Long-tailed Macaques

Long-tailed Macaques
Long-tailed Macaque (Macaca fascicularis)

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ubud's Sacred Monkey Forest, Bali

Receiving more than 15,000 visitors a month, and located in the middle of one of the most commercially saturated areas of Bali, Ubud's Sacred Monkey Forest can be easily dismissed as just another tourist trap. However, an early morning visit before the crowds arrive can provide a surprisingly interesting wildlife experience, set in the unique atmosphere of Balinese hindu temples.

The Forest complex belongs to the village of Padangtegal, which has been all but engulfed to become a suburb of Ubud, a bustling town of 30,000 that's one of the main cultural and artistic centers of Bali, and a big tourist destination. The entrance, located at the end of the aptly named Monkey Forest Road, opens everyday at 8:00 am, for a 20,000 rupee fee (roughly US$2). It gives access to a 27-acre densely forested park with paved trails leading to the village's pura dalem or death temple, a typical Balinese walled compound that contains the cemetery and the cremation area. A stream cuts through a small but scenic gorge, and is canalized to provide water to a small bathing temple, used for purification rituals.

 Long-tailed Macaque, young adult male.

Covered in moss and in places overgrown by the lush vegetation, the temples in the Forest look deceptively old; although it is known that the forest has been held sacred and contained some sort of religious site since the 15th Century, the structures that can be seen today are relatively recent. The volcanic rock widely used in Bali as building material is cheap and easily carved, but deteriorates quickly under the tropical climate and has to be renovated frequently. There are many interesting, often strangely unsettling sculptures around the temples and all over the forest, depicting both the benevolent and demonic forces central to Hindu beliefs.

 Statues around the Death Temple.

The monkeys in the forest are Long-tailed (also know as Crab-eating) macaques, Macaca fascicularis. This is a widespread, mostly forest-dwelling species found in most of Southeast Asia, with as much as ten different subspecies showing considerable variation in color and size throughout their range. The ones in Bali belong to the nominate subspecies, M. f. fascicularis. Adaptable and resourceful, they thrive in degraded and humanized habitats as long as there are some trees left, and often live close to people. They often inhabit swamp and seashore forests and are very good swimmers, able to dive for crustaceans, clams and small fish.

The Balinese people have a mixed attitude towards macaques. In Hindu traditions they act as an ambivalent force, with both good and evil monkeys appearing in the Ramayana epic poem and other ancient lore. Here in the forest, where they are believed to keep evil spirits away from the temples, they are revered, pampered and fed; but as soon as they leave the sacred grounds and start raiding paddy fields and farms, they are considered vermin and dealt with accordingly.

Monkeys are fed in the early morning by the Forest staff, who are very smartly-dressed villagers from Padangtegal. Staff members seem to genuinely care about the monkeys' well-being, they know individuals within the different troops, and will warn visitors if they feel they're bothering them. They also keep the place and the temples spotless.

 The Forest staff seem to know many of the individual macaques well, and have a touching relationship with some of them. This "mad" female looked like she'd suffered some accident or disease that left her face damaged and deformed. Her behavior was strange and violent, and other macaques avoided her. Staff members in charge of feeding seemed quite fond of her, and played a sort of mutual teasing game where she'd put up a ferocious performance and the guards acted scared before "surrendering" a banana. I saw this little ritual on the two mornings I spent at the Forest.

I saw the macaques being fed mostly sweet potato, which they seem to relish, as well as the proverbial bananas. Food is kept in locked cages overnight, and monkeys wait nearby to be fed in what seems an established and accepted routine. There are small stalls by the Forest's entrance where visitors can buy bananas and peanuts to feed the monkeys; a few large, aggressive males wait by the trail and will attempt, often successfully, to rob tourists of all the food they've bought at once. Groups of smaller individuals gang up on visitors, grabbing anything they may considered edible or just fun to snatch from their backpacks. Stretching things a little, it all looks like a nice little racket, the food sellers teaming up with the rogue monkeys to rip off unwary tourists. Other than that, most macaques ignore people and mind their own business, providing a very nice opportunity to watch and photograph their behavior.

 "I wonder where those monkeys are?"

One thing that surprised me about Long-tailed macaques is how similar males and females look. Past a certain age, old males can get quite bulky and are easily distinguished, but in younger adults facial features are remarkably alike, both sexes having bushy beards and mustaches, and only the nipples give away non-breeding females. Personally I find them quite handsome (as far as macaques go), much better-looking than the famous and so-much photographed Japanese macaques.

A male grooming a female.

The macaques breed year-round, and females can be seen carrying young at different stages of growth. Like most macaques, they are born covered in black hair, which they keep until they are about 6 months old. After that, they have black in their heads only, and after their first year their color becomes similar to that of adults. Nursing lasts for an average 9 months, although the little ones start to forage on their own when they're 3 months. Females become sexually mature between 3 and 5 years, but don't attain full adult status within the troop until they give birth for the first time. Males reach maturity around their fifth year, and may grow to weight more than 12 kg.

 Very young infants are covered in black hair.

As they grow, only the hair in their heads remains black.

"Gimme!" Young ones start foraging for their own food at around 3 months.

Plenty of food and an easy life: older males can get quite bulky.

From a photographer's point of view, it's in the early morning when the forest and the macaques are at their best, but the tree cover is so thick that at that time light is very dim; almost all of these images were shot at ISO 1600. Later on, if it's sunny the light becomes the usual nightmare inside a dense forest, with stark contrast between shade and light patches, and after 9:30 it's almost impossible to shoot anything without getting a bunch of brightly dressed tourists in the background. However, the macaques are great photo subjects, especially mothers with their young, and their totally relaxed attitude towards people allows for some very nice images. Some of the best opportunities were provided by the macaques entering the water in the ponds and canals, searching for food bits but also apparently just for fun. Unfortunately, the dark conditions made it very difficult to capture movement.

