In 2013, the United Nations designated March 3rd as World Wildlife Day, in order to “celebrate and raise awareness of the world’s wild animals and plants.” Each year’s World Wildlife Day celebrates a specific theme. This year’s is “Big cats: predators under threat.”
From the WWD website: Over the past century we have been losing big cats, the planet’s most majestic predators, at an alarming rate. World Wildlife Day 2018 gives us the opportunity to raise awareness about their plight and to galvanize support for the many global and national actions that are underway to save these iconic species. Through World Wildlife Day big cats will generate the level of attention they all deserve to be sure they are with us for generations to come.”
I hope to see some big cats during my impending trip to Costa Rica (pumas are most likely, but there are also jaguars there!). I’ve been fortunate to see all of the world’s big cat species with the exception of the clouded leopard of southeast Asia. I thought that it would be fun to share a few images from my more memorable encounters with the big cats over the years in honor of World Wildlife Day.
My First Wild Mountain Lion
This probably remains my favorite wildlife encounter of all time. In the fall of 2008 I ditched Yellowstone a couple days early in order to drive to Utah. Fellow photographer Cody Hoagland had invited me down to his family’s property in the Wasatch Mountains, where he had been photographing various animals that showed up to a couple of natural springs. He had seen bears, elk and other species… including a mountain lion! I had never seen a wild cougar before, so I accepted the invitation.
There was a tree stand built above one of the springs (it had been used for hunting in the past), so I got to sit up a tree, about twenty feet off the ground and only 40 yards away from the water. Then the waiting game began. We arrived the first morning before dawn and waited. And waited. Nothing appeared beyond a couple of birds. So we packed up and headed back to town for lunch before returning for the afternoon session.
After sitting in the stand for an hour-and-a-half, the sun went down behind the mountains… and then the cat appeared!
The cougar stayed for only a couple minutes, drinking from the spring, before it headed back into the woods. It was an amazing moment, and remains the only time I’ve ever seen a mountain lion in North America. I have seen several pumas since then in Latin America (including a mother and two cubs in Costa Rica a couple months after this encounter), but the North American subspecies of cougar remains incredibly elusive, so this encounter is still very special to me. With so many photos of cougars being taken at game farms in a controlled environment, the images I was able to capture for that brief moment remain somewhat unique.
When We Became Part of the Lion Hunt
In 2007 I made my first trip to Africa. Big cats were a guarantee, and we had the fortune of seeing numerous lions, leopards and cheetahs (we also saw several servals!) in Tanzania. The first lioness we saw took down a wildebeest, albeit from a great distance so it wasn’t much of a photo op. And we witnessed two other hunts when cheetahs failed to bring down prey. The last hunt we saw occurred late in the trip in the northern Serengeti.
This particular stretch of road had been very good to us. In about five kilometers we had lions feasting on a buffalo on the road, mating leopards, a cheetah with three grown cubs (when the youngsters eschewed stealth for an immediate chase of distant prey, mom could only stand and watch as they failed spectacularly) and a leopard with a cub.
And a lion hunt.
Just like our first lion encounter, this involved a lone lioness. She had spotted zebras, which happened to be behind us. So she began stalking, but instead of going straight at the herd, she came up onto our line of safari vehicles, wove in between them and flattened herself in the shadows beneath our truck. She crept forward behind the shoulder of the road, inching closer and closer to the nearest zebras. Then she went for it.
Unlike wildebeest, zebras a fairly smart. They caught onto the danger almost immediately and took off. They managed to escape in spite of the lion’s best efforts. After the hunt was finished, the rest of the lion pride emerged from the trees as if to say, “okay, Mom, where’s dinner?” More credence to the fact that they have more success hunting as a group!
View more African lion photos in the photo archive (note that images from this and my earlier South Africa trips have not yet been added).
The Cheetah Brothers
During my 2014 photo safari in southern Africa, my clients and I had plenty of encounters with lions and leopards, but only fleeting glimpses of cheetahs. As the trip wound down at Botswana’s Mashatu Game Reserve, we still hoped for one final sighting of the world’s fastest land animal. And we got it.
A trio of cheetah brothers had staked out territory in the reserve. During our last morning game drive, the call came in over the radio that they had been… spotted (tee hee). All three brothers had full bellies, so they recently fed on a kill and had begun with their territorial patrol. At a steady pace, the three marched through the arid landscape, marking trees and occasionally resting under the shade of the short trees and bushes.
They occasionally passed by some mopane trees, which sported colorful autumn foliage. This allowed me to capture what is probably my favorite cheetah portrait to date.
