People come to Africa with preconceived ideas and notions of what to expect, usually from watching high-end documentaries and nature films on television with the family. Whilst they’re being given a fantastic advertisement for African wildlife, those shows can’t possibly give the viewer any idea of what to expect when stepping off a plane and entering a game reserve for the first time.
What people don’t often expect, and sometimes don’t want, is to come across the nasty and gritty side of wildlife – when nature proves itself indifferent to suffering and cruelty. Ask most visitors on arrival and most will say they want to see a kill, but the reality of those scenarios is a far cry from what they’ve seen on television. Teaching wildlife photography, I was in the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve with a group of volunteer photographers when we came across the perfect example of nature at its rawest.
We were being guided by Africa On Foot and came across a mother giraffe who had given birth three days ago to a baby that, for one reason or another, was essentially crippled. It was theorised that the tall drop to the ground had damaged its spine. Mum stood guard for three solid days, fending off anything that approached but helpless to do anything to help her baby.
That evening, we checked back on the pair to find the situation was the same but with the addition of a few hyenas which had taken up residency in the area – playing the waiting game. We watched as a brave hyena tried to stalk in under the cover of darkness a couple of times but, not wanting to be on the receiving end of mum’s powerful kick, they quickly darted away at the slightest bit of movement from her. She was the embodiment of a brave mother, defending her child in nothing but the most hopeless of situations. Time was running out, the baby getting ever weaker and she herself was running the risk of exhausting herself too much, having not slept, drank and barely eaten for days. At first light the following morning we headed back to the scene, with unclear expectations. As we turned onto the long stretch, we quickly clocked a total of 13 hyenas, pushing themselves closer and closer to the exhausted pair. At this moment, mum gave up. She walked away with an exhausted slump and the hyenas dove in. They dragged the crying calf out into more of an open area as all 13 began to tuck in, ripping and tearing apart the defenceless baby as a defeated mum kept walking off into the distance. The cries stopped after a few minutes and only the sounds of chomping teeth, tearing flesh and the frenzied cries and barks of the hyenas filled the air.
We were all in the moment, and as wildlife and conservation photographers it’s imperative that you shut off emotions for such scenes. Luckily the viewfinder acts as a barrier between you and your subject, and the concentration of composition, shutter speeds, and focusing keep you from thinking of the pain of the baby or the heartbreak of mum. We left the sighting with a plethora of images, all silent in our contemplation of what we had just witnessed. The 18-hour build-up, our timing, the noises, smells and emotions – these are things that nothing can prepare you for, but this is what makes every sighting and experience so unique and personal.
It’s been stated by many that the bush is a far cry from Disneyland, and you must go in expecting to see the worst of nature as much as the best of nature. Be prepared to see things a documentary wouldn’t show you: that animals survive on instinct, strength and perseverance; that the cute and cuddly caricatures that we are brought up with simply wouldn’t last an hour in the real world.