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Boo! Some of My Scariest Wildlife Encounters in the Field

Angry elephant

I still remember the discussion.  It popped up out of nowhere in, of all things, an online football discussion forum.  Someone mentioned a recent incident during which a wolf chased a cyclist.  This elicited some expected hyperbolic responses, summed up as: Wolves are scary.  Typical commentary from folks who haven’t spent any time around these animals.

In reality, there have been very few incidents of wild wolves killing humans over the last century.  As for my own experience, I’ve found that the wolves I’ve encountered are either a) bored by me or b) scared of me.  I’ve never felt threatened in any way.  I’m more likely to feel a little frustration because the wolf is running away out of photo range than looking for the nearest tree to climb or reaching for my bear spray.

Coastal gray wolf

A tolerant gray wolf that paused for one brief moment as it walked by our boat at a distance of 20 yards. Otherwise, it ignored us completely.

Naturally, I had to chime in on that internet thread and relay some of my own personal experiences.  There was a good chance that I was the only person there who had had any sort of close encounters with wolves or other major predators over the years.  So I pointed out that on my own Scary Encounter List, wolves were nowhere to be found.  But I did have plenty of other nerve-wracking moments at the hands (paws?) of other species over the years.

Though I’ve never felt truly terrified during any particular encounter (okay, maybe one… read on), I figured Halloween would be the perfect time to share a few of the scarier moments from my adventures.

 

Mr. Nice Guy

My very first visit to Africa combined Tanzania safaris with gorilla trekking in Rwanda.  On our first gorilla adventure, my small group hiked to the border of Volcanoes National Park.  There, our ranger stopped us and gave us the pep talk that precedes every gorilla trek: Dos and Don’ts, some background about the family we’d be visiting, etc.  He mentioned that in the case of this specific family of gorillas, the dominant male was quite tolerant around people.  “He’s very friendly,” our ranger said with a smile.

And so the trek began.  An hour-and-a-half of treading through thick brush and over muddy paths culminated in a maze of thick bamboo trunks.  After we navigated the bamboo, we popped out into one end of a very narrow clearing, which was housing our gorillas at that moment.  I happened to be at the front of the line when we stepped into the open.

And that’s when the silverback charged.

What would you do with an angry 500 pound gorilla bearing down on you?  All I could think back to was something I’d read prior to the trip: Don’t make eye contact.  By the way, the ranger didn’t mention this, but I decided it was the best course of action.  So I looked down as the silverback thundered across the clearing.

When I looked up, his furry black butt was two feet from my face.  He stood there, peeking over one shoulder with a steady gaze, as though warning me that we were on notice from that point on.  And then he walked a few feet away, sat down and invited the family over.

Mountain gorillas

After charging me and sticking his bum in my grill, the silverback sat down and invited his family over.

Things calmed down after that and we had an absolutely great time during our brief hour with the family.  At one point a youngster did try to grab Jenn’s leg and drag her off to play, and one tapped me on the knee a couple days later when we visited another family, but otherwise, there were no more dicey, close encounters.  I can’t wait to get back to visit the gorillas again some day!

 

Run Away! (Just Not Too Fast)

If there’s one animal that I don’t want to get too close to, it’s a protective mother elephant.  I’ve been charged by elephants while out on game drives a couple times, but it was the one time I was on foot and didn’t even see an elephant that was my most nerve-wracking pachyderm moment to date.

In Borneo my guide and I were walking through the jungle looking for pygmy elephants 1.  The year before, one of the elephants in the area had killed a tourist, so we had to tread carefully.  We knew they were nearby thanks to some very loud ellie conversations trumpeting through the forest.  The problem—well, aside from the fact that we were walking, rather than riding in a vehicle that could flee at 30+mph—was that we couldn’t see them!  Believe it or not, elephants can hide pretty darn well in dense jungle, a slightly different circumstance than the African savanna experience.  So we had to quietly, slowly move forward through the trees.  Blaring, screeching elephant cries echoed around us.  We had one eye on our surroundings, the other on the flickering flame of my guide’s cigarette lighter.  If the wind changed and carried our scent toward the elephants, we had to scram.  At one point, I sunk knee-deep into a muddy elephant footprint (when I pulled my leg out, it was covered in leeches).

We managed to make it all the way down to the river without getting trampled, but somehow the stealthy giants gave us the slip, vanishing back into the forest without providing a single photo op.  Of course, in such close confines, I felt more relief than anything that they didn’t stick around.

Compared to that, actually getting charged by elephants while on a safari drive seems a bit ho-hum!

Angry elephant

Protective elephant mothers may urge you to drive away, quickly.

