THIS IS IT!!! My 10 best and most favourite wildlife images of last year. I hope that everybody enjoyed my “Top 60 images of 2013” over the past 8 weeks. I’ve already been on two trips to the bush this year and the pressure is definitely on to produce images that’s on par with the ones in this collection. I’m already looking forward to sharing my “Best images of 2014” with you guys early next year! I not only used photographic elements like light, colour and composition, but I also looked at my subject matter and the difficulty of getting a good shot of that specific species in it’s natural habitat. If you didn’t see the other images in my 2013 collection just click on the links on the left side of my photo blog pages. Enjoy!

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1. THE IMPRESSIVE LONG TONGUE OF A  PANGOLIN.

When I found out that I was going to Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, South Africa’s largest privately owned protected area, for six months to film the lives of a family of meerkats, I was very excited for various reasons. Firstly, I’d be spending the majority of my time outdoors and behind a camera, and secondly, I’d get to know the meerkats intimately. Then of course there was also the chance that I would encounter one of the Kalahari “specials”. And that’s exactly what happened one fine winter’s day, not too long into my assignment. It was a sunny afternoon around 4:30pm when a flock of crowned lapwings near the meerkat’s burrow suddenly took to the air, calling stridently. The prospect of a threat so nearby caused the meerkats to freeze and scan the area for possible danger. After staring in the direction of the lapwings for almost five minutes, I finally spied what had caused all the commotion and couldn’t believe my eyes: a pangolin on the move!

I grabbed both cameras, video and stills, and made sure I got closer to this prehistoric-looking creature. At first it didn’t detect me, but when it came to within five metres of my hiding place, it must have picked up my scent as it immediately rolled into a defensive ball. After a while, together with some of Tswalu’s guides and guests, I quietly watched this beautiful specimen uncoil itself to reveal a timid face and then to everybody’s surprise a very impressive tongue. Sunset finally caught up with us, however, and this rarely seen animal quietly strolled away and disappeared into the Kalahari’s gathering darkness. Nikon D700 with a Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8VRII lens at 1/1250, f5.6 & ISO 400.

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2. A TIGRESS PEAKING OVER THE GRASS, KEEPING HER EYES ON THE INTRUDER.

My first visit to Tiger Canyons in the Free State of South Africa was definitely a memorable one. John Varty, a well known wildlife film maker and big cat expert, established this tiger reserve near the town of Philippolis as an experiment to create a free-ranging, self-sustaining tiger population outside Asia. The tiger numbers, together with rhino and many other species around the world, are seriously declining because of illegal poaching and habitat destruction. From this population in South Africa, third and fourth generations of tigers can be returned to Asia into parks that meet a set of criteria which give the tigers a chance of surviving in Asia. One afternoon we found Ussuri, a beautiful tigress that we could see was lactating, slowly walking back to an area with nice big rocks. She was probably heading back to her den site to feed her cubs, but she kept on looking into one specific direction. Only after about 5 minutes we saw what she was looking at….another tiger. Ussuri was not keen on continuing on her way, potentially giving the location of her cubs away, so she stopped in her tracks and lied down in the grass. She peeked over the tall grass and kept a keen eye on the intruder, making sure that the other tiger moves further away to ensure her cub’s safety, and yet another addition to the tiger numbers in the world. Nikon D700 with a Nikkor 200-400mm f4VR lens at 1/800, f4 & ISO 1600.

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3. AN AARDVARK FORAGING IN THE LATE AFTERNOON KALAHARI LIGHT.

The Kalahari in southern Africa is really an awesome place, not only because of the different landscape and colours, but also because of the openness and possibility of photographing some of the shy nocturnal “specials”. See my other aardvark image (no.42) and read the background story of this sighting. After I took that image, and a lot more, the sun started getting very close to the horizon. I was happy with most of my images up until then and thought to myself “now I can become more creative” and I knew that a back-lit image of an aardvark would be awesome. I carefully moved around the foraging animal and positioned myself on it’s eastern side, with the aardvark between me and the setting sun. I went down on my belly and made use of my beanbag for lens support to capture this aardvark foraging in the late afternoon Kalahari light. As the sun disappeared behind the horizon I thanked the aardvark for his courtesy and gave him his secrecy back, I knew that this was a once in a life time experience and walked away a very happy man. Nikon D700 with a Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8VRII lens at 1/2000, f5.6 & ISO 800.

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4. TWO MALE CHACMA BABOONS SORTING THEIR DIFFERENCES OUT .

I just love driving around on Mashatu Game Reserve searching for anything interesting to film and photograph…..and Mashatu never disappoints! The massive Nyala trees growing along the dry river courses are not only resting places for the resident leopards, but also a safe sleeping place for the many baboon troops at night. One afternoon we found a family of baboons that was busy foraging under one of the big trees and suddenly all hell broke loose! Two of the male baboons grabbed each other aggressively and started fighting, there was a female baboon in oestrus close by and it’s usually the strongest and most dominant male that will get the mating rights. Nikon D700 with a Nikkor 200-400mm f4VR lens at 1/1600, f5.6 & ISO 800.

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5. EYE-TO-EYE WITH A HONEY BADGER.

By working in wilderness areas in Africa I continuously experience wonderful natural phenomena, but that’s not all, I also regularly meet other conservation minded people. On my last stint filming meerkats at Tswalu in the Kalahari I met just such a couple, Dylan and Theresa Smith. When they received a phone call at the end of 2012 about a honey badger cub whose mom became a road kill statistic, they didn’t think twice to accept the challenge of hand raising their second honey badger. From the first day the cub arrived they were very strict about the young animal staying outside and not familiarizing herself with humans at all. When she was 9 months old I joined them one afternoon to see if the badger is still in the area they last saw her and within 30 minutes of searching we found her when she came charging out of one of her favourite burrows. The Smith’s were successful and she is living as a wild honey badger now, all of us hoping that in the near future she’ll raise her own litter. This article was featured in the November 2013 issue of the Africa Geographic magazine. Nikon D700 with a Nikkor 70 – 200mm f4VR lens at 1/1250, f5.6 & ISO 800.