 Statues provide an very photogenic setting for the macaques.

The temple buildings and the statues are interesting subjects by themselves, and they provide a  great setting to photograph the macaques. Monkeys hang out all over the temples, where their presence is welcome and they feel totally at home. Watching them playing on the moss-covered walls reminds of Kipling's Jungle Book episode in which Mowgli was kidnapped by the Bandar-log, although in the book monkeys were the bigger and stronger Hanuman langurs. 

 Climbing vertical walls is a learned skill: mothers helping their babies.

I haven't been able to find any information about the management of the macaque population within the very limited space of the Forest, other than figures showing a steady increase in their numbers since 1986; small wonder, given the absence of predators and the constant supply of food. There are nowadays more than 600 macaques in the 27-acre Forest, divided into four matriarchal troops. Females tend stick to their native group all their lives, whereas males may wander between different units depending on their status and female availability. Although the species is territorial, the overabundance of food and the general ease of life in the Forest seem to make things more relaxed, and ranges overlap more than they would in a wilder place. Fights do occur, but apparently they're rarely serious.

 A few macaques can be seen wondering the nearby streets in Ubud, but they don't seem to be a big problem, at least yet. In Singapore there are sterilization programs to prevent this species from becoming overabundant in the wildlife areas and parks; in other areas of SE Asia where their numbers become a threat to agriculture, they are simply trapped and shot. Long-tailed macaques have been the subject of an intense international traffic for biomedical research; an estimated 254,000 individuals were exported between 2004 and 2010, mostly between Indonesia and the USA. A marked decline is being detected throughout much of this species' range, and although not currently considered threatened, its status is being reassessed by the IUCN.

You can see more images at www.iyufera.com

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Consejos para fotografiar perros

Gracias a Internet, las redes sociales y la fotografía digital, los aficionados a los perros nunca habíamos tenido acceso a tantas imágenes de ejemplares. No hace tanto tiempo (o al menos eso nos parece a los más viejos), para ver fotos de perros hacía falta rebuscar entre los pocos libros y revistas disponibles en España dedicados al tema, o en los archivos fotográficos de los que eran todavía más viejos que nosotros.

También todos hacemos más fotos que nunca. Las cámaras digitales compactas y los teléfonos móviles nos permiten llevar el equipo siempre encima, y aprovechar cada vez que tenemos un perro delante. Sin embargo, a menudo el resultado no es tan bueno como quisiéramos: un perro imponente que hemos visto en una reunión o un parque nos sale en la foto pequeño, cabezón, o borroso. O nuestro perro, que nos consta que es precioso, parece otra cosa una vez vemos la foto en pantalla grande…

Como fotógrafo semi-profesional, me he permitido escribir algunos consejos sencillos para mejorar nuestras fotos de perros. No se pretende aquí conseguir imágenes de concurso o de calidad profesional (que ya tengo suficiente competencia), sino mostrar al perro que fotografiemos de la mejor y más fiel manera posible.

La primera norma, la más elemental, y con la que más rápidamente mejoraremos nuestras fotos es también la más sencilla: ponte a la altura del perro. O sea, agáchate y que el objetivo de la cámara esté al mismo nivel de sus ojos. Cuanto más pequeño sea el perro, más habrá que agacharse. Y si quieres fotografiar bien a un cachorro, prepárate para arrastrarte por el suelo. Una vez puestos a su nivel, la mejor forma de mostrar la anatomía de un perro de cuerpo entero es de perfil; si lo fotografiamos de frente, que sea con un leve escorzo. O mejor aún, tomar una imagen de cada.

Aunque pueda tener su gracia, una foto desde nuestro punto de vista habitual no muestra bien la anatomía de los perros. Hay que agacharse.

La siguiente no siempre es tan sencilla: ten en cuenta la luz. Si hace sol, procura tenerlo a tu espalda. Pero cuidado, no intentes forzar al perro a mirarte cuando el sol le está dando en los ojos: le obligarás a entrecerrarlos, y su expresión perderá con ello. Otra buena razón para mantener el cuerpo del perro de perfil.

Hay que recordar que las cámaras de fotos apenas registran los medios tonos; o sea, que las sombras aparecen más negras de lo que las vemos al natural, y si fotografiamos al perro contra un fondo brillante, solo saldrá su silueta. Si hay sombras, procura que no caigan sobre la cabeza del perro.

La mayoría de nosotros hacemos fotos con cámaras compactas o incluso con teléfonos móviles. Estas cámara suelen tener lentes zoom con un rango de entre 24 y 100 mm. Si hacemos la foto a 24 mm, es decir, sin usar el zoom, obtendremos un efecto “gran angular” que distorsiona la imagen, haciendo que el perro parezca cabezón. Lo mejor es alejarnos un poco y usar el zoom hasta una distancia focal de 50 mm en adelante (50 mm es el equivalente aproximado a la visión natural del ojo humano).

 El gran angular distorsiona la imagen: el perro aparece cabezón.

Los perros que no están acostumbrados a posar (o sea, casi todos los que no son “de exposición”), por lo general posan fatal cuando intentamos forzarles a ello, dando lugar a la típica imagen de dueño sujetando el collar o tirando hacia arriba de la correa, y el perro encogido y con el rabo entre las piernas. Es mejor tener un poco de paciencia y vista, y pillar al perro en una posición más natural. Un perro siempre tendrá mejor aspecto suelto, pero obviamente eso no siempre es posible. Si debemos fotografiarlo atado, dejemos la correa lo más suelta que podamos.