The first time I was charged, in Tanzania’s Serengeti, I recall asking the driver to slow down.  We had just driven quietly through a large herd that was foraging on both sides of the road.  We were almost through the gauntlet when a large female sounded a brief warning cry and charged out of the bushes at us.  I was ready to get some shots of her coming up behind us, but our guide wasn’t going to dally for the sake of a photo op.  He hightailed it out of there, and the elephant quickly disappeared behind us in a cloud of dust.  Two hundred meters down the road, we stopped.  Only to see her trot around the corner, spy us again and resume her charge.  This time, our driver didn’t let up on the gas for at least a minute.

During my 2014 photo tour in Africa, we encountered a lone female with a calf near the road.  We were in a Land Rover with no windows or roof, and the elephants were only 30 meters away as we crept past.  She was young, perhaps a first time mother, so it was understandable that she might be a bit overprotective.  The cow shook her head and flared her ears, and then took a couple steps forward toward our vehicle.  Our guide Dean sat calmly behind the wheel, telling everyone to be quiet.  Then she started coming at us with urgency.  Instead of slamming on the gas and revving the engine (which might have spooked her even more), Dean simply brought his hands together in a thunderous clap above his head and yelled.  And she backed off.  Then we got out of there.  Just this year, my South Africa tour group was charged by a bull elephant who was in musth and irritated by the presence of another bull.  Another slightly tense moment, but still not nearly as intimidating as that haunting afternoon in the jungles of Borneo!

 

Looking Delicious and Monkeylike

I’ve had a number of close encounters with big cats at this point, and not all were from the confines of a vehicle.  Nearly all of the mountain lion encounters I’ve had occurred while I was on foot.  And I rarely felt nervous during any of them.  My very first mountain lion, in Utah, came out of the woods to drink from a spring while I was stationed up a tree about 40 yards away.  I was nervous, mainly because I didn’t want to screw up the photo opportunity!  That’s probably the most my hands have shaken during a photography session.  Thankfully, I got the shots, and didn’t have to use the can of bear spray I had with me.  The cat, after it spied me, stayed around a minute longer before disappearing back into the forest.

A few months later I was in the Costa Rican jungle when my guide and I encountered a family of pumas.  They had just killed a spider monkey, which one of the cubs stole and ran off with into the forest.  My guide went to follow, leaving me with the mother and second cub.  The mom and I sat down on the forest floor, probably no more than ten meters apart.  I trusted my guide’s instincts… if he left me behind it was apparent there was no threat (providing I remained well-behaved, of course).  So I sat there quietly while mom… well, she took a cat nap.  Obviously I didn’t look particularly appetizing on that day.  Oh, how things can change.

I’ve had some incredibly intimate moments with these cats over the years, including my amazing recent puma encounters in Patagonia.  But, there’s always one exception that sets you on edge a bit.

Puma

This is the only time I’ve worried about looking delicious.

I was back in Costa Rica a few years after that first encounter, and we found a puma on the final day of the trip.  It had made a kill near the trail, so we were able to set up and take some photos.  It wasn’t bothered in the least bit by our presence, as we weren’t encroaching on its meal.  The only problem was that there was so much foliage in the way, I didn’t have much of a view of the cat’s face.  So I started thinking about how I might be able to get a clearer shot without actually getting closer.  I looked around and spied a tree behind us that was tilted slightly.  The angle was such that I figured I could climb up a few feet and, with one hand, snap some clearer shots of the cat, which was still sitting peacefully with its kill.

This actually worked… for a while.  Initially, the puma continued to ignore me, but then its attention seemed to perk up and it began to study me more closely.  It probably saw a dark-haired critter, with long, dangly arms, hanging out in a tree… something suspiciously akin to a large spider monkey (which happens to be a favorite puma snack).  And that’s the point when it stood up and began stalking me.

I quickly slid out of the tree and went and stood behind my guide.  He was the only one with a machete, after all.

The puma lost interest once it realized I was, in fact, bipedal, and went back to its meal.  It’s still the only time I’ve felt semi-edible in the field.

 

Which Way Did It Go?!

As you can tell, I try to rely on my local guides’ knowledge, instincts and expertise when it comes to many of my closer encounters.  Whether it’s my guide in Borneo using his lighter to gauge the wind direction, Dean’s ability to stall a charging elephant with his hands, or my Costa Rican guide’s familiarity with a momma cat and her acceptance of humans.  It’s important to follow their lead in such situations, and of course, to limit one’s own aggression in attempting to landing the perfect shot.

Felipe, my Costa Rican guide, is probably the best wildlife tracker I’ve ever met.  His instincts are unparalleled and his ability to find animals in the dense rainforest is astonishing 2.  However, Felipe isn’t perfect.  He completely missed the animal that was involved in the scariest wildlife encounter I’ve ever had.