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6. THE GOSA MEERKAT MOM AND PUPS BASKING IN THE LATE AFTERNOON SUN.

I just love the saying “painting with light”, especially if it comes from another photographer. Each photographer is an artist in his own right and will see every scene differently and will  immediately picture his preferred image in his ‘minds-eye’. I desperately wanted an image of a meerkats’ silhouette with the sunset in the background before our 6 months of filming came to an end. I had to wait a few months for winter, as the summer sun was not inline with the meerkats most favourite burrow. It was the middle of winter, and we were nearing the end of the project, when I finally got the perfect scenario. The alpha female, together with her two remaining pups, were sitting on the raised edge of the burrows entrance catching the last warm rays of the sun.  I quickly grabbed my camera and beanbag and ‘leopard crawled’ as close as possible, keeping the meerkats inline with the sunset, and managed to get my favourite meerkat image after spending an amazing time with them. Nikon D700 with a Nikkor 70-200mm f4VR lens at 1/5000, f5.6 & ISO 400.

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7. A WORRIED LOOKING FEMALE LEOPARD MAKING USE OF THIS BUFFALO THORN TREE TO SEARCH FOR HER MISSING CUB.

The Greater Kruger National Park in South Africa is most definitely my “leopard hotspot” and that’s why I just love visitingMala Mala Game Reserve. During our visit in December the Mala Mala guides found something really unusual….an adult female leopard (that had a 8 month old cub) mating with 2 different males at the same time. The two male leopards were related to each other, father and son, but leopards are solitary and strictly territorial animals which made this a first time for me to see. The two males showed some aggression towards each other, but never actually fought or hurt the other one. The female leopard couldn’t have been in oestrus (because of her current cub) and I think she probably went into “false-oestrus” and deliberately mated with both males to secure her 8 month old cubs’ future. Infanticide (males that didn’t sire the cubs will kill them when found) is very common in big cats. After a few days of this the female left the guys to their own devices and now had to find her cub that she left unattended. She went back to where she left her cub and searched frantically, but couldn’t find the young female. I took this photo of the mother after she climbed up into a big Buffalo Thorn tree to use as elevation to scan the area for her cub. It took her nearly another hour before she eventually relocated her cub….luckily alive and well. Nikon D700 with a Nikkor 200-400mm f4VR lens at 1/400, f5.6 & ISO 800.

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8. A WHITE-BROWED SPARROW WEAVER HARD AT WORK EARLY ON A COLD WINTERS MORNING.

The cold winter months were the most challenging while filming the meerkats in the southern Kalahari. It was so cold early morning that the meerkats, being mammals, never emerged from their burrow within an hour after sunrise. On the extremely cold mornings they only emerged 3 hours after sunrise…and we fully understood why! Being a film crew and the meerkat family our “stars” we couldn’t afford losing them so we had to be at the correct burrow at sunrise to make sure they don’t sneak out unnoticed. One morning while I was standing close to their burrow waiting for them to stick their heads out and face the cold I noticed this White-browed sparrow weaver that was, unlike the meerkats, already hard at work. I positioned myself west of the weavers nest and had to wait for two very important factors…first the sun had to be exactly behind the round nest to back-lit the nest (and hide the already overexposed sun) and secondly I wanted to capture the weaver in flight as it approached the nest. When photographing wildlife you quickly realize, because you’re working with unpredictable creatures, that not all your attempts will be successful…but luckily this one came out on top. Nikon D700 with a Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8VRII lens at 1/8000, f7.1 & ISO 800.

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9. A BABY CHACMA BABOON SUCKLING ON MOM.

The Chacma baboons on Mashatu are extremely comfortable with the game viewing vehicles when in close proximity, unlike other areas where I have worked or photographed before, and it’s a real treat to spend time observing them and their antics. During our last visit to Mashatu there were a few females in this one specific troop that had youngsters. Female baboons have a very strong bond with their offspring that can last for many years. This one female, keeping her baby safe while suckling, caught my eye as she was sitting a fair distance away from the other troop members minding her own business. Nikon D700 with a Nikkor 200-400mm f4VR lens at 1/500, f5.6 & ISO 800.

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10. AN AFRICAN FISH EAGLE AT FULL  STRETCH AS IT BECOMES AIRBORNE.

Eagles are the “apex predators” in the bird world, and people all love, admire & respect predators for obvious reasons. The Fish Eagle is an iconic African raptor associated with various rivers, dams and deltas. Over the years I managed to get a few photos of perching fish eagles, but never of one in flight. In South Luangwa National Park we had fantastic sightings of fish eagles randomly along the Luangwa River and I realised that this would possibly be the best opportunity I would ever have to try and get a great image of an iconic fish eagle getting airborne. After two weeks of traversing the area I managed to get a few images of fish eagles in flight, but this one is my favourite. The eagle is completely stretched out…from the tip of his wings to the tip of his toes, one dead branch with a clear blue sky in the background….what more can I ask for? Nikon D700 with a Nikkor 200-400mm f4VR lens at 1/2500, f6.3 & ISO 400.

I hope you all enjoyed viewing the last addition of images to my 2013 collection as much as I enjoy sharing them with you all.

“One life, photograph it!!!”

Till next time,

Wim.