No siempre es necesario que el perro mire a la cámara, o que tenga expresión de atención; los perros con orejas cortadas o erguidas ganan al estar atentos, pero las razas con orejas caídas suelen tener mejor aspecto con ellas en reposo. La expresión “mirando al horizonte” puede dar mejor resultado.

Si queremos que el perro ofrezca su mejor expresión, debemos procurar que salga con la boca cerrada. Si enseña la lengua, que sea del todo, con la boca abierta; los perros mostrando la lengua a medias suelen salir con cara de tonto, lo que resta seriedad a su expresión. 

¡Hay que acercarse! Muchas veces, especialmente cuando el perro está en acción, no nos damos cuenta de lo lejos que está, y de lo pequeño que va a salir en la foto. En nuestra mente, la acción y el movimiento magnifican la escena, incluso viéndola a través del visor o la pantalla de la cámara; pero la foto no capta más que una pequeña mancha que se pierde en la distancia. Esto ocurre muy a menudo al hacer vídeo. 

 Hay que acercarse... aunque asuste.

Lo contrario también puede ser un problema: a veces encuadramos al perro de forma demasiado apretada, sin dejar lo que los fotógrafos llaman "aire" alrededor del perro. Esto puede dar cierta sensación de agobio a la imagen, incluso hacer parecer al perro más pequeño de lo que es.

Tengamos en cuenta el fondo que se encuentra tras el perro al hacer la foto: que ofrezca un buen contraste con el color del perro, y que no contenga elementos que distraigan la atención del sujeto principal. Un perro negro contra un fondo oscuro (incluyendo la ropa de quien lo sujeta) no se verá bien. Un perro atigrado oscuro contra un fondo oscuro verá desdibujado su contorno. Un perro blanco contra una pared de cal, también. Cuanto más lejos se encuentre el fondo del perro, mejor; así saldrá difuminado.

 Al ser de colores muy parecidos, el contorno del perro se pierde contra el fondo.

Cuanto más contraste haya con el fondo, mejor.

Conviene evitar hacer fotos de perros en césped, a no ser que éste esté recién cortado. La hierba alta oculta los pies del perro, y lo hace parecer paticorto y más largo que lo que es en realidad.

Con frecuencia nos gusta hacernos fotos con nuestros perros, o mostrar a otros dueños con los suyos. En esos casos, es mucho mejor que la persona aparezca agachada junto al perro. Si sale de pie, hará que este parezca más pequeño, y le restará importancia, desviando nuestra mirada hacia arriba.

 Daremos más protagonismo al perro si nos agachamos junto a él (foto: Ignacio Nuevo)

Y si es inevitable que el dueño esté de pie, centrémonos: recordemos bajar nuestro punto de vista y enfoquemos al perro, que es lo que importa. 

Es evidente que no siempre es posible seguir todas estas reglas; muy a menudo nos encontramos con perros en situaciones que no lo permiten. La exposiciones, reuniones de dueños, o incluso los encuentros en ciudad o en un parque rara vez ofrecen las mejores condiciones. Pero procurando recordarlas y poniendo en práctica las que podamos, nuestra fotos mejorarán considerablemente.

Todas las imágenes ©Ignacio Yúfera, excepto donde se indica.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Great Bustard: the great show in the plains

The Great Bustard (Otis tarda) is one of the largest and most spectacular European birds. Mature males can attain a wingspan of 2,4 meters and a weight of 18 kg, and are among the world’s heaviest flying birds; only its African relative the Kori Bustard and the Mute Swan can dispute that title. Females are less than a third of that size, and are much more lightly built. Together with the Little Bustard, it is the only member of the Otididae family to be found in Europe

Great Bustard (Otis tarda), adult male.

The quintessential steppe species, its populations are linked to the open, treeless habitats under extensive agricultural use that have substituted natural grassland throughout much of their range. Except for a few remaining natural steppe tracts in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Great Bustards are nowadays mostly found in extensive cereal fields and open pastures.

Great Bustard numbers have suffered a considerable decrease throughout its range. Slightly more than half the World’s population is in Spain, where it remains more or less stable at around 14,000 birds since the ban of its hunting, in 1982. However, many of its local populations have disappeared or are fragmented and seriously endangered; the species is classified as “Vulnerable” due to threats like changes in agriculture (mostly towards irrigation) and the increasing encroachment of much of its habitat by urbanization.

In Spain, Great bustards share much of their habitat with livestock.

Great Bustards in Spain are rather sedentary birds, very attached to their breeding grounds. Every year, as Spring approaches, males congregate in certain sites (leks) to display and confront each other in order to establish the hierarchy that will determine which of them will mate with the females later on. This behavior takes place from late February through March and early April, sometimes extending until May, depending on the weather. During this time, adult males execute a spectacular ritual both to intimidate rivals and to attract females, locally known as rueda (“wheel”), in one of the most remarkable displays performed by any bird.

After selecting a suitable spot ensuring good visibility, the bird starts by inflating its large gular sac, exposing the dark naked skin on both sides of the neck, at the same time tilting its body forward and sinking its head backward until it almost touches the cocked tail. The white undertail and vent feathers are twisted over the back, and the underwings are lifted and fluffed up creating the effect of a huge snowy ball. At the same time the long “beard” feathers are erected, often covering the eyes, so in the final stages of the display, popularly known as “foam bath”, it is hard to tell which end is the head, and which the tail. In fact, when seen from a distance it is difficult to believe that it is a bird at all. It is truly amazing how a plumage that is largely cryptic, comprised mostly of grey and earthy tones, can so suddenly turn into such a stunning sight, visible from miles around.

