Saturday, 24 December 2011

Behaviour Pt.1

Our apologies for the delay in providing this update.  We have been rushed off our feet with work in the run-up to the festive season.  Karen has been working on putting together a video sequence featuring some of the animal behaviour we witnessed on this safari but she has not had time to complete that, so rather than not having another update before the year end, we have brought you some still images instead.

This is just a tiny fraction of the behaviour we witnessed from the many animals and birds we met on this safari but hopefully it will give you a flavour.

Young Burchell's Zebra having a dust bath in the Mara
Large flock of Red-Billed Quelea drinking at a waterhole in Tsavo East
Maribou Stork catching fish at Ngutuni
Black-Headed or Village Weaver building a nest

Black-Headed Heron catching a lizard
Spotted Hyena keeping cool in the heat of the mid-day sun in the Mara
Not the most considerate Hippo mother - spraying poo in her bairn's face
Grey-Crowned Crane prances and dances to attract his mate
This Wildebeest was dead within two minutes of being caught by the Nile Crocodile in the Mara
Our final image in this update demonstrates something some of you may not be aware of about the enigmatic and elegant Giraffe.  This incredible animal looks like a giant ballerina; it is so graceful and gentle.  However, beneath that "classy-lassie" exterior is a seriously HARD beast!  Whilst the Wildebeest were wandering back and forward anxiously, looking to see if there were any crocodiles to worry about before attempting a crossing, the Giraffes took one look at the waiting Croc and just walked right over the top of him!

The lead Giraffe just stomped right over the Crocodile visible just behind the second Giraffe!

We hope you enjoyed this update and we wish you all a very happy and peaceful end to 2011 with our best wishes for a healthy and happy 2012.

Our New-Year's resolution is to redouble our fund-raising efforts for Save The Elephants.  If you can help, please consider making a donation through our Just Giving page.

Friday, 25 November 2011

One for the Geeks

As this is a blog about a photographic safari, we thought we should give at least one update over to those who want to know more about the equipment used and the technicalities involved, problems that can be experienced, practicalities of organising and running this safari etc.  So here it is...

The KonicaMinolta 5D is an old 6MP DSLR.  Our main camera for several years, it still came in very handy on this safariIt was and is the best 6MP DSLR ever made.

Most of the wildlife photography blogs you read and magazine articles you see will no doubt have been shot with the most up-to-date "pro-level" equipment.  We have actually heard people complain that, because they cannot afford a Canon 5D Mark II or a Nikon D3s and a 600mm f4 lens there is no point in them considering going to Africa on safari!  On the other end of the scale, you will hear others complain that there is too much "equipment snobbery" and the photographer is more important than the camera.
In a sense, we feel that both arguments are right but only partially.  If you are not a good photographer, then it doesn't matter what equipment you have but good quality equipment will make it easier for a good photographer to get better shots.

The main advantages of top-of-the-range cameras tend to be in the ergonomics and useability - they may focus slightly faster, shoot more frames per second for capturing action, have better placed controls for easier access to advanced functions, offer a greater range of control etc but these are generally lots of minor tweaks individually that combine to make the camera easier to use for an experienced photographer.  They may also be hermetically sealed against dust and water, giving greater protection from the elements and therefore allowing you to continue to shoot in adverse environmental conditions.  Whilst the advantages of a "pro-level" camera will help a good photographer get more useable shots, that doesn't mean he or she can't get outstanding shots with less expensive cameras.

Lenses, however, are a different kettle of fish to cameras.  Good quality lenses have massive advantages over lesser lenses and even the most expensive camera will struggle to make anything worthwhile with a poor lens.  For wildlife photography, where fine detail often makes the difference between a good shot and a great shot, the quality of the lens makes a huge difference.  Having said that, whilst we would all like to own a 600mm f4, a 400mm f2.8 etc this is not possible for the majority of people, so our maxim has always been to buy the best quality glass we can afford and a camera body that does what we need it to do.

