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Lofty Goals, Expectations, and Defining Success in the Field

It began fourteen months ago: planning.

On a frozen road in the Yellowstone interior, photographers had converged near the Firehole River for a rare occurrence. This was a wildlife encounter I’d dreamed of for some time. In winters past I’d come up short time and again, a victim of bad timing when it came to finding the elusive bobcat that had delighted so many other park visitors. Though I’m not the superstitious sort, I had jokingly begun to think of my string of misses as my Bobcat Curse.

The “curse” wasn’t something to linger or obsess over. Though I purposely planned my winter trips in a way that could theoretically improve our chances of seeing such an elusive feline, I didn’t get depressed or bitter after years of coming up empty. It was simply a matter of luck. Or in my case with this particular animal, lack thereof. Something one could only joke about after a while. I more than made up for it with plenty of other fantastic wildlife encounters, both in Yellowstone and elsewhere. In general, I felt pretty lucky when it came to scoring some memorable or unusual wildlife moments. I wasn’t going to mope about a bobcat.

So on this day, with a bobcat sitting less than fifty yards away and the curse effectively broken, I felt a mix of relief and peace.


My Yellowstone bobcat curse finally ended in January of 2023.

My joy was reserved more for the fact that I was sharing the encounter with my tour clients, a group that had bonded during the previous year’s Yellowstone winter trip, and which had decided to reunite twelve months later for another January adventure.

This was not the only reunion taking place on the road snaking past the Firehole. Among the other onlookers that day were another of my past guests and his friends. In retirement, they pursue their own wildlife photography opportunities around the world. Their exploits put my own occasional travels to shame.

We had a chance to chat as we were waiting with the bobcat, and eventually the conversation turned to another feline: a black panther. Not just any black panther. THE black panther. In the past couple years, photos had leaked out of a small part of northern Kenya depicting a wild black leopard. First it was Will Burrard-Lucas’s famed camera trap photos of a dark male. By all accounts, this cat was incredibly elusive. Curious photographers who traveled to the area—and even Burrard-Lucas himself—rarely saw the shy individual with their own eyes. It was anything but a reliable or seemingly achievable target for those wishing to see a rare melanistic leopard in person.

That male had been busy, however. Eventually, a new black leopard appeared: his daughter. And she became a familiar sight (with her spotted mother) in the Laikipia province. Word quickly spread, and photographers around the world soon began making the pilgrimage to Kenya in search of this “holy grail” animal. A similar phenomenon had occurred only a few years earlier with a male black leopard in India, but COVID shutdowns and the passage of time ensured that my chances of seeing that creature would fade before I could realistically plan a trip in time to see it.

Kenya was a different story. This female was young, now independent, and those well-traveled clients had already photographed her. They were heading back for more. It made me think that maybe this was a bit more of a realistic goal than India.

I returned to my group and mentioned the black leopard discussion. Folks were instantly intrigued. Within days we were in serious talks about putting together a scouting trip to Kenya with my group, and I’d asked for and received prospective visitation dates from the host camp. Everyone was excited about the idea, but underneath the fragile crust of enthusiasm there was a boiling mantle of tension. Any black leopard trip would have to take place fourteen months later. That’s an eternity in the short lifespan of a wild animal, particularly one that’s just learning to live independently in a rough and inhospitable environment. Much could change in that time, and I didn’t have to remind my group that we’d have to spend the next year hoping the panther merely survived. Changes in behavior and territory were not out of the question either.

We’d done a very dangerous thing: set our sights on a single animal. It’s a path I had gone down before, with mixed success. In some cases, the target species we pursued were bountiful in a given area, so there wasn’t as much of a challenge in finding them. But I’ve also had barren weeks going after animals that resulted in major pressure on the guiding team, and frustration for the clients.

Of course, in this case it was not just one type of animal… we were pursuing a single individual being. Yikes.

In hindsight, we mostly maintained the right attitude throughout the ensuing months. I kept an eye on news about the leopard—she was being seen and photographed pretty consistently—but most of our discussions about the trip focused more on general planning and the overall experience rather than obsessing about our primary target. Anticipation was building, but I can’t say that expectations were on a parallel path. We knew the risk we were taking, so there was no point in dwelling on it.