The "foam bath" climax of the male's display.

The male will shake and turn around, showing from all angles.

The male maintains this position for several minutes, shaking and shifting its wings, and turning around to show itself from all angles. It can then walk to a different spot, maintaining the gular sac inflated and the white feathers in different stages of display, until starting all over. Although mostly a visual display, this is often accompanied by very low-toned grunts, audible only at close distance. Males generally stick to these ritualized performances, but occasionally confrontations get more physical, and birds can inflict serious damage on each other - I have witnessed a fight in which both males bit fiercely on to each other’s bill, at the same time hitting each other with their wings like fighting cocks. There was blood on both contenders’ faces before the loser was chased away. Once the dominant males have established their breeding status, the actual courtship begins, with mating taking place until early Summer.

Sometimes males engage in serious fights.

Despite often living in heavily humanized areas (or perhaps because of it), Great bustards are notoriously shy and almost impossible to approach in their flat, open habitat; they rarely tolerate a person at less than 300 meters. The only way to observe and photograph their display behavior at reasonably close quarters is from inside a hide placed at a known display area. Any disturbance during the critical breeding season can cause serious stress to the birds, so any attempt to set up a hide must be done with extreme care. In Spain, it is necessary to obtain permission both from the land’s owner and the local wildlife authorities. In 2008 the Emberiza Fund reached an agreement with the owners of two contiguous estates in the Cáceres province in Extremadura, where observations in previous years seemed to indicate the location of an important Great Bustard lek. The estates have a total 480 hectares of pristine steppe habitat, and are used as pastures for free-range cattle, with a few cultivated plots and seasonal ponds providing drinking water. A census confirmed that the two estates are indeed used by Great Bustard for their courtship and breeding regularly every year, and also provide important feeding grounds in the winter months for Little Bustard, as well as other steppe species like Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Calandra Lark, Short-toed Lark, Crested Lark, Thekla Lark, Montagu’s Harrier, Stone Curlew, Lesser Kestrel and Hoopoe. The agreement helps to ensure that the area will remain as prime steppe habitat, providing the owners with an extra income from the fees paid by photographers using the hides.

Male parading through a lek.

It took more than two years to finish the studies and secure the permits needed to set up the first hides. Fortunately, Great bustards in the area are relatively used to seeing man-made structures in their range, since cattle feeders are placed and managed throughout the estates. Therefore small, discrete hides don’t seem to bother them at all. We have used different types of structure and in every case the bustards (and all other birds) have completely ignored them. In fact, kestrels and larks welcome the hides as vantage points and often use them as perches. However, it is essential that no birds see a person entering or leaving the hides, so they must be entered before sunrise and can’t be left until nightfall. In March-April, this means spending sixteen uninterrupted hours inside the small hides, which can be quite a trial to even the most patient photographer. It is often very cold in the wee morning hours, and can turn to scorching hot in the middle of the day; it is imperative to be silent at all times and keep movement to a minimum: even when no bustards are around, other birds (especially corvids) can sound the alarm and ruin everything. Besides, it is by no means guaranteed that a male Great Bustard will choose a spot near the hide to display on a particular day, or even walk past it: the leks comprise a very wide area, and the birds are scattered and move around a lot. I have spent whole long days with nothing but a lark or a stork to photograph. On the other hand, once a male walked so close to the hide that I couldn’t fit it in the frame using a 300 mm lens. Another time, I got quite jealous seeing a male display beautifully right in front of the hide occupied by a fellow photographer, only to learn later that night that he was dozing off at the time…

Whatever the discomforts and the frustrations, witnessing a male Great Bustard’s full display at close quarters, truly appreciating the bird’s imposing size and hearing the low-tone booming grunts of the male as it shakes its whole body, is one of the most extraordinary wildlife experiences to be had anywhere in Europe. Even when not in full display, a grown male parading around the flower-covered plains of Extremadura is a wonderful sight. Plus, the exercise in patience and self-control can give any meditation/zen workshop a serious run for its money…

Females are a third of the male's size, and much more delicate in build.

You can learn more about Emberiza's Great Bustard Project at www.emberiza.org. Their use can be hired through Boletas Birdwatching Tours (www.boletas.org) or through Iberian Nature (www.iberian-nature.com)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Desert Sparrow Project

The Desert Sparrow (Passer simplex) is a small passerine found in North Africa and Central Asia. So far two subspecies have been described for the Sahara desert (P.s. simplex and P. s. saharae); the third subspecies, localized in areas of Irán, Turkmenistán and Uzbekistán, also known as Zarduny’s Sparrow (P. S. Zarudnyi), may be split into full species status in the near future, on the grounds that it shows no sexual dimorphism between male and female.

Desert Sparrow breeding pair

Desert sparrows are one of the most characteristic birds of the Sahara desert. Superbly adapted to arid conditions, they prefer to breed in oases and wadis (dry river beds) with some vegetation, and often live close to humans. Berber builders intentionally leave nesting holes in their adobe houses and barns to for the birds, which they call “bar-rode”; in their traditions, the song of a Desert Sparrow in their home is a sign of good news. Tuareg people call the birds “Moula-moula” and are also quite fond of them. In very remote areas they are the only birds found in or around villages or nomadic camps, but as more settlements are built for tourism, and distances between them are reduced, a host of new species soon follow: Domestic doves (Columba livia), Collared doves (Streotopelia decaocto) and especially House sparrows (Passer domesticus). All these species compete directly with the Desert Sparrow for food; House sparrows are bigger and more prolific, and eventually occupy most of the available nesting space.

