Once-in-a-lifetime sightings are a common theme here at Londolozi Game Reserve, as contradictory as that might sound.
Being in the right place at the right time is one thing but capturing the moment in a photograph is another thing entirely. Having a good camera helps but even then it is often not as simple as it sounds, especially in fading light. I have therefore, taken this opportunity to share a few things that I learnt in a recent sighting. What follows is a sequence of photographs depicting the extraordinary climbing ability and resourcefulness of a hungry female leopard.
The Nanga female, having not fed in some time, had killed a duiker and secured it in a dead Knobthorn tree. From her side, not the smartest move because it stood out like a beacon, visible from all sides to every vulture and passing scavenger. She may well have been under pressure to hoist, so simply chose the closest tree available. But for us, it was a photographers dream; an unobstructed view of feline perfection against a pink sky. We waited for some time before she actually climbed the tree, whereafter she proceeded to shift around uncomfortably in the fading light of dusk before settling down to feed as the full moon rose in the background. For the photographers who were present on the day, it was a journey of settings.
The kill itself – spotted from an impossible distance by Shadrack “Eagle Eyes” Mkhabela – was what led to the leopard’s discovery. She was lying in the grass nearby, looking very hungry, and we knew it was only a matter of time before she got up to feed. Up until that point, we’d been sitting with a view of nothing but her ear poking out of the grass so the climb was a moment we eagerly awaited, cameras at the ready.
Leopards usually stash their kills in trees with more cover so as to conceal them from vultures, passing scavengers and other leopards but on this particular occasion she must have stashed it in the only one available to her.
A blurry photograph? Sadly yes. A strong contender for my biggest missed photographic opportunity of the previous year? Probably. To have corrected this monumental blunder I think there are two things I should have considered beforehand. The first would have been to stay in aperture priority and place my focal point on the tree (not the leopard) and at least have that in focus. With my ISO on 400 and my aperture as low as it would go (to let in more light), I was still getting a decent image. In aperture priority, the camera chooses the shutter speed, and given the low light conditions I knew that there would have been some motion blur on the leopard which would have been a better shot but at least the tree and the duiker would have been in focus. As a general rule of thumb I tend to shoot in aperture priority during the day and switch to manual at night. In hindsight, the better option given the low light conditions, would have been to switch to manual and select a suitably high shutter speed. And I should have done it sooner because as is so often the case, she wasn’t going to wait for me.
To freeze the leopard in mid leap, I needed a much faster shutter speed and knowing that the camera would then let in less light I’d have compensated by raising the ISO to at least 1250. The key is to keep taking photos, look at them and adjust accordingly before taking the next shot. The lesson which many a wildlife photographer learns time and again; know what shot you want, compose the shot, fix your settings and let the animal, in this case, leap into the frame.
The quintessential ambush predator, a leopard usually launches at its prey from close range before the prey has a chance to react. They are the ultimate opportunist, taking anything from carrion and beetles to antelope double their size. Although this common duiker, weighing roughly 17-25 kilograms in weight, is just a morsel when compared to the average 50 to 60 kilogram impala, it would easily see her through the next few days.
Not all sightings are as forgiving and unobstructed as this one which left us with plenty of time to experiment with different compositions and settings. Black and white photographs can be dramatic and bold, often further emphasising the raw beauty of a shot and sometimes evoking a sense of nostalgia. Depending on what it is you’re photographing or who it is you’re speaking to, you can get very different reactions or opinions. Sometimes, as in this case, the spotlight left the image a little overexposed leaving black and white as the only real option.
Bathed in the light of the full moon, we sat and listened to the sound of crunching coupled with the gentle, purring call of a lone African Scops owl. Knowing the kill would most likely be gone the following morning, it was time well spent. As night fell, the bush darkened around us and the stars, peppered across the night sky, shone brightly revealing the most breathtaking of all windows into the cosmos; the milky way. A soft red glow on the horizon heralded the rise of a full moon, and the Nanga female, awkwardly balancing in the vee of the tree, began to feed.