I’ve seen a lot of cheetahs, both in Tanzania and southern Africa (even walking with wild cheetahs at a game reserve in South Africa), but this encounter remains my favorite, because we had a full hour-and-a-half with them. It was a great way to end the trip!
See more photos of these cheetahs in my Botswana 2014 gallery.
The Wrong Snow Leopard
When I traveled to India in 2015, I had two big cat goals: my first wild tigers and my first wild snow leopards. I figured tigers were a given (more on that later), but I knew snow leopards would be a challenge. That proved to be the case. A snow leopard trek in the Himalayas is a difficult undertaking, as I wrote last year. Altitude, cold weather (winter is the best time to find them… winter in the Himalayas), and rustic facilities all contribute to one of the more daunting physical undertakings of my career.
As if that wasn’t challenging enough, the wildlife wasn’t cooperating either. I barely had any close photo encounters during my two week stay in northern India. The lack of close snow leopard sightings wasn’t a surprise, but many of the other species in the region remained elusive as well. Good photo opportunities were at a premium.
During the second half of my Himalayan visit, I experienced a home stay in a remote village. By then I had seen my first two snow leopards, but they were a kilometer away and the heat distortion and high winds made photographing a leopard dot impossible. I was still waiting for the ultra rare close encounter.
My guides and I hiked out to a viewpoint, not far from the road, where they scoped for cats. While we were stationed there, another vehicle pulled up. It was the other photographer staying in the village, with his guide. His guide came and chatted with mine, then returned to his vehicle and drove off.
A while later, one of my guides exclaimed excitedly that he had a cat in his scope! Sure enough, there was the snow leopard we were searching for. Only two kilometers away this time. But it was on the move, and I was able to get distant photos of a cat-like object.
Do you see it yet? It’s right in the middle of the frame. Definitely identifiable as a snow leopard, but unfortunately that’s the best shot of one that I got the entire trip.
I didn’t think the chances of a close snow leopard encounter were particularly high, so it was difficult to feel great disappointment about the results of this excursion. Until I spoke with that other photographer staying in our village. It turns out that his guide had heard of another leopard close to a different village an hour’s drive away. He had stopped to tell us about it, but my guide wrote it off as something that wasn’t worth the effort. Later I got to see the photos of that leopard, only 200 meters away. Compared to my leopard dot at ten times the distance, I’d say my fellow photographer won the day.
Welcome to Tiger Country. Scooters Welcome.
On that same India trip, I spent a week-and-a-half searching for tigers further south. As mentioned, I figured my odds of photographing tigers would be better than what I faced with the snow leopards. While technically true, my chances didn’t increase by much. I only saw three tigers (matching my snow leopard numbers) and the photo opportunities, while closer, still weren’t great.
It didn’t help that my flight back from northern India was cancelled, costing me a day in Bandhavgarh National Park. On that day the guide I was supposed to work with saw nine tigers. By the time I arrived the next day they had vanished. I never saw one in Badhavgarh, and only saw one briefly (from a distance) in Kanha National Park. So it came down to Ranthambore National Park at the end of the trip. Things didn’t start well.
Ranthambore, like many of the Indian parks, operates on a zone system, where visitors are randomly assigned to restricted areas. You can’t venture outside of these areas during a given game drive. To make matters worse, zones are assigned based on the ranger who’s in your vehicle, and these rangers are swapped out every time. So you can easily get assigned to the same zone multiple times, by chance. Great when there’s tiger action. Not great when there’s not. And no, it wasn’t great for me. I kept getting stuck in the same tigerless zone again and again, so I finally paid extra (essentially a bribe) to go elsewhere on the last day.
But as it turned out, we hadn’t even reached our zone on the final morning when we finally found a tiger in Ranthambore. It’s important in parks like this (and in Africa) to be the first at the gate—either entering a park or leaving your camp inside the park—in case you luck into wildlife on the roadway that hasn’t yet been scared off by vehicle traffic. We were first in line on this morning, so we were first on the scene when a big male tiger walked down the road in our direction. It was still dark, so it wasn’t an ideal situation photographically-speaking. I was forced to shoot at very high ISOs to capture anything. This portrait was taken at ISO 6400.
Now, the thing about Ranthambore is that it’s not just a wildlife park. It happens to be an important cultural area, home to a famous fort and important religious sites that date back centuries. They are visited and used to this day, so locals are entering the park all the time. And they’re not always driving… they’re often on foot!