Passer simplex in Merzouga.
The area between Merzouga and Tafilalt in Morocco is the northernmost point in the Desert Sparrow’s African distribution. It is also one of the few sites where this bird can be seen in the Western Palearctic, which makes it especially attractive for international birders. Desert Sparrow populations in this area have suffered a marked decline in recent years, due to increasing human activity around the tourism industry in Erg Chebbi, the most important sand dune habitat in Morocco. The current Desert Sparrow population in this area is no more than 100 individuals, according to a census made in 2010 by ICO (Catalan Institute of Ornithology). 25 pairs nest in an oasis in the middle of the dunes (accessible by camel only). They seem to be relatively safe, but saturated; there is no room for more. Birding tour companies have located four more breeding pairs outside the area occupied by the hotels around the dunes; they nest in palm trees, holes in acacia or tamarisk trees, and one inside an active Brown-necked Raven (Corvus ruficollis) nest.

House Sparrow (left) with Desert sparrows perched on a camel saddle

In view of the declining numbers of the species, the Emberiza Fund has designed a project with the objective of helping Desert sparrows keep and possibly increase their numbers in the Merzouga area, by providing them with especially designed nest boxes.

Nest boxes.
The nest boxes have been custom-built drawing from the experience gathered by ICO researchers in previous years, adding details extracted from designs used successfully with North American House Finch and House Sparrow. Desert Sparrow is slightly smaller than its domestic invasive cousin, so the entrance hole has been narrowed by 2 mm, in an attempt to prevent house sparrows from using it; experience will tell if this works. The boxes have been built by a local carpenter, following Emberiza’s blueprint. This eliminates transportation and import costs, and also makes a modest contribution to the local economy.

 Male Desert Sparrow on a jaima (Berber tent).

Desert sparrows usually breed between March and August, but this can vary greatly from year to year, depending on climatology. This means that the nest boxes must be installed all year, and their location is determined by several factors:

-       Availability of acacia, tamarisk, or palm trees, tall enough to provide safety from predators (3-6 meters).
-       Closeness to fine sand areas with abundant growth of Alfa grass, an important natural food for the birds.
-       Distance from human habitation as villages, lodges, irrigated cultivation.
-       Nest boxes must be installed on the side of the tree that receives the most shade during the day.

After several scouting trips by members of Emberiza to find the best locations, in December 2012 fifteen nest boxes have been installed in the Merzouga area. A local agent has been hired to monitor and care for the boxes; further assessment of nesting success and will be done by birding tours to the area, organized by Boletas (www.boletas.org) and Audouin Birding Tours (www.audouinbirding.net).

Female Desert Sparrow

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A feisty skunk

In November 2012 I traveled to Torres del Paine National Park in South Chile, with the main goal of seeing and photographing pumas. I organized the trip through Trogon Tours, a company specialized in South American birding and wildlife trips, owned and managed by my friend Luis Segura, who was my guide throughout the trip. Luis secured the services of José Vargas, a local tracker who has lived and worked in the park all his life, and who probably knows more about Patagonian pumas than anyone alive. 

Patagonian Hog-nosed Skunk (Conepatus humboldtii)

We spent every early morning and late afternoon searching for pumas. One morning, just before sunrise, we were driving the one dirt road that traverses the park when some 100 meters in front of us we saw a puma running along the road, and there seemed to be something running after it. For a moment, it looked as if the dim pre-dawn light was playing tricks on us, but as we drove closer there was no mistake: a Patagonian Hog-nosed skunk was chasing our puma. As we got closer, the puma sprinted across the road and disappeared behind a ridge. He looked like a young male, an almost fully-grown cub really, probably belonging to a family we had been watching for a couple of days in the area. The skunk stayed by the road. We left the car and started walking after the puma, hoping to get close enough for some photos, with no success; after a long hike we lost it and returned to the car. By then it was mid-morning, and to my surprise the skunk was still there, minding its own business, digging for worms and grubs among the wet green grass. 

 The skunk crossing the dirt road, the one chance I had of a clean, full-body shot.

A few days earlier I had seen a skunk in the park, a shy young animal that ran away as soon as I tried to approach it. Judging from the rusty color of his coat, this one was an older guy, more experienced and confident in his chemical dissuading abilities, and didn’t seem to mind our presence at all. I asked José if he could try and make it move towards me, so I’d have him under better light. As soon as he noticed José getting closer, the skunk raised his head and confronted us, grunting and huffing his annoyance. It was hard not to laugh: the guy was the size of a small cat, and was confidently confronting three grown men, totally unafraid.

We kept a respectful distance and gave him his space, and he continued foraging in a nearby meadow. He kept his head low to the ground, so it was difficult to get a good shot of his head and his unique snout. At one point I sat on the ground, waiting for him to appear from behind a bush for a low shot, and to my surprise he walked briskly towards me until he was less than a meter away, at one point almost touching my feet with his nose.  José was concerned, to say the least: “Por favor, Ignacio, ¡no te muevas! ¡Que no se asuste!”, even though the chances of the little fellow being afraid of anything seemed quite remote. The prospect of having to drive me in his car after being skunk-sprayed must have been horrifying, and rightly so. Luckily, the skunk chose not to use his weapon of mass destruction on me, and just continued his mid-morning stroll; after chasing a puma away, he clearly wasn’t going to be bothered by some annoying photographer. You could almost hear him humming “La Cucaracha”. And he did give me some close-up shots of his nose that almost made up for losing the runaway puma…

 A bit too close for comfort...