Nonetheless, we had trapped ourselves. There’s no escaping pressure when you set such lofty goals. I generally avoid planning trips and tours centered around one central subject. This is more due to the fact that I really enjoy wild locations that are rich in biodiversity. I have varied interests, love photographing so many different animals, and discovering new critters alongside my guests. Going somewhere with a singular focus seems relatively boring in comparison.

But even I give in to the temptation of tracking down super rare or elusive subjects, and every trip plan for a new location inevitably includes a few primary goals that percolate near the top. After a while, there are some animals that I keep missing which are conspicuously left at the top of my wish list (that bobcat is a good example; I traveled to California to photograph them following a few years of Yellowstone failures). The temptation becomes too strong, and I start to figure out ways of finally tracking them down. If a reliable opportunity for certain rare species comes onto my radar, I see how I can work it into my travel and tour plans.

In recent years, I took time to pursue some of the top animals on my bucket list: Canada lynx, ground pangolin, Harpy Eagle. In other cases, I simply lucked into a sighting during one of my broader-focus trips (silky anteater, giant armadillo).

What’s amazing is that I managed to see them, these pie-in-the-sky dream targets. I overcame the most difficult part. Sometimes it took years of planning. Sometimes just a bit of dumb luck. But I was standing before every one of these near-mythical beings with a camera in hand.

And the resulting photos kinda… sucked?

Canada Lynx

My best photo op with a wild Canada lynx was… underwhelming. Even though I’m pretty proud of myself for tracking it down in the first place.

Last month we finally landed in Kenya. Not wanting to waste an opportunity, I had added a second location to the itinerary. This was a scouting trip, after all. However, we were still challenging ourselves, ignoring other popular and reliable Kenya wildlife locales for yet another spot that might yield some rare sightings. The reports of aardwolf and black servals (yes, another melanistic cat!) were tempting. Instead of a mere week of long odds we’d effectively doubled down.

It should come as no surprise that we failed at our first stop. Our guide was actually disappointed that he couldn’t find us an aardwolf, but we didn’t see any servals (much less black ones) either. Despite some occasional interesting encounters, wildlife in general was spread out and somewhat sparse. But we had fun, and were telling ourselves that this was just the appetizer anyway. This trip was going to come down to the main course, the following week in Laikipia.

I had been warned that things were changing with the black leopard. Fortunately, fourteen months later, she was still alive and healthy. But her behavior was evolving as she matured. She was spending more time on a neighboring property. At the same time, the host camp that had been reaping the benefits of this stunning creature’s presence was doing its best to protect their treasure. Vehicle limits during sightings had been in place for some time, but they had recently implemented the use of red-filtered spotlights. This was a less-intrusive tool for highlighting nocturnal animals without disrupting their night vision… and also a major obstacle for effective nighttime photography. The situation we were about to walk into was far different from the one we’d initially envisioned. We weren’t sure what to expect, but recent reports from colleagues and past clients who had visited Laikipia were still encouraging. Folks were boasting about their daytime encounters, which still occurred a few times a week, and their wonderful photos gave us a sense of hope. Coming off an enjoyable but somewhat subdued first stanza of the trip, we weren’t sure what to expect in Part Two. We arrived perhaps not with higher expectations, but with a greater sense of urgency to score.

Tension began to mount two days into our stay. The leopard had not been seen for 48 hours or so prior to our arrival. This was normal. By evening of our second day in camp, we had come up empty and doubt began to creep in. Some Laikipia visitors had come and gone without a single sighting due to their shorter stays. We had a full week. Surely we’d allocated enough time to achieve our goals?

The definition of a successful trip varies wildly among photographers. Many, many folks who spend this much money traveling to far-flung destinations have a one track mind. Everything rides on that one goal, one incredible photo op (at a minimum). Our group, fortunately, is more laid back and open to so many different experiences. We spent a great deal of time on this trip photographing birds, and loved it. But even we couldn’t ignore the fact that we were there for one reason, and one alone: the black panther.