On this morning, we were face to face with T-28, this male tiger. A couple other safari vehicles had pulled up by then, and the tiger was getting closer and closer to us. Then we heard a whining noise… a motor scooter was puttering up the road toward us and the tiger.
Instantly, our drivers started yelling and waving their arms at the couple on the scooter, but the driver didn’t realize what was happening until he was almost upon us. Then it dawned on him. He quickly pulled up next to the safari vehicles (on the opposite side of the cat), and he and his lady friend proceeded to scramble into a Land Rover. Crisis averted, but it’s no surprise that people are killed by tigers every year in Ranthambore.
We saw one more tiger before I had to leave. The infamous T-24. At that time, I was told he had killed three people. Apparently he took a fourth victim a couple months later.
For my first trip to South Africa, Jenn and I booked a stay at the ritzy MalaMala Game Reserve, bordering Kruger National Park to the west. I’d heard that staying at MalaMala was a fantastic experience, with some incredible photography opportunities. It also happened to be one of the best places for leopard photography.
When we arrived at MalaMala and met with our ranger Dean, I expressed an interest in leopards. Dean smiled, and told us we may have a special opportunity in store… a new 5-week-old cub had been discovered with the Jakkalsdraai Female leopard.
Naturally, this became the top priority on our visit. I’d seen leopard cubs before, but they were older. I’d never seen one anywhere close to the age of the cub Dean described. So the first chance we got the next morning, we went out looking for it. We were in luck. Over the course of the next three days, we got to see the cub every visit. That included the one brief stop on Day 2 when mom wasn’t around. In accordance with reserve rules we couldn’t linger at the den site, but the cub peeked out briefly and I was able to snap a shot that ended up as an inset on the cover of Africa Geographic magazine. On Day 3, I landed a photo of mom and cub that won me the first MalaMala Photographer of the Year competition.
So yeah, this family was good to me. But I still think my favorite moment occurred on that first morning. We had morning light, and were the only ones at the den site. The Jakkalsdraai Female was already out sunning herself when we arrived. And soon we saw movement in the grass. An adorable little spotted bundle of fur revealed itself. It was so tiny (and cute, of course). At this age, many of the big cats still sport blue eyes. By the time they’re a couple months old, leopard eyes turn gold or sometimes a pale greenish color. But this was my first time seeing any of the big cats with blue eyes.
At one point the cub broke away from mom and started exploring on its own. It popped out of the grass coming right toward us in that morning light, which led to one of my favorite leopard pictures.
See more leopard photos in the archive (note that photos from this and my other early Africa trips are not uploaded yet).
The Jaguar and the Otters
The second-to-last big cat on my list was the jaguar. I’ve explored jaguar territory before, seeing scratch marks on a tree in Ecuador and fresh tracks in the mud in Costa Rica. But I didn’t see my first wild jaguar in person until my Brazil trip last year.
It wasn’t a surprise. Photographers have been coming to the Pantanal in greater numbers in the last five to ten years, so I was well aware of the fact that I could get jaguar photos whenever I finally committed to a trip there. The opportunity finally arose when I decided to scout the Pantanal for a future photo tour (which will happen this year!). It didn’t take long to see our first jaguar, and we were soon off and running, with multiple jaguar sightings along the river nearly every time out.
We were also fortunate to witness a wide range of behavior, from hunting to fighting to sleeping in a tree (a rare thing for jaguars) to swimming. It was a great introduction to the largest cat in the Americas. Our final jaguar encounter produced an interaction I didn’t expect to see, when a cat faced off against giant otters.
This was a gorgeous jaguar. It wasn’t large, but it had orange eyes (different from all of the yellow-eyed cats we’d seen to that point). When we first arrived it was perched on a river bank. We didn’t understand why it was sitting quietly and intently, until we heard the howling of giant otters.
The otters had pups (we could hear their squeaking) hidden in the brambles below the bank, and the jaguar was trying to see if it could grab a snack! The problem for the cat was that giant otters truly are giant: well over six feet of muscle, with big teeth… and they’re usually in groups. So it would be a death wish for a jaguar to venture into the water with them.
This cat knew its place, and it continued to wait and see if an opportunity arose. The otters, in the meantime, would swim out and howl and yelp at it for a minute or two. Then they’d return to their den. And a few minutes later they’d pop out again. The whole sequence repeated itself multiple times before both parties realized nothing was going to happen. The otters swam off to hunt (leaving one adult behind with the pups), while the jaguar settled down for a nap.
It was a fun interaction to witness in person, and a great way to end the trip!