A few weeks before I travelled to Kenya I couldn’t sleep, so to pass time I grabbed my phone and started Googling African wildlife. The first one that popped up was a leopard. Unlike a lot of folks that visit Kenya to photograph wildlife, my list of top animals didn’t include any of the “big five” iconic species such as leopard. The critters I find the most interesting to camera trap are the ones that are difficult to photograph with camera in hand, the secretive or nocturnal ones you may never get a glimpse of in an entire lifetime; the cougars, fishers, honey badgers, and aardvarks of the world. Kenyan leopards definitely don’t fall into that category; they’re photographed tens of thousands of times every year.
I hadn’t gotten that excited about photographing leopards until that groggy moment, as I squinted at a generic image on my phone’s tiny screen. For the first time I actually stopped and took a close look at this mysterious spotted cat. I was blown away by its subtle features, like the countershading that goes from orange on its back to white on its belly. Or how its spots start as single black dots on its face and actually become dark orange blotches surrounded by rings of black dots towards its hind legs. Suddenly I got overwhelmed with excitement knowing that I was going to have a chance to camera trap such a visually stunning critter. I didn’t get back to sleep.
When I arrived in Kenya, I didn’t have a clue how to photograph a leopard. The woodland shrub habitats of Laikipia are so criss-crossed with game trails that it’s hard to single one out and predict how an animal might traverse the landscape. Further, not knowing anything about the ecology of leopards, I had no idea what sort of habitats they preferred. Luckily Jake Goheen (posed below) had been working in the area for over a decade and knew exactly where to take me. We headed to a stretch of river lined with yellow fever trees. The river was full of hippos and the adjacent grazing lawns had an amazing array of wildlife including elephant, giraffe, kudu, impala, and dik-dik. I didn’t realize it at the time, but there were actually so many animals that it would become a problem. I set one camera on a game trail under the fever trees, and another on a fallen tree just off the river.
The first night out, the game trail set captured a leopard, but one of the flashes failed and the cat triggered the camera before it entered the frame. With such a fast start, I felt a level of optimism and confidence that I rarely feel while camera trapping. That feeling was ephemeral. After that first night, the leopards avoided my camera and the rest of the animal kingdom started getting frisky. First an elephant dismantled my lighting gear, somehow managing to play with two of my lighting rigs without damaging anything. Then a group of baboons had their way with the cameras and brought things to an abrupt halt.
I left for the Serengeti and had the thrill of seeing several leopards in real life, meanwhile hoping that my camera traps back in Laikipia were taking their own leopard shots.
I returned a week later to bad news. Hyenas, elephants, baboons, and cows had mangled my camera traps so bad that the assistant checking the cameras decided to pull everything to stop any further damage. With one week to go, I’d gotten skunked on big cats and my supply of functional motion sensors and flashes was dwindling. I didn’t have a good way to protect my equipment, and I doubted there was much that could stop an elephant, or even a motivated baboon, so I just kept at it and crossed my fingers. I ditched the game trail set because of the density of monkeys in the area, but I hoped that my luck would turn on the log set. However, a group of elephants with newborn calves moved into the area and I figured I was done for.
Not only was it dangerous to access the area to check the cameras, but I was sure they would have a field day with my camera gear. Somehow the elephants left my camera alone and in the following nights things started to pick up. Not only did I finally get a leopard, but I also got a zorilla, an African skunk of sorts.
As my time winded down and I had a few good shots on the hard drive, I wanted to go for something more ambitious. While in the Serengeti I’d seen leopards in trees, resting or caching prey out of the reach of thieving hyenas. The sight of a large cat high in a tree left a strong impression on me. I really wanted to capture that signature behavior of leopards, but rather than shooting them with a telephoto lens from a Land Cruiser, I wanted to be in the tree with the leopard. I also didn’t want to get eaten, so clearly this was a job for the camera trap. The trick would be getting the camera in front of a leopard. One solution would be to set on a cached kill, but the probability of finding a cached leopard kill in a climbable tree was slim to none. Further, I didn’t really want to hang around a leopard kill if I didn’t have to, for the cat’s sake and my own. Instead, I figured I’d find a tree along a leopard’s travel route and see if I could pique its curiosity enough to make an arboreal detour. I put a couple different lures 30 feet or so up a yellow fever tree and secured my camera about 20 feet up the trunk, hoping to get the cat on its way up. Scrambling around in a fever tree above hippo pools was probably not the smartest thing I’ve ever done (as Jessi frequently pointed out), but it was certainly my most memorable camera trap set to date. My friend Anne Hilborne had warned me about snakes and biting insects that hang out in trees, but luckily none of the ants that got all over me were biters, and the only critters I saw in the tree were elephants across the river. With help from Jessi and local hippo chaser Matt Snider, I mounted my camera to the tree with a Magic Arm and secured two flashes using parachute chord and a flexible tripod. I anticipated a night shot, which meant I didn’t have to worry about overexposing ambient light. This freed me up to shoot at a higher ISO (800), which allowed me to use lower power setting on my flashes, increasing their ability to freeze action. For a motion sensor, I used a prototype PIR sensor my friend Jeff Dale at TRLcam gave me before my trip, which had proven incredibly responsive and reliable.
Luckily the resident baboons and vervet monkeys had grown bored of my gear and left the camera alone, besides posing for the occasional daytime picture.
However, with one night to go, I still hadn’t gotten any leopard shots and my hopes were dwindling. On our final morning in Kenya, I pulled the camera out of the tree and Jessi, Jake and I hit the image playback button to see if we had any visitors. To my surprise, a leopard had come by just a few hours earlier, triggering a single picture as it bounded up the tree.