Patagonian (or Humboldt’s) hog-nosed skunks (Conepatus humboldtii) are rather common in Torres del Paine. Tough and adaptable, they eat almost anything they can find or catch, and prefer open grassland with small woodland patches, pretty much the kind of habitat favored by the puma. Both species must cross their paths relatively often, and if the puma is a fully grown, experienced and hungry adult, one can imagine that the outcome can be quite different; however, so far this old character had proved quite capable of holding his ground.

You can see more images from the trip at my website: www.iyufera.com

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Searching for leopards

The Leopard (Panthera pardus) is considered by many the perfect feline, the quintessential cat, and with good reason; leopards combine the power and strength of the greater cats with the grace and agility of the smaller members of their family.  They are the most widespread wild feline in the world, and although their range has been severely reduced in the last century, they still live throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East in a wide variety of habitats, outnumbering all other large cats.

Their versatility is legendary. They can survive on surprisingly small prey in areas where large game has been eliminated, and are so adept at taking advantage of even the slightest cover that they can be found deep within urban areas, often specializing in hunting livestock and domestic dogs and cats. Unfortunately, in these situations attacks on people may also occur. In fact, some of the most notorious man-eaters in recorded history have been leopards.

Female leopard with grown cub, Timbavati Reserve, South Africa.

Although leopards are generally secretive and very difficult to see, in a few areas they have become relatively tolerant of humans and vehicles. The two most reliable places in the World to see and photograph leopards today seem to be Sri Lanka and South Africa. Large game reserves in Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana also offer good chances, although, as I can attest, it is perfectly possible to do a safari in Kenya and see no leopards at all; I didn't see my first, a female resting on a tree, until my second visit to Kenya, in 2002 (you can read a brief trip report here).

The island country of Sri Lanka has the advantage of leopards being the top predator there, so they are less cautious and elusive than in other areas, where they have to be constantly alert for lions, tigers, or hyenas; Sri Lanka's Yala National Park is said to offer almost guaranteed sightings of Leopard, so much so that most visitors hoping to see it book two nights there at most. However, I was led by an expert guide, and it took me four days to find one. As with anything related to wild animal sightings luck plays a major part, but this seems to be especially true with leopards.

 Young male leopard on a tree, Timbavati Reserve, South Africa.

As it is often the case with wildlife, no matter how many photos or documentary footage you may have previously watched; nothing really prepares you for the first close encounter with a large predator, especially from an open-top vehicle with no real physical barrier between you and the animal. Here's an excerpt from my wife's diary on our trip to Sri Lanka, where she saw her first wild leopard in Yala National Park:

'I guess the most important part about Yala is the anticipation, yet smug sense of entitlement we all felt before leaving. Seeing a Leopard was likely the raison d'etre for the trip, apart of course from finishing my thesis (she had just finished working on her PhD at the time). So, it was with wide eyes and a sense of adventure that we left the hotel that morning for our nine hour journey to Yala National Park. Yala was full of leopards, and we were about to get some car-skimming cat shots.

…If not by the first morning, it would happen by the second afternoon. Obviously.

(...) Before starting the trip, Ignacio had asked me countless times how excited I was to see The Leopard. I was excited, but I was also delighted with the prospects of beaches, suntans, no thesis, more beaches, less thesis and did I mention… more suntans? Perhaps my priorities were a little out of whack with regard to the Wildlife component of the trip.  Beaches came at the end of the trip, but so convinved was I that we would find a leopard on the first day, that I thought we might be able to do a quick side trip to do some surfing or snorkeling before long. Let me repeat: assured by smug sense of entitlement I really had not a care in the world. Leopards. Click. Beach. Hooray!

 A glimpse through the bushes, Yala National Park, Sri Lanka.

I was curious about leopards, about predators in general, and after our experiences in Africa I was expecting (at the very least) a full behavioral display. Without exaggeration, I truly thought we would stumble upon leopards mating, playing, and- of course, of course- hunting. After all Yala was promised to be even more saturated with leopards than Etosha with lions, so it was a quick journey, no?

So. Let me interject at this point. Animals do not respond to your beach schedule. Even less so, when there is a pre emptive conclusion that they will pose in behavior shots for you. And the trip was starting to feel less Hawaii 5-0 and a lot more David Attenborough, minus the soothing voice. To begin, our transportation within Yala was distinctly different than any safari I had previously experienced. We were in vintage land rovers, and the roads were horrendous. The potholes made for a very nice introduction between my kidneys and my ribs and after the novelty wore off, the discomfort was just kind of…dusty. Dust, bumps, silenced eye-peeling. We were going to find that animal.

After four days of this routine, it was starting to feel eerily planned that we were not seeing any leopards. We started to eat meals in silence, the elephant in the room (a terrible pun, since indeed there were quite a few Asian Elephants) being the utter lack of leopard. Not a tail, not a toe. Foot prints don’t count.

We loaded all of the camera equipment back into the land rover and headed out on Drive Number 4 in search of the elusive leopard. Of course we were going to find it.

  Young female, Yala National Park, Sri Lanka.

Statistically, and I would write that, I’m not sure if it’s possible to be in Yala for four full game drives and not even see a leopard- not even with binoculars (!), but that was our reality. We came back, again, with nothing. That night we started to panic. As nice as the peacock display shots were, and as exotic as the hornbills were, they were not leopards. They were not predators. They didn’t even have fur—let alone the stuff with spots on it!  Ignacio and I heaved the camera equipment back into the room. That 800 mm lens was making itself a real nuisance at this point- it all felt like a silly costume. The beige clothing. The camera that sat unused. What was it all for? Not to mention the 300 and 24-105, the laptops, and all the other gear that is a part of this incredible hobby.