We were hiking one of the trails in the heart of Corcovado National Park one day when Felipe stepped right over a slithering fer-de-lance.

Forget the jaguar.  The fer-de-lance is the most feared animal in all of Costa Rica.  It’s a pitviper that grows quite large and has been known to be rather aggressive.  Just that morning, Felipe had found another fer-de-lance, curled up in a ball ten feet from where some oblivious campers were having breakfast.  But he missed the one on the trail, walking over it as it crossed the path.

It was a young snake, but that didn’t make it any less dangerous.  Juvenile venomous snakes can be even more dangerous than adults, since they haven’t yet learned to limit the amount of venom they use in attacks.  A defensive young fer-de-lance could unleash its full dose of necrotic venom in a single bite, causing more damage than an adult trying to save some of its venom for hunting.

So Felipe walked by, and I screeched to a halt.  “Uh, Felipe… fer-de-lance.”

The snake had stopped on the path, so I carefully set up my tripod and longer zoom lens in hopes of getting a couple shots from above.  I really liked the pattern created by the beautiful snake amidst the fallen leaves on the trail.

Fer de Lance

I love snakes… as long as they remain in view.

Things were going swimmingly, until the viper decided to get moving again.  It slithered right out of the bottom of the frame.  If you think for a moment how I was set up, you’ll understand that this meant it was coming my way.  It disappeared out of view and for a split second I was blind to its progress.  A fast-moving aggressive juvenile venom missile had been launched at me for all I knew, and when I quickly stepped back I couldn’t see it anywhere.  That split second of uncertainty (Was it already under my feet?  How vulnerable were my ankles?) was probably the closest I’ve felt to a wee bit of terror during any of my wildlife encounters.

Thankfully, Felipe put my mind at ease by pointing out the snake, already well off trail and climbing into a bush.  In reality, it wanted nothing to do with us.  Even the youngsters won’t lash out for no good reason, and it didn’t feel threatened enough to offer me a nibble on that day.

 

As a wildlife photographer, it’s inevitable that I’ll end up in a few hairy situations from time to time.  I do my best to study animal behavior in the field to get a sense of how to approach or interact with various species without causing disturbance, but it’s nearly impossible to hide from a subject completely.  Trust me, Camo Guy, it knows you’re there.  So often it just comes down to establishing a level of comfort and acceptance.  Like many of my peers, I try to work with my subjects in a way that allows me to capture them in remarkable, fascinating and beautiful moments while avoiding tense or uncomfortable situations… for both myself and my subject!  But wildlife will always maintain a little… unpredictability.  I’m not purposely seeking that type of wildness, but it’s certainly part of what makes my adventures exciting and memorable.

Notes:

  1. A slightly-smaller-than-normal Asian elephant
  2. He once found a sloth in a tree by looking at human footprints on the ground.  Figure that one out.

6 Comments

  1. Jennifer Jenkins October 31, 2016 Reply

    I was introduced to your photography and stories through your former neighbor Marianne and Don Marshall. Needless to say I am really enjoying looking and reading. My husband and I go to Yellowstone Nat’l Park a couple of times a year. Thanks again for bringing the great outdoors to my iPad!

    • Author
      Max October 31, 2016 Reply

      Thanks, Jennifer! I’m sure at some point we’ve crossed paths in the park.

  2. Cathy Johnston October 31, 2016 Reply

    You are certainly a great storyteller, I felt like I was right there. As usual, your photos are amazing! It’s hard to pick a favorite, but the elephant was incredible, especially because it wasn’t a “regular” photo. He almost looked he was sitting and had a watchful eye on you! We’ve been to all 59 parks, it YNP has always been my favorite. It really is a magical place. I’ve met people from all over the world and the U.S. Many times we’ve only met once, but still keep in touch. Others, we meet every May. The photographers I’ve met have been kind and helpful. Oops, I’m wandering. Max, you have a great spirit and passion for what you do and it shines through in your photography. I’ve been following you for years now, starting with Y-Net. You just kep getting better and better! Keep it up and God Bless!

    • Author
      Max October 31, 2016 Reply

      Thanks a lot, Cathy. I hope to see you this spring, though my trip will be a bit shorter than the past few years.

  3. Reny October 31, 2016 Reply

    I’m definitely with Cathy.
    Your pictures are awesome, as always and I love reading your stories.

    I was somewhat surprised (but happy) that you didn’t have scary encounters with (grizzly) bears in Yellowstone since you often hike alone.

    I hope you stay safe during your photo travels so we can enjoy your pictures!

    • Author
      Max October 31, 2016 Reply

      My scariest Yellowstone moment so far was randomly getting charged by a coyote. 🙂 Thankfully, the couple of close bear encounters I’ve had away from the road did not result in any aggressive behavior.

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