Another factor in wildlife photography that often gets overlooked is that conditions vary and animals don't tend to sit and pose in the ideal place for a prime lens, so zoom lenses are infinitely more practical.  It used to be the case, however, that prime lenses offered significantly better image quality than zooms but that is not always the case nowadays.  Lens technology has advanced greatly in the last 30 years and the differences in image quality between good quality zooms and primes have narrowed to the point where for all practical purposes there is no difference that can be seen outside a laboratory.

Now that you know our views on cameras and lenses, what exactly did we take with us?  Howard used a Sony Alpha 550 camera, with a Sigma 120-400mm f4.5-5.6 APO DG OS lens and Karen used a Sony Alpha SLT55 camera with a Sigma 120-400mm f4.5-5.6 APO DG OS lens.  We also shared one of our old KonicaMinolta Dynax 5D cameras, a Sigma 18-50mm f2.8 EX DC Macro and a Sony 18-55 f3.5-5.6  Full reviews of all of our equipment will be posted shortly on our Safaripics website.

Sigma 120-400mm f4.5-5.6 APO DG OS lens attached to Sony Alpha 500 body and Sigma 18-50mm f2.8 EX DC Macro attached to Sony Alpha SLT55 body.  The orange staining on the long lens is safari dust!

We think you will agree that we were able to capture some nice images with this equipment but what problems did we encounter with not using top-of-the-range pro equipment?  The short answer is "not a lot".

The pervasive nature of the fine dust in Africa can wreck some equipment and if you have been following the blog, you will have seen one image where the shutter on the Alpha 550 was stopped by dust.  This happened for only four images, out of almost 35,000 images taken on this safari!  On another occasion dust in the contacts between the lens and the Alpha 550 prevented aperture changing, which was cured by simply switching the camera off and then back on again.  The only other problem and also the most annoying, was when dust got into the zoom changing ring in one of the Sigma 120-400mm lenses, preventing it from pulling back beyond 150mm.  This lasted for a day, until Howard accidentally smacked the lens on the steering wheel when climbing into the Land Rover and that dislodged the dust!

As you can see, dust can be a major problem on photographic safaris!

Of course, in the digital age, it is not just the camera equipment that is needed but also computers and software.  We were also blogging "from the field", so what equipment did we use and what were the practicalities and problems of that?

Blogging from a budget hotel room in Voi

We updated our laptop before we left, so that we would have something fast, reliable and with good storage and processing power.  We opted for an Acer, with a an Intel i3 processor, 640Gb hard drive and 6Gb of RAM.  It also came with the new ultra-high speed USB3, so we also bought a USB3 card reader for downloading images.  This meant we could download images much quicker, which would in turn save battery power in the laptop.  We also took an inverter to give us 240 volt AC power from the car's accessory socket for charging batteries in the field.  We couldn't afford an extra copy of Photoshop for the laptop before we left, so all the images uploaded during the safari were processed using the free Sony software that came with the cameras, which is surprisingly good.  We also took two portable hard drives with 1TB and 750Gb capacities, so that we could have double back-ups of everything. 

Blogging by the light of a head-torch from the back of a Land Rover in the bush

 The thing that made blogging from the bush possible was the excellent mobile newtork coverage available in Kenya.  We obtained a Safaricom USB modem from Ashtech Systems in Voi (Tiju Aziz, the owner, was kind enough to meet us at the shop on the Sunday we arrived to supply the modem, despite her shop being closed).  In many places, including the Masai Mara, we had full 3G coverage, which made blogging fast and easy; we were also able to talk with relatives back in the UK via Skype in Tsavo West and Nairobi.

Once we had the dongle, we just needed to pick up airtime vouchers whenever we needed them

The total cost of blogging for three weeks, including the dongle and airtime vouchers was around £55.  We encountered only two problems when blogging.  At Sekenani, we stayed in a budget tented camp for one night, which was situated in a valley that blocked signals, so we were unable to provide an update for that night.  The only other problem was that we had not disabled automatic updates on the new laptop, so the first time we went online, the laptop used all our airtime credit downloading a security update!

