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African Photo Safari - Kalahari Meerkats
(with Nigel and Wendy Dennis)

At 8am on a May morning the Kalahari meerkats were having fun, and so was I. Most of the family had completed their sunbathing session. For the diminutive meerkats, regaining body heat after a long cold night is an important priority. The youngsters began the rough and tumble of a good play-fight, and were trying hard to entice a few of the adults to participate as well. Lying flat on the ground to take pictures at almost gecko's eye level, I shot roll after roll whilst taking care not to get too much sand into the camera. Probably this was the first time the meerkats had seen a person lying on the ground and the youngsters were puzzled by my odd behaviour. A couple of the braver ones - in human terms they might have been teenagers - scurried up to me to sniff my camera and press their noses right against the front lens element to peer inside.

For a photographer such accommodating subjects offer a rare opportunity. As a rule, a person on foot would be fortunate to get within a hundred meters before these normally shy skittish creatures bolt in terror. The meerkats I was photographing were truly wild, but had lost their natural fear of humans. They regard a person in much the same way as a springbok or wildebeest - just another large animal that hardly warrants a second glance as it is totally harmless. Getting wild animals to lose their fear of humans is not achieved easily - the painstaking process of habituation takes several months of patient work. I was very fortunate indeed that someone else had done all this hard work for me. These meerkats had been studied intensively by a research team funded by Cambridge University. Each day over a period of several years the researchers had followed the meerkats on foot to study their behaviour, probably making this group the most approachable in the entire Kalahari.

Being regular visitors to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (formally known as the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park) Wendy and I already had hundreds of meerkat images in our files. However this time we had returned to gather additional material for a book assignment just on meerkats. Making a book on a single species is a tricky task. Even with a subject possessing such an abundance of character, it is all too easy for a book to look repetitive. My intention was to add variety by utilising a wide range of equipment - everything from a ultra wide angle 20mm lens to the 600mm super telephoto was pressed into service. Equally important, to make the book interesting I needed to record a good diversity of behaviour. Taking pictures of a meerkats sunbathing outside their burrow is ridiculously easy - they just line up for a family portrait. Once they begin foraging it is a different story. Being such tiny creatures, meerkats exist in a more rapid time scale than us humans are accustomed to. Beetles, geckos and grubs are unearthed and consumed in a second. Even venomous scorpions are disarmed and wolfed down with incredible speed. I found unless I got onto the action instantly it was all over before I could even press the shutter button. I pretty much had to resort to firing long bursts with the motor-drive set at high speed and hope the auto-focus tracking kicked in. I generally do not favour 'machine gun' tactics, but there was no alternative with these fleet little super predators.

Meerkats are under the constant threat of predation during every moment of the day. For this reason the adults take turns at sentry duty. Martial eagles and jackals are particularly feared. Immediately upon hearing a warning call from the sentry the entire group will flee to the nearest bolt hole. For a photographer crawling on the ground after meerkats, the Kalahari presents other dangers. Lion are unlikely to be spotted until it is too late, and aggressive Cape cobras are everywhere. We also had to take turns as sentry from the roof of our vehicle - in fact it was a condition of our official photographic permit that somebody would always be on the lookout if one of us left the vehicle. Since I was doing the assignment, Wendy unfortunately got the raw end of the deal and acted as lookout for hours on end. At times though, I would sense growing a impatience emanating from the car roof, so we would swap roles for a while - just as if she were a meerkat that had been left on sentry duty for too long!

Nigel's Photo Tip - Photo Assignments

For much of the time pro wildlife photographers work on assignment, such as the meerkat book project described in this article. I like assignments for two reasons. Firstly they put bread on the table, but equally important an assignment makes me put more effort into producing a good variety and depth of coverage on a subject. I usually finish up getting far more interesting pictures than if I had been snapping away without any particular purpose or direction. If you are a photo enthusiast (I don't like the rather derogatory term 'amateur', as many 'amateurs' produce work of excellent quality but choose - perhaps very wisely - not to try to make a living out of photography) then setting your own assignment is an excellent idea. Pick an area you can visit regularly - even a tiny nature reserve in an urban area can have lots of potential. Aim to record as much as possible - animals, birds, reptiles, flora, trees, scenics - everything in fact. The chances are you will be photographing many subjects you have not attempted before, and are sure to learn lots of new skills along the way. Also plan to have an audience for your work, such as making a slide presentation at your local Wildlife Society or Bird Club meeting.

About the Author: Born in England in 1953, Nigel Dennis developed a deep interest in the natural world from an early age. First finding expression in the form of painting nature subjects, he also became interested in photography just over twenty years ago. Living in England at the time, his first projects included photographing red deer and the shy nocturnal European badger. For the badger photography he spent over forty nights photographing whilst still managing to hold down a busy day job. Nature photography soon overtook painting as a means of expressing his passion for the natural world and from the early eighties his work began to be published in books and magazines.

He moved to Africa in 1985 with a view to making wildlife photography a full time profession. During his first few years in Africa he continued with his previous career in sales and marketing, but still spent about one hundred days a year photographing by utilising all his annual holidays and weekends. Eventually having built up a sufficient stock of wildlife images he launched into the rather precarious occupation of freelance wildlife photographer in 1991. Since then he and his wife Wendy camp in the African bush for up to nine months each year. Although they work mainly in South Africa they also photograph regularly in Namibia and have visited Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Madagascar.

Nigel Dennis photographs all natural subjects including reptiles, insects, flora and landscapes but tends to concentrate primarily on African animals and birds. His work is marketed by fifteen stock photo agencies and has been published world-wide in over twenty five countries. He also runs his own photo library supplying images to the publishing and advertising industries, and currently has over 40,000 transparencies on file. He does not take on commercial or advertising assignments and works primarily on book and magazine projects. Nigel Dennis has had twelve wildlife coffee table books published to date.

You can see more of Nigel's work at the following websites:
Profotos - Nigel Dennis

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