During our stay I chatted with a well-traveled veteran of the African bush. He lamented the concept of trophy chasing in photography, expressing disdain for those individuals whose only goal was to produce an image “to share to their Instagram audience.” So much of a trip into the wilderness is about the greater experience. Being there is a huge part of it, and like me, he relishes sharing the time and the ensuing discoveries he makes with other like-minded people.

We had no problem extracting enjoyment from our time in Kenya. I felt we had the “right” attitude, and could recognize that the trip had already been loads of fun. But a nervous energy was building with every pantherless morning and night.

Opportunities to see the black leopard are limited. We’d start searching her territory in the final hour or so of daylight, and then after dark. In the mornings, we were warned that if she wasn’t found by 7am or so, chances were slim that we’d see her. That effectively gave us about ninety minutes of daylight to see her, and an hour of darkness before the camp’s self-imposed 8pm deadline for leopard tracking kicked in (again, trying to limit the pressure on the cat as much as possible). Even over the course of a week, that’s not a lot of total time. Despite working with a tremendously knowledgeable guiding and tracking team, we had our work cut out for us.

On Night Two, another sunset came and went. Then it happened. She was back! Down a side road leading from the neighboring property, a dark shape emerged from the shadows, and two glowing eyes stared back at us in inky pinkness. The leopard was coming. What ensued might, at best, be described as a comedy of errors behind the lens.

Black leopard

Our first encounter was a good indicator of the struggles we’d have photographing a black creature in the dark of night.

Calling it a disaster might be more appropriate. Most of us had enjoyed the night drive photography experience before. Photography with use of spotlights can be challenging, and the results are often middling (and in most cases, hardly artistic). Insufficient light makes for a technical challenge: high ISOs, low shutter speeds, grainy images, and—with new mirrorless bodies that perform better at high ISOs EXCEPT for cases with black surroundings—a bevy of hot pixels. We were not just photographing a black subject at night, however. This was also under a red spotlight. Already limited light was reduced further, and it would require a lot of work in post-processing to achieve “natural” colors.

We stumbled through that first encounter. Which was actually quite good! There were opportunities to fire off a number of shots, but she moved constantly, never freezing long enough for us to even land a decent portrait. At the end of the night I felt that I had taken more pictures than expected… but I wasn’t sure a single one was a “keeper.”

The next night, she appeared in the same spot, and the leopard drive that followed played out much the same way. We used our failures from the first encounter to prepare ourselves a little better, and this time landed a few sharp shots. On the third night, she came out a bit later, but in much the same manner spent her time jogging through her territory, hunting for dik-diks and hares, and rarely pausing.

Black leopard

With some tweaking in post, even the colors in a red spotlight shot can be “normalized”… but it’s still a far cry from a daytime sighting in natural light.

Then? Silence. Two more days without a black leopard.

Assessing our experience, the conversation was a mix of positivity (“we saw her!”) and lamentation (“the photos are, uh, less than stellar”). I couldn’t help but feel a bit of the negativity creeping in. This felt all-too familiar, in fact. Lynx, pangolin, silky anteater, adult Harpy Eagle… all seen. The resulting photos may not have all been “crap” (that self-assessment was a bit harsh), but I couldn’t even land a clear portrait of any of those targets. And here I was again, in the exact same situation with the black leopard.

I found myself questioning what made for a successful outing. If it’s possibly your only opportunity to see a rare animal, you want to get as much out of your brief chance as possible. My clients had a right to be frustrated. They’d spent oodles of money and this was likely their only chance to photograph a black leopard. I may have a few more chances, but with something this rare—there are only an estimated 14 known black leopards on the planet right now (though surely more in dark places away from prying eyes, of course)—it’s never guaranteed.

