African Leopards in Gabon

Getting a picture of African Leopards in Gabon is not the same as anywhere else on the African continent. Unlike South Africa or Kenya, in Gabon you can’t sit in a safari vehicle and hope it emerges from the brush. This is the rainforest. Think super dense seven foot understory plants that make it impossible to see anything, times ten. Finding a leopard is nearly impossible. The biologists studying these cats deal with it on a daily basis. Phillip Henschel and Laila Bahaa-el-din brave, and I mean brave (to be explained soon) these challenges.

Does this look dense enough?

Tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

Tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

How about now?

Tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

Tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

We are in Lope National Park in Gabon where Laila has been conducting her research for the past three months. Phil was nice enough to pick me up from the airport and bring me here along with all of the equipment. Being in their company makes me feel confident that we will get a picture of the big cat, these two know what they are talking about.

On the first evening, we do a quick drive around in the savanna habitat bordering the rainforest. This isn’t Phil or Laila’s first time to the rodeo and it doesn’t take long before they spot Leopard tracks along the road.

African Leopard (Panthera pardus) tracks on dirt road next to tire marks, Lope National Park, Gabon

African Leopard (Panthera pardus) tracks on dirt road next to tire marks, Lope National Park, Gabon

My confidence grows, later that night they show me video footage they got with trail cameras that show leopards along river banks. Even more reason to think that this may be possible.

The next day, we load up the backpacks with two digital SLR camera traps and head into the forest. The first sign that this wasn’t going to be easy was when we stopped at the forest edge to listen for African Forest Elephants. If these guys see, smell, or feel you (through vibrations in the ground), make sure you have your running shoes on — they will charge you. They are not the bluff charging kind either; instead they are the full barreling through the rainforest until you are way gone or beneath their feet kind. An encouraging thought. While we take our first steps I wonder how Phil and Laila are staying so calm with this constant threat looming, but somehow they continue on.

We first check one of Laila’s camera traps, deployed along a path.

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No cats came up on the computer screen. It’s time to move on. We drop into a creek bed. After walking for a bit we notice a ton of leopard prints in the soft sand. A very good sign. We had previously decided to put the camera on a log spanning across the river (due to the cats wanting to avoid the water if at all possible) so we start looking for a suitable log. After a few hundred meters we find the perfect one. Not only are there foot prints all around it, there are scratch marks on it. Phil, also a master tracker, assures me its a leopard marking site.

This means it’s quite likely for the animal to return to this exact spot, so we don’t waste any time and set up the first camera. Another hundred meters and we find another log, this one with some leopard scat on it (which Phil immediately smells, measures, and photographs….crazy Phil), and we place the second camera on that bridge.

African Leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) biologist Phillip Henschel measuring leopard scat diameter, Lope National Park, Gabon

African Leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) biologist Phillip Henschel measuring leopard scat diameter, Lope National Park, Gabon

In the next two days we place cameras along trails that have had leopards come by in the past (based on Laila’s camera trapping efforts). I was already dreaming of cat pictures galore.

Reality hit when we checked four of the cameras after ten days. No cats on any of them, instead other mammals visited (some of them making us people seem frighteningly very very small).

Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) mother and baby in tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) mother and baby in tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

Ogilby's Duiker (Cephalophus ogilbyi) in tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

Ogilby’s Duiker (Cephalophus ogilbyi) in tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

Black-legged Mongoose (Bdeogale nigripes) crossing over log bridge at night, Lope National Park, Gabon

Black-legged Mongoose (Bdeogale nigripes) crossing over log bridge at night, Lope National Park, Gabon

African Forest Elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis) bull in tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

African Forest Elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis) bull in tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

There were only three weeks left, I was starting to get really nervous about whether or not we would get a feline on one of the cameras. It was time to check the two log cameras, we get to the first camera and bam!!! Right off the bat there is a leopard picture, then another, and another.

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African Leopard (Panthera pardus) male crossing log bridge over river at night, Lope National Park, Gabon

African Leopard (Panthera pardus) male crossing log bridge over river at night, Lope National Park, Gabon

There are a couple of interesting things to note about the leopards in these pictures. One you can clearly see the size difference between the female and the male. Two, their eyes are not cloudy due to the flashes (which I always position so that the eyes look good), instead the clouding of the cornea, also called keratopathy, which leads to partial blindness is caused by Fire Ants that have stung the leopards in the eyes (which must be incredibly painful, if you have ever felt a fire ant bite). Luckily, both leopards look to be in good physical condition, apparently not completely hampered by their partially lost vision.

On to the second bridge. Another leopard photo, one that made me back away from the camera as I was reviewing the images. The leopard seemed to be coming right out of the camera.

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The picture has a weird look to it, the leopard almost doesn’t look real due to the cloudy eyes. In my opinion, as the leopard is also covered with engorged ticks, it exemplifies what a tough world these guys live in. Constantly having to deal with ectoparasites just can’t be fun. I don’t even want to imagine the parasites within their bodies.

After seeing the pictures, I was of course elated, jumping up and down, and simply being extremely excited. I could not have asked for more, or so I thought, until this image showed up two weeks later:

African Leopard (Panthera pardus) male crossing log bridge over river in tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

African Leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) male crossing log bridge over river in tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

It’s one of my favorite camera trap images because of the lighting, composition, the habitat, and the way the tail swirls around.

