Wildlife spotting and photographing 101: Tips from a bush pro insider

2017-04-29 12:30 - Louzel Lombard Steyn
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Cape Town - It's no secret that South Africa has been blessed with one of the richest natural heritages in the world. We live in paradise with nature surrounding us from all sides. It's what makes us so unique a destination. 

To add to this uniqueness, there are some pretty extraordinary occupations in SA, to go with all our extraordinary characteristics. Being a wildlife interpreter or guide is one such example, and it's something Christof Schoeman calls a privilege to be able to do for a career. 

Schoeman's daily life means acting as a link between the natural surroundings and visitors that come to Tintswalo Safari lodge where he currently works, he tells Traveller24. 

Taking on this educational role every day of his life, it's only natural that he has managed to capture some of the most intimate and insightful views of SA's iconic wildlife. 

Following a playful insider view of a pride of inquisitive lions which was captured on a misplaced GoPro, Traveller24 caught up with Schoeman to hear about some of the most memorable moments, and how first-time bushwhackers can make the most of wildlife spotting!

WATCH: SA photographer taps into the secret life of wildlife

Here are his 5 Pro tips to becoming a pro wildlife-spotter, and how to capture it on camera

"Spotting wildlife all depends on if you're doing a self-drive trip or being taken out by a qualified field guide and a tracker at a safari lodge," Schoeman says. "Most new visitors to the African bush prefers to be guided by someone qualified, which is recommended for international visitors."

TIP 1: If you are driving by yourself in a public National Park, be patient, drive slow so that you can take in what's around you. Nature speaks to us through the sounds of different animals. Stop, switch off your vehicle and listen to the bush for a few minutes every half an hour to an hour or so. You will be surprised how well this method works to find great sightings!  
TIP 2: A monkey's alarm call, for example, will almost certainly lead you to a leopard or predator of some sort... So know the call, and then find the monkey! If you have accomplished this, check carefully at what the monkey is looking at, and that's where you will find the jackpot! 
TIP 3: Bird alarm calls are similar, but when you don’t know what to listen for, then a birding app with the different calls of birds in that particular region may help. 
TIP 4: Spend lots of time around water sources in the area that you are camping or staying in. When you're out, driving past small pans or watercourses, check carefully in the shady thickets around the pans for predators like lions sleeping. They usually lie around waiting for game to come to drink. If you do spot lions sleeping close to water, it's better that you wait around at the spot as it's likely there will be some action! 

TIP 5: Last but not least, the campsites normally have sighting boards to cite the activity of Big 5 in the area. Following up on these sightings as soon as you can will give you a good starting point in the right direction. 

After you've spotted your sighting, what are the characteristics of a good and respectful wildlife photographer that captures authentic and unique footage?

TIP 1: Know the basics of animal behaviour, this will help you to make an estimation of where the animal might go and when to take the optimal photograph. Sleeping lions, for example, are quite boring to photograph, so it's better to view them early morning and late afternoon when the sun sets when they get active. 

TIP 2: Patience is a virtue. If a leopard is sleeping under the tree that his kill has been hoisted in, he will definitely climb back up to go feast at some stage. A few hours may go by, but your patience will pay off eventually. 

TIP 3: Be creative! Visualise an image that you would like to capture and work for it - even if it takes years for it to happen. When it does happen, you need to know the importance of being prepared. Also be clued up with your equipment. At least know how to use your shutter speed, f-stop (aperture) combined with your ISO depending on the light conditions and the movement of your subject. There are loads of online videos that can teach you these three basic functions. 
TIP 4: In photographing wildlife, look for opportunities to be eye level with the animal, or look for subjects that could serve as a backdrop like a big dry tree that would embellish the natural scene.

TIP 5: Always be respectful. Know when to back off or leave an animal alone. Sometimes shy animals present you with a unique opportunity to photograph them, but only if your distance from them remains respectful. 

Apart from knowing the inside tricks of spotting wildlife on a daily basis, Schoeman also says he loves the unpredictability of the bush. 

Here are 4 Questions about being a wildlife guide, answered -

Describe an average day in your life?

My average day starts before the break of dawn and ends only after 22:00. Before we go out on safari morning or afternoon, we will discuss which animals the visitors are interested in seeing, if possible. 

The wonderful thing about what we do is you don’t know what you are going to see, so even though you might have a plan, they can change in a heartbeat. 

During morning safaris we will stop and have a cup of coffee and afternoon safaris we will stop and have sundowner drinks as the sun sets to enjoy the tranquillity of the bushveld. After the night safaris, I sometimes join the guests for a wonderful boma dinner under the stars.

Between morning and afternoon game drives I will spend my free time working one photography and videos that we use you for marketing and spreading the word about wildlife and conservation.

What do you love about your job?

Firstly, the possibility of learning something new and experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime sighting - something which you have never seen before and will likely never see again - is thrilling. 

Then, to be part of conservation education in modern times where wildlife numbers and natural habitat is declining on a daily base is profound. 

It is rewarding to be sharing special footage and images of wildlife with the rest of the world to spread the word of conservation and the importance of these animals to us as South African’s, and also to invite tourists to come and see the Manyeleti Game Reserve at Tintswalo Safari Lodge.

To see the reaction on first time visitors faces when they see an animal for the first time that they have dreamt of since childhood is just magical. 

I also love meeting and spending time with people from all over the globe, teaching them about wildlife and how and when to capture unique moments of these animals.

Then, it's a privilege just to experience the raw power of nature - a dominant male lion roaring next to the vehicle that sends chills down your spine, or a gigantic elephant bull passing a few metres from your vehicle - will always make you feel minute. Moments like that will humble any man!

What is the one thing you would like to share with the world about SA’s Wildlife?

Tourism in South Africa has a massive influence on our economy, and wildlife is one of our main tourist attractions. Africa has some of the world's most unique animals, but they are severely threatened because of poaching.

Wildlife is the essence of our continent and the national heritage of our country. I cannot imagine a South Africa without the Big 5! I'm a proud South African and African that would like to see our future generations also have the same stance about our wildlife! 

Share some of your most memorable wildlife sightings of your life so far.  

An image and a moment that still stands out above the rest for me is the image of three leopards.

I took this image in the Timbavati-Greater Kruger. The leopardess at the bottom's name is Nthombi with her two boys above her. They were finishing the remains of an impala and found themselves cornered by two hyenas below the tree.

I was in a very fortunate position when I took this image, it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment for me. The significance behind this image was that I watched these two boys grow up. This image was taken about three weeks before she separated with them.

The second most powerful moment I've experienced as a guide is this video of the lion and the hyenas.

This happened in the Manyeleti Game Reserve whilst guiding for Tintswalo Safari lodge. 

To witness the two species going head-on for survival a few metres away from the game viewers was awe-inspiring and will remain in my memory for the rest of my life. 

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