Magazine article Geographical

Africa's Iconic Big Cats

Magazine article Geographical

Africa's Iconic Big Cats

Article excerpt

With the world-famous wildebeest migration getting underway in June every year, many wildlife photographers believe that August is the best time to snap East Africa's wildlife, not least its lions, leopards and cheetahs, Here Keith Wilson advises how to make the most of a big cat safari

Many an outdoor photographer dreams of visiting the vast open plains of Southern and East Africa for a wildlife safari. The attractions are obvious: big skies, vast open plains, dazzling light and, of course, the iconic wildlife.

No other continent comes close to matching Africa's array of large mammals for international recognition. From the mighty processions of elephants to the loping gait of long-legged giraffes, this is one part of the world where you're almost guaranteed to experience wildlife on the grandest scale. But even the sight of these magnificent creatures and the promise of rhinos, hippos and sprawling herds of zebras and wildebeest, can't match the adrenalin rush that comes with seeing Africa's big cats.

For many of us, a safari without a sighting of lion, leopard or cheetah just doesn't seem complete, such is the powerful association of these animals with the image of Africa. And yet, the reality is that seeing just one of the big cat species demands patience and a little bit of luck.

To see and photograph all three usually requires many safaris to different locations and at different times of year. That said, it's the 'king of beasts', the lion, that's most commonly spotted and a much-prized subject for the camera.


Lions are more conspicuous than leopards or cheetahs, and therefore more likely to be encountered on safari. Not only are they considerably larger than the other African big cats, but they're the only ones to live in large social groups--prides--thereby providing the photographer with a variety of picture opportunities.

A typical pride consists of about a dozen lions, mostly related females and their young (cubs stay with their mother for up to two years) and one or two males. The distinctive long black-and-brown mane of the male makes it more popular than females when making a portrait study of a solitary lion, but males tend to spend most of the day resting, often away from the rest of the pride and out of sight.

However, the antics of cubs playing with their mothers makes up for an absent father. Younger cubs are often seen playing with each other, tumbling and jumping around their mother's resting body.

The lionesses aren't as lazy as they might at first look--they rest during the heat of the day but will combine as a deadly team at dusk when hunting for food. Like leopards, lions are primarily nocturnal hunters, so chances to see them on the move during the day, let alone stalking prey, are rare.

As a result, most encounters with lions are sedentary affairs. In places where safari tours are common, such as Kruger National Park in South Africa or the Mara-Serengeti region in Kenya and Tanzania, many prides have become habituated to the steady flow of vehicles, allowing photographers to get incredibly close to these beautiful beasts.


Getting this close to your subject is, of course, good news for the photographer who wants to travel light and not be burdened with an expensive and heavy 600-millimetre lens, which is the 'standard' lens for many wildlife safari pros. While 500-millimetre and 600-millimetre lenses have superb optical quality and provide the reach for distant subjects, a more practical alternative is a telephoto zoom. Not only are they lighter and more compact, but telephoto zooms of the 200-40Q-millimetre, or 200-500-millimetre range provide enough flexibility to suit a variety of situations.

Zooms are also a better choice for reducing the number of times you need to change lenses, thereby reducing the risk of dust or grit getting into your camera. …

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