It was a truly fantastic sensation to be in the presence of such a marvelous animal.

 

We had the privilege of seeing six different tigers during the photo safari, all of which were relaxed with vehicle and very obliging to the cameras.

I have added a short video from the safari below, have a look and let me know what you think!

To join me on safari, click here!