To the many people who may read this blog and think that safaris are out of reach and even if they could afford it, they can't afford the photography equipment to make it worthwhile, we would say to think again.  Jason, who joined us on safari for the second time on this trip, told us recently that he had worked out that the cost per person, per day on this trip was just over £110, which includes flights, accommodation, vehicle hire, fuel, food, souvenirs and Park entry fees.  The equipment we used cost a total of £2,100 each, meaning we could have bought all the equipment brand new and gone on this safari for three weeks for only £4,500!  We also spent fifteen days out of the three weeks in National Parks and Reserves, which is more than most off-the-shelf safaris would provide for over £10,000 and we came home with thousands of images and memories.

Elephants in Tsavo East National Park

 Don't forget the purpose of this blog is to raise funds for Save The Elephants; please consider making a donation to our fund-raising through our Just Giving page.

That's the geeky bit over - normal service will be resumed in our next post, with a look at some of the animal behaviour we photographed on this safari.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Birdlife Part 2 - Tsavo East and West

To make up for the delay since our last post, today we have a bumper selection of bird images from both Tsavos.  We hope you like them!

Little Bee-Eater with prey

Tawny Eagle close-up

Taita Falcon "bombing" a pair of Tawny Eagles

The bombing run is a success as he knocks one of the Tawny Eagles off his perch

Somali Ostrich


Common Bulbul singing

Hunter's Sunbird

Crested Bustard

Three-Banded Plover on eggs

Pied Crow in flight

Common Drongo

This randy male Yellow-Necked Spurfowl was determined to catch a lady!

...but like the persistent guy in the nightclub - the ladies all went upstairs to avoid him!

Laughing Dove

Crested Francolin

Superb Starling

White-Bellied Go-Away Bird

Long-Tailed Cormorant

Pied Kingfisher

Giant Kingfisher

African Grey Hornbill

African Fish Eagle

Black-Headed or Village Weaver building nest

Collared Sunbird

Tawny Eagle in flight

If you have enjoyed this post, please consider making a donation to Save the Elephants through our Just Giving Page.  Our next post will be one for the techno-geeks, looking at the equipment used.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Saving Elephants

We decided to run a live blog during our safari as a novel way of trying to raise some money for a charity that has done a tremendous amount of work to improve the survival prospects for wild Elephants.  This is why we did it.

In the early 1970s, the population of Elephants in the Tsavo ecosystem was over 45,000.  By the late 1980s that had dropped to just 5,000 due to poaching for the illegal ivory trade.  With the formation of the Kenya Wildlife Service in 1989, the Elephants of Kenya finally had an effective protector against the poachers.  Thanks to the efforts and the sacrifices (often in blood) of KWS Rangers, the Elephant population in Tsavo has risen each year since then and now stands at over 12,000.  However, each time a limited sale of ivory stockpiles from those countries who want to release what they see as "tied up revenue" has been allowed, there has been a corresponding spike in poaching due to the market being stimulated by the sale of these stocks.

African Elephant (Loxodonta africana)
The inclusion of China as a bidder in the most recent "legal" sale of ivory stockpiles has opened a "Pandora's Box" because China has a massive newly-wealthy middle class population who, for the first time, can afford access to luxury products which were once only available to a few.  The stimulation of the market, coupled with this enormous potential customer base has created an explosion of demand for ivory products in China, pushing the price of ivory to record levels, which in turn makes ivory poaching and the illegal trade in ivory a very lucrative business indeed!  It is a testament to the efforts of the KWS Rangers that, despite a massive increase in poaching activity throughout Africa, the population of Elephants in the Tsavo ecosystem has not fallen.

The only place ivory should be is on an Elephant

We did see evidence of the recent upsurge in poaching during our safari in Tsavo East.  Along one of the less-used trails near the Sala Gate, we found five sun-bleached Elephant skeletons in the space of a few hundred metres, suggesting they had been killed by poachers, rather than as a result of the drought.

Elephants lit up in early morning light is a wonderful sight

Poaching is the major immediate threat facing Elephants today but it is not the only obstacle in the way of a secure future for these magnificent animals.  Conflict with humans over resources and habitat loss are two other factors that need to be managed if the Elephant is to survive into the second half of this century.

