By Tessa Manning
My two weeks in the South Luangwa had me working with the incredible team of Zambian Carnivore Programme (ZCP). I split my days between working with data for the team and going on game drives in the stunning National Park. Whilst there I learnt so much from ZCP’s data and the knowledgeable guides in the park. Among other work, I spent my time processing 275 lines of data recorded for ZCP by one guide. I learnt a lot from his meticulously recorded data. Every time he saw a carnivore he wrote down complete details so ZCP has a record of carnivore behaviour at that time.
Although I learnt a lot from the data entry, there is no substitute for being out in the National Park. During my two weeks I went to the park seven times. Every drive was different and I was always learning something new.
Incredibly, on my first drive we found a female leopard (Panthera pardus) with a fresh kill and a pack of 18 Painted Dogs (Lyacon pictus). Seeing these carnivores up close was amazing. ZCP estimate that the park supports one of the highest densities of leopards on the continent – about 720 in total. Despite the high density, it’s never guaranteed that you’ll see a leopard and it was a fantastic treat to see this female with her kill.
She was clearly hungry and wanted to move away with her kill. We guessed that she had at least one cub because she looked thin and had teats showing. The impala (Aepyceros melampus) was freshly killed and still had moisture around its mouth. The scene was not pretty, but it was something special to see the strength she had as she dragged the prey up the hill towards her cubs.
Leopards are notoriously hard to study due to their elusive nature. One of my childhood heroes was Saba Douglas-Hamilton when she appeared in the BBC television show Big Cat Diary following the tales of a small leopard family. Having seen the awesome power and beauty of this cat firsthand, I was inspired and sought to learn more about the leopards in the South Luangwa.
The Zambian Carnivore Programme studies leopard numbers in the South Luangwa National Park using camera traps. Being so difficult to study, little is known about the leopard’s true population size in the South Luangwa, but ZCP estimates a density of eight individuals per square kilometre. This is one of the highest densities in Africa, making them a keystone species in the area.
I had another wonderful encounter with a leopard a couple of days later. This healthy female was walking along the road ahead of us before heading into the bush. The guides were able to locate her for us again and I could see up close her beautifully patterned coat. I was fortunate to be able to capture her yawning and showing her stunning teeth (Image above: Right).
I had been to Zambia before but in the dry season, not the wet season. Zambia has a tropical climate with three seasons: hot wet, cool dry, hot dry. I had previously visited in the cool dry season so all the vegetation was brown, not this stunning emerald green.
The wet season changes the dynamic of the wildlife for photography. The wildlife is more often in the open areas and along the roads. The light is clearer, the contrast greater, and the colours more rich.
I saw the fantastic painted dogs three times in two days. From my work with ZCP I was able to work out that these sightings were of two different packs: the Manzi pack of eighteen dogs, and the Mushilashi pack of ten.
The background dog featured in this photograph is the alpha male of the pack and has been collared by ZCP so that they can keep track of the pack for monitoring. The alpha male and female of a pack are the only two dogs that breed and they are the best to collar for monitoring.
There are approximately 700 Lions (Panthera leo) in the South Luangwa National Park, which is a very healthy population. I enjoyed a few excellent sightings of lions in just a few days. I was able to see an adult female with her three sub-adult daughters lying on the road. The mother’s face was full of character. She’s clearly been through a lot in her time already. Our guide estimated she was just five years old.
In this photo you can see the quite prominent dark stripes behind her ears. It’s common for mammals to have this kind of colouration somewhere on their body: leopards have a white tip on their tail; impalas have dark stripes on their rumps. This colouration is known as a kind of “follow me” sign for the young. Lions blend in very well with dried grass, so the dark stripes are clearly visible to their young as they follow behind.
Elephants (Loxodonta Africana) were a common sight in the South Luangwa. I enjoy photographing elephants because they’re so charismatic and interesting. Around nearly every corner in the park was an elephant. It was amazing to see such an abundance given the situation for the species across the continent. The South Luangwa also provided an incredible backdrop for elephant photography. The dark bodies against the emerald green foliage made for good contrast.
The elephant on the left here is missing the tuft of his tail. Our guide suggested it could be due to snaring, being attacked by a predator, or nibbled by a zebra. The missing tuft shouldn’t affect his life.
In South Africa I was participating in a project run by Wildlife Ecological Investments and Flinders University. We focussed on surveying birds, grasses, and mammals. Through my time spent learning about and understanding the birds, I gained an appreciation for them.
White-Fronted Bee Eater (Merops bullockoides)
Lilac-Breasted Roller (Coracias caudatus)
While Masebe and Balule did not have wildlife as abundant as the South Luangwa, both provided excellent scenery. Spending four days in the iconic Kruger National Park meant we had some incredible sightings of lions, leopards and cheetahs. On our way out of the park and back to Johannesburg, we saw a female cheetah (Acionyx jubatus) with five cubs. According to the guide we were with, all five cubs will likely survive because they appeared healthy and strong.
I learnt a lot on this trip – not only about photography but about wildlife, communities, conservation and action. I’m now more inspired than ever to continue with my studies in conservation. I now appreciate that wildlife photography can be a way for me to promote conservation and show people the beauty that our world has.