No matter how I looked at our situation, I couldn’t escape the fact that we were… trophy hunting. We all wanted “the shot.” But why? Certainly not for my Instagram audience. I knew that whatever photos I landed of her, they’ve been done before, and to much more adulation than I’ll ever receive. It wasn’t about plaudits or attention in this case. But I absolutely did want a keepsake. Something for my own wall. This is one of the most beautiful animals on the planet, and I simply wanted to immortalize her in my own way. A basic daylight photo could at least encapsulate her beauty properly. And, remembering my pangolin encounter (when I eschewed my phone and just watched for a bit), it was actually important for me to simply see this animal with my own eyes, in natural light, and certainly without the pinkish haze of a filtered spotlight. This, then, was my apparent standard for success. A pretty low standard, I felt, but failure to get even there in several similar situations recently had worn me down.

Our opportunities whittled away. “Good thing we have four mornings left,” became “three,” then “two,” then “oh well… at least we saw her?”

I’ve pulled off some last-minute miracles before. Most notably with another rare, monochromatic creature of legend, the spirit bear. On multiple tours in the Great Bear Rainforest, we’ve failed to find the fabled white bear until the very last day, and in at least one instance, literally the last moment of exploration.

Spirit Bear

Not the last time a last-gasp spirit bear sighting saved a trip.

I did my best to focus on the positives: the leopard had continued to change her behavior during our short week there. A no-show, then three nighttime appearances, then nothing again. There hadn’t been a single morning encounter in at least a week-and-a-half, but things could change at any time. That almost became a mantra in the waning days. We were left with one final half hour of daylight before we’d have to finish packing and depart.

Despite tremendously low odds, we drove out to a brightening sky, one last attempt “for glory.” Once more unto the breach…

Within a few minutes, a call came through on the radio. Unlike past teasing radio reports mentioning the leopard by her nickname—or using inflections that sounded far too excited for the non-action that was occurring—this one was measured and firm. We didn’t understand Swahili, but our ears perked up. Were we finally going to achieve success?

In truth we already had, thanks to nearly two weeks of relaxed fun, new encounters, working with wonderful guides and staff, and sharing great company.

But it’s a very difficult task to properly set (and then maybe ignore) moderate expectations when building anticipation—all while being bombarded with a stream of information—over such a long time. When I made plans for my pangolin quest, I went through four years of strategizing and dreaming, making decisions based in part on a barrage of updates and news… only to arrive in a location and environment that completely changed right before I showed up. The altered reality I entered upon arrival was crushing at the time, and it took several days to adjust my attitude and expectations.

Deep down, we all know wildlife is unpredictable, and I’m mostly blessed with guests that understand and accept the vagaries of wildness. Nearly all of us feel so lucky just “being there.” But it’s nearly impossible to ignore those dream scenarios that go hand-in-hand with pursuing very specific subjects in very specific out-of-the-way places.

Perhaps the success of this trip would be based more on our ability to manage our expectations and cope with the uncertainties—good and bad—than the nature of the encounters themselves.

Our guide confirmed it: the black leopard had been seen nearby. Moments later, we saw it with our own eyes. The only pinkish cast on her came from natural pre-sunrise light, not a filter.

Wild Black Leopard

We were thrilled (and yes, relieved!). From a practical standpoint, I could even justify leading a tour back to search for her again, now that I had photographic proof that such encounters are possible.

But more importantly, we came away with that special keepsake, something we can look at every day to remind ourselves that we came face to face with one of earth’s most unique and beautiful creatures. When we look at these pictures we may be reminded of the stress leading up to that final moment, of the nervous laughs and overly-sarcastic wobbly jokes that preceded it. But the satisfaction, surprise and delight of that miracle finish will also linger.

Wild Black Leopard

Much in the same way that we create family portraits or photo albums, compiled so we can remember how things were in a particular moment, these wildlife images evoke much more than just a split-second of recorded time. With it comes the investment, effort, hardship, and expended time that led up to it, the emotions during that moment, and the shared excitement afterward.

Wild Black Leopard

Our trip was already a success in many ways, but I guess I don’t mind having the trophy to go with it.

Wild Black Leopard

I quickly offered—and filled—a black leopard tour, and will be returning to Kenya in June to go through this whole stressful process again. To see photos from this trip, check out the Kenya 2024 Birds and Wildlife galleries in the archive.


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