MAKING PHOTOS FOR NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
Photographer and explorer Thomas Peschak spent months at a time at Tswalu on assignment for National Geographic. His brief? To document the impact of climate change on biodiversity in an arid savannah like the southern Kalahari. Drawing attention to critical conservation issues through photography is his mission. Read our Q&A with Thomas Peschak here.
“Conservation photography is about creating images and telling stories that matter,” he explained. For maximum impact, he always aims to show people something they have never seen before or to show them something familiar from a completely unfamiliar perspective. The photos from Tswalu that featured in ‘The Edge of Survival’ (National Geographic, August 2021), certainly achieved both.
Like all of his Nat Geo assignments, the research and planning to produce photographs of this calibre started long before Thomas arrived at Tswalu. The photographer takes us behind the lens to reveal the creativity, patience, time and luck that went into these once-in-a-lifetime shots.
Most photos published either depict pangolins that have been rehabilitated and released. Few images of truly wild pangolins exist. Tswalu is known for being one of the best places in Africa to see pangolins in the wild. For two months Thomas worked closely with Dr. Wendy Panaino, whose expert knowledge of ground pangolins and their behaviour formed the basis of her PhD. Although some of the pangolins that formed part of Wendy’s study were radio tagged, they were not habituated and he knew that it would take many weeks to get close enough to one without disturbing it. It was winter, which meant that the pangolins were largely diurnal. He began with a long telephoto 500mm lens with the goal of slowly making a pangolin comfortable in his presence. “Any wrong move, and I could set back the habituation process,” said Tom. Then he moved to a 300mm lens. Week after week the lenses got shorter and shorter. “The animal eventually got used to my smell and the sound of my boots walking through the grass. I walked away from many great images, keeping the long game in the back of my mind.” Ten weeks on, winter had turned into summer and the pangolin had switched activities and was completely nocturnal. Because he wanted the moon to be full, there was a narrow three-day window during which enough light would fall on the landscape. “It all came together the night after full moon. Using a 16mm lens, I lay within a metre of the pangolin feeding on ants and termites below a young camel thorn bathed in soft, diffused moonlight.”
Meerkats are probably the most photographed animals in the Kalahari. Thomas wanted to avoid just relying on the cuteness factor and capture how this very resourceful, opportunistic and adaptable species continues to live at, what he described as, “the edge of the impossible”. It is a low angle shot, showing the juxtaposition of the sentry and the rest of the Mokala group in the background. Meerkats are successful because they live cooperatively, sharing duties like babysitting, security and foraging for the pups. Thomas said what made the Mokala group of meerkats so fantastic was their level of habituation. “They literally treat you like a rock or a tree – as if you don’t even exist. If you move slowly, advancing in a non-threatening way, you can work at very close range of them without influencing their behaviour. I used a wide-angle lens to make the habitat as prominent as the species. I wanted to emphasise the impact of the recent drought on their survival, and to show just how small and vulnerable the Mokala group had become during this time – reduced to only six individuals.” A few months after this photo was taken, Tswalu recorded its highest rainfall averages in almost seven years. With replenished food resources, the Mokalas began to reproduce again. “In this photo, it is almost as if you are right there in the experience with the meerkats, feeling the impact of the drought alongside these small but tenacious animals.”
This was apparently a very difficult one! With pangolins, the researchers shared a lot of on the ground knowledge of the locations of their burrow systems with Thomas. Tracking an aardvark and finding its burrow was much more challenging. “We drove around for hours on about a dozen cold winter afternoons, hoping to bump into one and then stalk it from the right wind direction and get as close as possible. Its hearing is extraordinary! If you step on one dry blade of grass, an aardvark will hear you approaching from 100 metres away. I just could not get within range to make a decent photo, but we kept trying until one afternoon luck was on my side. It was almost dark and we could just about make out the shape of an aardvark to the left of the track. I hoped the animal would emerge and walk across the road in front of our vehicle. Luckily my Nikon D5 camera’s ISO capabilities are insanely good, because I could barely see more than the animal’s outline through the viewfinder. Suddenly, the animal legged it across the road. I had less than a second. The first shot was out of focus, the second one captured the aardvark as it emerged onto the track in front of us. A second later, it disappeared into the long grass on the righthand side of the track. The more I spent time with aardvark, the more I appreciated their wildness and secretive nature. In many ways, this captures the soul and secretiveness of an aardvark, and speaks to the elusiveness of the species.”
SOCIABLE WEAVER NEST AT NIGHT
The communal nests belonging to Sociable weavers are not only iconic structures in the Kalahari, but also have great ecological value. “The fact that these nest structures are keeping fragile little birds alive at minus 10 degrees at night astounds me,” said Thomas. He wanted to photograph these nests at the time of day when they are most crucial to the ecology of Sociable weavers. It took days of planning. “The Kalahari is known for its night skies and zero light pollution. I drove around for a few days inspecting about 100 different camel thorn trees with nests before settling on these trees. Most of the trees I found were in dune valleys, but this one was on the crest of a dune which meant I could photograph the entire tree and the colony of nests with just the night sky as the backdrop,” he said. He wanted to create a silhouette, but without losing the detail of the nest structure. It required a long exposure and a small flashlight to ‘paint’ in the light on selective nests from different angles. A camera flash would have been too overbearing, lighting up the entire tree. “I didn’t want to lose that nocturnal feel. To add a magical edge to the photo, I timed it to coincide with the rising moon. When the rising moon was in line with the tree, the moonlight was obscured by one of the nests so that just enough light percolated through.” Magic, indeed.