"Here's lookin' at you, Kid"

The Elephant is a keystone species in the ecosystems it inhabits.  As an "environmental engineer" the Elephant changes the landscape, making it possible for other species to thrive and its removal can have a devastating effect on many other species.  It is also a long-distance pollenator, distributing seeds through its dung.  However, if the Elephant's range is restricted then this "engineering" becomes too concentrated and destructive, so they do need plenty of space to range over.  When human population expansion takes over areas of land used by Elephants, this can cut off migration routes and lead to over-concentration of Elephant activity, which damages the remaining habitat.  Isolation of populations can also have damaging effects on genetic diversity.

A family on the move

People who live in the vicinity of Elephants often come into conflict with them: a small family of Elephants invading someone's shamba can devastate an entire year's crops in one night!  As a result, some Elephants have been shot or speared and some people killed by the Elephants whilst trying to defend their crops.  All of these factors need to be considered when trying to find an effective strategy for the preservation of wild Elephants in their natural habitat.  To work, any plan must account for the need to protect people from Elephants as much as to protect Elephants from people.

It is a priviledge to be this close to an Elephant but will future generations experience this?

Traditionally, preservation efforts have concentrated on reserving areas for the wildlife and stepping up the anti-poaching efforts but these methods don't take account of the Elephants' need to move between ranges or the pressures of habitat destruction or encroachment due to human population expansion and infrastructure developments.  It became clear several years ago that a more holistic approach will be needed if the Elephant is to survive into the late 21st Century.  Detailed research into every aspect of Elephant life and behaviour would be needed and new approaches to dealing with Human/Elephant conflict explored.  In addition, education within Elephant states to increase understanding of the need for conservation and also in the consuming countries to reduce the demand for ivory products is needed.  A recent investigation by a Chinese/American journalist revealed that the vast majority of Chinese ivory buyers believe the lie that ivory traders tell them that Elephants shed their tusks every year and these are harvested without harm to the Elephants!  This is where organisations like Save The Elephants come in.

40 years of rampant slaughter for ivory has caused an evolutionary effect reducing average tusk size

Several organisations have carried out a variety of long-term Elephant studies which mean we now have a much greater understanding of Elephant movement patterns, society and relationships.  We also know that Elephants have one of the most complex communication systems of any creature, including over 70 different vocalisations and 160 gestures, expressions and other tactile communication methods already identified (language and body language).  If you want to know more about these studies read books like "Silent Thunder" and take a look at the work of the Amboseli Trust For Elephants.

The trunk has more muscles than the entire human body and a highly sensitive prehensile tip
Save The Elephants has raised funds for many research projects and has also contributed to or run many others.  In addition, the organisation provides a variety of educational resources, including an outreach project and mobile education unit that travels all over Kenya.  Save The Elephants has also begun to tackle the poaching problem at source, by working with other organisations to provide education on Elephants and conservation in China, thereby targeting the demand for ivory.
Elephants bathing at a waterhole

One study run by Save The Elephants looked at migration patterns and associations between groups of Elephants using GPS tracking.  This led to the construction of Elephant corridors, which provided a safe path for Elephants between ranges.  Several other innovative projects have been spawned by this research, including a project where GPS collars are fitted to Elephants, along with mobile phone technology, enabling text messages to be sent to researchers when there are unusual changes in an Elephant's movements, or to village elders if an Elephant is approaching their village!

The Elephants are coming!

Another project looked at how Elephants react with fear to African Honey-Bees and this led to the use of Bee-hives as Elephant deterrent fences, which give villages not only increased protection from Elephants but also a bumper crop of honey, which is now being marketed as "Elephant Friendly Honey"!

Mother and Baby Elephant

One Elephant corridor near Mount Kenya even includes a $1Million underpass to allow migrating Elephants to cross safely underneath a highway!

Suckling baby Elephant

It was innovative projects like these, which combine ground-breaking research with novel solutions to problems that benefit, rather than penalise the Human communities living with Elephants that persuaded us that Save The Elephants should be the charity we would try to help with our fund-raising efforts.

Will this feisty young Elephant have a chance to have grandchildren someday?

We hope you have found this post interesting and enjoyed some of our favourite Elephant photos from this safari.  Our next post will be the second part of our look at the bird-life we encountered during our safari.

If you haven't already, please consider making a donation to our fund-raising on behalf of Save The Elephants through our Just Giving page.