´This is incredible. Four full game rides at Yala, and not a single leopard.´

So. We ate in virtual silence, until it was broken:

‘We are going to be the poor bastards that come to this Park, and don´t even see a single leopard.’ I gave my fiancé a look of empathy and a kind of mini apology for dragging him so far, only to see so little.

The next morning was our last game drive. Oh, the horrible frustration. Or maybe even humiliation, that we had come all the way to Sri Lanka, and not even glimpsed at this stupid cat.

… 8.30 am, and nothing. We ate breakfast in silence.

It was now 9.30, and still nothing.

Part of the problem was the concentration of jeeps. Yala was absolutely heaving with cars—they were everywhere. Leopards are decidedly un-lion like. They are not social, they do not hunt in prides, and they certainly do not like attention. I think the word is ´secretive´, or ´shy´. I was thinking more along the lines of ‘incredibly selfish and spiteful’ at this point, but no matter. It was almost time to turn around and go back home, after all, we had been at it since 5.30, and it was now 9.45…

 Young female, Yala National Park, Sri Lanka.

‘Leopard!! Leopard!!!¨ I hissed at the driver. I had seen the first leopard, and it was just laying there, in the middle of the sun, on a rock. Laying!!! Posing!!! Not a care in the world.

We inched the Land Rover back, careful not to disturb the animal, and Ignacio grabbed the 300mm lens.

It was there. Less than 10 meters away! It was close enough for snapshots, and we were the ONLY people who had found it. We were alone. I could see the soft black spots that marked her face, and most critically, the black eyeliner that decorated the greenish eyes.
Finding her was a defining moment for the trip– all the hours of waiting, the weeks in preparation, and now here she was. Wildlife photography in many ways is like gambling– you have no idea of the outcome, just that it feels great when you win. It really hardly ever works out that you get the Big Pay Out as you might like it to happen. We came home with reels of leopard photos.

 Young female, Yala National Park, Sri Lanka.

Seeing the leopard totally changed my perspective on wildlife photography. Instead of a gambling game with badly staked odds, it became an infinitely rewarding pursuit, marked by slightly unknown temporal constraints. Hopefully, the temporal constraints won’t grow to be longer. Everyone should have an encounter with animals like this, should the opportunity arise. The big question, of course, is for how long even four day waits will be available. It’s clear that animals, like everything else, are disappearing faster than we’d like.'

That afternoon we saw a big male, a one-eyed veteran of many battles, resting on a tree. It was a superb animal, that soon attracted what seemed like a hundred cars, creating a "game jam" so typical of large national parks, and making our morning experience feel even more special.

The big one-eyed male at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka.

In May 2012 Margi and I were invited to our friend Adam Riley's wedding in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Adam and I have been friends since we met in Uganda, in 2005, and I have made several birding and photographic trips organized by his company (Sri Lanka among them); he is the owner and managing director of Rockjumper Birding Tours, and has also co-founded its sister companies Indri and Oryx Photographic Expeditions. After the wedding, we took the opportunity to organize a photographic trip to two of the most famed and reliable reserves in South Africa for leopard: Sabi Sand and Timbavati. Sabi Sand is the oldest private game reserve in South Africa, and a pioneering model for wildlife tourism. It is a 65,000 ha association of landowners, with no fences and an open 50-km border with Kruger National Park. The landscape in both areas is mostly comprised of different types of woodland, and apart from being famous for their leopards, offer great viewing opportunities of Lion, Buffalo, Elephant, White Rhino, and a wide variety of ungulates, of which Impala is the most common. Timbavati has the bonus of a chance for Wild Dog and the famous white lions, both of which we missed; dogs are nomadic and move constantly except when breeding, and the white lions are just a few, over a very large area.

 Margi with one of the open-top vehicles used in Sabi Sand and Timbavati.

There are several privately run lodges and safari operators in both reserves; their drivers and guides seem to know each other well, and the atmosphere is one of cooperation, with constant sharing of information through radio. It is possible to drive off-road within certain limits, and no more than two vehicles are allowed at a sighting, avoiding the "game-jams" so often experienced at Kruger and the East African national parks. Our guide, Marius Coetzee, is co-owner of Oryx and started his career as a guide at Leopard Hills, the lodge where we stayed in Sabi Sands. He is an award-winning South African photographer with a great knowledge of African wildlife in general and this area in particular. You can check his work at www.mariuscoetzee.com .

 Adult male next to the airstrip at Sabi Sand Reserve, South Africa.

May is probably not the best time of the year for visiting the South African bush; there had been heavy rains right before our arrival, and the grass was very long everywhere, making sightings difficult and photography often frustrating. However, it is a testament to the quality of these reserves and their guides that in just 8 days we saw ten individual leopards, and enjoyed some excellent photo opportunities. We followed the usual safari routine: game drives early in the morning and again in the afternoon until sunset, with long resting periods in the middle of the day. At Sabi Sand, Marius did a great job of driving the vehicle himself, expertly aided by a local tracker. The territories of individual leopards are usually well known by local rangers, and radio communication between vehicles is really effective. Leopards have been closely studied at Sabi Sand for years, and many have become habituated to being followed by vehicles, to the point of completely ignoring a big Land Rover noisily revving a few meters away. They seem totally oblivious of the people in the cars, even the trackers who sit rather precariously on a little seat on the vehicle's hood. The one warning visitors are given: don't stand up inside the open-top car. Wild animals seem to consider the vehicle and its occupants as a whole, and standing up might alter that perception.