“The majority of biodiversity on our planet consists of insect life, so I wanted to invest the same energy and novelty into taking a picture of insects as I had used to photograph predators. I didn’t only want the megafauna to look sexy!” As a scientist, Thomas was fascinated to learn that there are 218 species of moths at Tswalu. This photo was taken during the rainy season when there was a hyper abundance of moths. Most nights Thomas said he would shine a torch into the night sky, and it would be alive with moths. Their abundance seemed to peak on humid evenings. “I wanted to showcase the moths in an interesting way by including the visual indicators, like lightning storms and lush greenery, that are so characteristic of the wet season. We went out many nights in a row, waiting for one of those typical Kalahari thunderstorms to roll in across the landscape. I was planning a long exposure with the camera on a tripod and was banking on a combination of three sources of light: lightning to illuminate the sky in the background, a large spotlight to paint the grass and camel thorn, and a small head torch positioned above the camera to light up the moths.”
Thomas spent over two hours photographing to create this exact image, which shows the flight trails of the moths with open wings – the longer the shutter was open, the longer the trails became. Minutes later, the wind shifted and the moths vanished!
LION HUNTING GIRAFFE
As lion ecology is very important to the Kalahari, Thomas wanted to showcase the lion’s status as an apex predator by photographing it hunting. These are usually the first animals to be lost in the wake of ranching, farming and development. Black-maned lions have been successfully reintroduced at Tswalu, and it is one of the few locations in the Kalahari where lions are abundant and play an important role ecologically.
Inspiration came from the abundance of flowering black thorn trees. “The flowering was superb! Within a matter of weeks, vast tracts of the reserve were draped in white flowers – the black thorn became luminescent. If you looked into the sun, the trees begin to shimmer. After driving through areas thick with flowering black thorn, I knew I wanted to photograph them, but the scene needed an element of energy or action.” His original plan was to photograph giraffes, backlit by the sun. One day he hiked up a little hill. Down in the valley, giraffes were walking through flowering black thorns with only their long necks and upper bodies visible. Several minutes were spent tracking the progress of a particularly large bull through the viewfinder of his camera. Suddenly it began to run. “That’s odd,” he thought. “I was staring into my viewfinder, watching the giraffe running down the track, kicking up a cloud of dust, beautifully backlit, when suddenly I noticed a lion chasing after it! In a situation like this, the mind has to make a lightning fast shift. The scene has gone from a giraffe walking slowly through black thorn to lion hunting giraffe! More importantly, the lion chased the giraffe up the road very close to where we had parked the vehicle!” A decision had to be made, and very, very quickly. Instead of retreating to the vehicle, he carried on shooting and this is the result. The lioness (it turned out) and giraffe ran past within 10 metres of the vehicle. She didn’t manage to get the giraffe, but it was an adrenalin-fuelled moment.
SPOTTED HYENA RELEASE
Finding interesting ways to photograph conservation in action is a constant consideration for Thomas. An opportunity to document the introduction of five spotted hyenas into the reserve resulted in this action shot. These were hyenas captured in Addo Elephant Park in the Eastern Cape and driven overnight to Tswalu for release. “If you look closely, there are five hyenas but only four are running. The last one hung back and had to be tipped out of his crate! Kudu horns were used as a barrier to protect the camera, which was on a tripod inside the holding pen. I was standing on the outside, holding a remote shutter. What makes this photo interesting is the story it tells. Spotted hyenas have been reintroduced onto Tswalu to create a balanced ecosystem. Despite their reputation as scavengers, they are efficient hunters. Without the threat of predators, herbivores tend to overgraze one area of a reserve. The fear of predation keeps them moving, which eases the grazing pressure across the reserve. Over time, as conditions in the Kalahari become increasingly hotter and drier, this means there will be less risk of desertification. I love the energy in this photo, the sand flying, the edginess of the hyena’s leg cut off, the action evident among the conservation team. Stylistically, it is a great pic, but it also tells a cool story.”
First image by Dylan Smith, depicting Thomas Peschak at work with researcher Wendy Panaino and photographic assistant Otto Whitehead.
All other images by Thomas P Peschak, taken on assignment for National Geographic.
INTRIGUING TRUTHS ABOUT WHITE-BROWED SPARROW WEAVERS
Marcus Westberg spent time with the scientific research team studying the intricate social lives of White-browed Sparrow Weavers. Their aim? To figure out whether the birds’ gregarious behaviour influences their intelligence.
GATHERING DATA ON TEMMINCK’S PANGOLIN
In Part two in our Q&A with Wits master’s student Daniel Rossouw, find out more about his methodology for gathering data, for example studying soil samples, to determine the pangolin’s role in the ecosystem.