A picture like this is not just a set it up and get it kind of situation. Instead it is a culmination of a lot of factors. Building and getting the cameras into a country takes a lot of time, coordination, patience, bureaucratic paperwork, persistence, and sometimes just luck. Then comes the ecological research on the species. How does the animal move about its habitat? How many individuals occupy a certain area? Will more than one cat use the same path? What direction is the cat most likely to move in? I read everything and anything I can about a species before I try and photograph it.

Most importantly, only through extensive field experience by the researchers can these questions be answered. After figuring out the location for the camera, it’s time to decide on the exposure for the camera, and where and how to set the flashes. It’s not easy by any means, but every time I get a picture like the one above, I know it’s worth it.

These pictures were only possible due to Laila and Phil. Thank you guys, it was a true pleasure working together! Being able to call you my friends is something I cherish and I look forward to seeing both soon!

Reviewing the 2013 Photographic Year

I always like to take a bit of time and review what happened the last year in terms of reaching some of my goals. For that I go and check my trusty Bucket List and see what things I was able to experience (or check off, for you twitchers). Turns out 2013 was a good photographic year.

I am including only the highlights from this year in this post (for the full list just click the link above). I am also only showing one or two images of each species/location, if you want to see all the pictures from that subject just click that name and the link will take you to the appropriate gallery.

Visit and or Explore
Tropical Rainforests (Borneo Spring 2013, Gabon 2013, Borneo Winter 2013)

Lowland rainforest shrouded in clouds at sunrise, Danum Valley Conservation Area, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia

Lowland rainforest shrouded in clouds at sunrise, Danum Valley Conservation Area, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia

Sunset over tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

Sunset over tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

New Zealand (August 2013)

Snow-covered mountains, South Island, New Zealand

Snow-covered mountains, South Island, New Zealand

Photograph
Bay Cat (December 2013) – More on that later 🙂
Sunda Clouded Leopard (March 2013)

IMG_93062_Sunda_Clouded_Leopard_Malaysia_Sebastian_Kennerknecht

Sunda Clouded Leopard (Neofelis diardi) male in lowland rainforest at night, Tawau Hills Park, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia (camera trap)

Marbled Cat (March 2013)

Marbled Cat (Pardofelis marmorata marmorata) in lowland rainforest, Tawau Hills Park, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia

Marbled Cat (Pardofelis marmorata marmorata) in lowland rainforest, Tawau Hills Park, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia (camera trap)

African Leopard (October 2013)

African Leopard (Panthera pardus) male crossing log bridge over river in tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

African Leopard (Panthera pardus) male crossing log bridge over river in tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon (camera trap)

3 species of Civet (Added Malay Civet and Common Palm Civet 2013)

IMG_106378_Malay_Civet_Malaysia_Sebastian_Kennerknecht

Malayan Civet (Viverra tangalunga) in lowland rainforest at night, Tawau Hills Park, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia (camera trap)

Common Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus) in tree at night, Danum Valley Conservation Area, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia

Common Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus) in tree at night, Danum Valley Conservation Area, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia

1000 bird species in the wild (I am at 190, having added 61 species this year), just a few here:

Buller's Albatross (Thalassarche bulleri) on water, Kaikoura, South Island, New Zealand

Buller’s Albatross (Thalassarche bulleri) on water, Kaikoura, South Island, New Zealand

Red-billed Gull (Larus scopulinus) during rain storm, Kaikoura, South Island, New Zealand

Red-billed Gull (Larus scopulinus) during rain storm, Kaikoura, South Island, New Zealand

New Zealand Kaka (Nestor meridionalis) parrot during rain storm, North Island, New Zealand

New Zealand Kaka (Nestor meridionalis) parrot during rain storm, North Island, New Zealand

Northern Giant Petrel (Macronectes halli) pair fighting, Kaikoura, South Island, New Zealand

Northern Giant Petrel (Macronectes halli) pair fighting, Kaikoura, South Island, New Zealand

300 mammal species in the wild (I am at 106, having added 45 species this year), just a few here:

Forest Buffalo (Syncerus caffer nanus) bull running, Lope National Park, Gabon

Forest Buffalo (Syncerus caffer nanus) bull running, Lope National Park, Gabon

White-nosed Guenon (Cercopithecus nictitans) in tree, Lope National Park, Gabon

White-nosed Guenon (Cercopithecus nictitans) in tree, Lope National Park, Gabon

African Brush-tailed Porcupine (Atherurus africanus) on log at night, Lope National Park, Gabon

African Brush-tailed Porcupine (Atherurus africanus) on log at night, Lope National Park, Gabon (camera trap)

Red River Hog (Potamochoerus porcus) male, Lope National Park, Gabon

Red River Hog (Potamochoerus porcus) male, Lope National Park, Gabon

Red Leaf Monkey (Presbytis rubicunda) in tree, Tawau Hills Park, Sabah, Borne

Red Leaf Monkey (Presbytis rubicunda) in tree, Tawau Hills Park, Sabah, Borne

20 critically endangered and 50 endangered species (I am at 6 and 17 respectively)

Borneo Pygmy Elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis) females and calf grazing, Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia

Borneo Pygmy Elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis) females and calf grazing, Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia

Takahe (Porphyrio hochstetteri) grazing, Kapiti Island, North Island, New Zealand

Takahe (Porphyrio hochstetteri) grazing, Kapiti Island, North Island, New Zealand

I am looking forward to see what this year brings!

How about you, anything particular that you photographed in 2013 that you are really happy/proud of?