 Drinking leopard with a puncture wound in the shoulder, Sabi Sand Reserve, South Africa.

Like most wild predators, leopards lead difficult, brutal and often short lives. Almost every one we saw bore scars or even open wounds. Rangers and guides get to know many individual leopards within their reserves, and more often than not their life stories end in violent death. Lions kill many cubs and even adults; adult males fight for territories and mating rights, and even a minor injury can mean a disability to hunt and lead to starvation. Females have to not only fend for themselves, but keep their cubs fed and safe from predators and also adult male leopards. At Leopard Hills Lodge, I was surprised to realize that many photos covering a whole wall were of the same specimen: a very well-known female who for several years chose the lodge's rocky grounds to raise her cubs. She was finally pushed out of the reserve by an aggressive male, and ended up being shot at a bordering village.

Female leopard with grown cub, Timbavati Reserve, South Africa.

The fact that females raising cubs have to spend so much time out hunting may explain in part why most leopard sightings and photographs are of females; out of the ten leopards we saw, seven were female, one with a male grown cub. Hunting for wild prey is hard work; even in dense bushy terrain like Sabi Sand and Timbavati, which favors the leopard's ambush style of hunting, success rates are about 40%, dropping to 20% when they hunt during daylight hours. Impala, leopard's most frequent prey in the area, are so numerous for a reason: they are very hard to catch. 

Female leopard with Impala kill, Timbavati Reserve, South Africa.

We were very lucky to enjoy  great views of a female and her grown and rather shy cub for a few minutes, but my personal favorite was a full-grown male that showed up just before sunrise by the airstrip near Leopard Hills Lodge at Sabi Sand. Big males are always a bonus, but this one was just spectacular, a superb mix of power and elegance, definitely one of the most impressive wild animals I've seen. We followed him for almost an hour, with the early morning sun providing some stunning light, until he disappeared in the long grass.

 The big male at Sabi Sand.

Oryx asked us for some feedback on the trip so they can use it as reference; here's what I wrote:

As for the photographic side: Leopard Hills (Sabi Sands) and King's Camp (Timbavati) rank among the best wildlife watching and photography places have experienced, not only in Africa but in the World. The abundance of Leopard and the quality of the sightings is just amazing, even though we were in the "long grass" season. Drivers and trackers do a fantastic job, and the avoidance of "game jams" thanks to the policy of only two vehicles allowed at a sighting is a great advantage. Leopard is clearly the main attraction at Timbavati, but there were great sightings of Buffalo, Elephant and White Rhino. We didn't do so great with Lion, but did get a few decent shots nonetheless.  In eight full days between the two reserves, we didn't have a single dull drive.

Accommodation and all the infrastructure around King's Camp is just wonderful. The rooms are a delight, food excellent, very nice birds around the gardens, great bar and library, and some of the very best service I've experienced anywhere. We were pampered in every way imaginable.

Organization by Oryx was faultless. It really felt like we were getting the best of everything, even when compared to other visitors, and Marius' excellent relationship with apparently every ranger and tracker in the reserves was a big bonus, making communication with other vehicles especially productive. His extensive bush experience and photographic sense added a lot of value to the trip.

As a wildlife enthusiast and photographer who has been around, I certainly recommend King's Camp and Timbavati as a superb, rewarding and very productive destination. I hope I find the time to go back some time soon.

 This beautiful female had a flap of loose skin in her jaw, likely the result of a fight. Sabi Sand Reserve, South Africa.

And here's Margi's contribution, in case mine didn't include enough superlatives::

I'm not sure if I can adequately express my enthusiasm for our South African trip. Sharing time with some of the most exotic animals on the planet will continue to be one of my most treasured memories. What I loved most, was the proximity and intensity of the experience with leopards. Although I am not a wildlife photographer, I am an adrenaline junkie, and hearing the hiss or purr of an adult leopard (or in your case, cub!!) is one of the most exciting times I can remember.

The excitement of stalking leopards with walkie-talkies and the incredible open top Land Rovers is something that I won't soon forget.

In my most spectacular day dreams, I could not have thought up lodges like King's Camp or Leopard Hills. The food is absolutely exceptional- so much so that I made a point of going to the gym every day on holiday. I continue to give rave reviews of the massage I had at Leopard Hills, which remains the best back rub I've had in my life. Brr. I am still thinking about it! The interior of each room is so unique and luxurious it would feel like a pity to leave for the game drives, had they not been so mind- bendingly exciting. Even as a non photographer, I was up fifteen minutes early before each drive, and thinking about the drive on each evening after. The feeling is pure Hemingway, minus the kind of creepy undertones. Really, I have never had such an awesome adventure, and I am still looking back with the fondest of memories.

Oryx put together a trip that was virtually bespoken to both my husband's and my tastes. We were able to share an adventure together, and this was possibly the best trip we have taken together. This was achieved by a seamless set of logistical operations, not a hint of a problem with travel, accommodation, food, or even photography opportunities. Mother Nature may be unpredictable, but Oryx seems to have managed a way to make her a little happier.

Gah. That line is SO MUCH FROMAGE, however...

 Female leopard, Timbavati Reserve, South Africa.

We want to thank Adam and Felicity Riley, and their families, for inviting us to their wedding and for their hospitality during our stay; we had a really great time. 

And to Marius and Kirsty at Oryx for a faultless organization.

To see more images from this trip, visit my photography website at www.iyufera.com