after the hyenas  night Panos Laskarakis
Life and death meet at dawn on the plains of Botswana’s Okavango Delta as a lion peers through the carcass of a dead buffalo. Photo courtesy of Panos Laskarakis.
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Wildlife Photographers Talk About the Toughest Shot They’ve Taken

From waiting for the perfect setting for years to being emotionally stirred by human-wildlife conflicts, these photographers share stories behind their most challenging photos.
January 22, 2021, 5:46am

Wildlife photography might sound like a dream job to many—traveling all over the world in search of the most exotic flora and fauna that the planet has to offer, and getting up close and personal with them in a way most people can’t. Exciting as it may sound, the job does come with its fair share of trials and tribulations. From waiting in uncomfortable positions for hours on end to get the perfect shot, to the emotional impact of observing human-wildlife conflicts to occasionally having to poop in Tupperware, wildlife photography is no easy task. To get an idea of the most difficult and unnerving aspects of this much coveted profession, we asked wildlife photographers from across the world to share with us the toughest photograph they’ve taken, and how it came about.

Panos Laskarakis, Greece

lion with buffalo carcass by Panos Laskarakis

Photo courtesy of Panos Laskarakis

“The toughest picture I took was while witnessing some extraordinary hunting in the wild nature of the Okavango Delta in Botswana. It started with dozens of powerful lions attacking buffaloes in the middle of the day. At this point, the scene was already a little difficult to capture as the attack was very intense and the fight between the lions and the buffaloes was dramatic, with a lot of blood and blood-curdling screams just before the kill! 

But this is normal in nature, so this isn’t the reason I say it was the toughest.

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The best part was yet to come though. In the middle of the next night, the lions came under attack from almost 30 hyenas that were trying to steal the kill from them! It was a rare and cruel scene that I, the guide on the safari, and clients, of course, had never seen before. The ferocity, the sounds of terror coming from everywhere, and the intense darkness made the shots very tough to get. 

The next morning, this large male lion returned and peered through the bones, creating this portrait. That was the moment I felt the power of the king in my heart.” Check out Laskarakis’ other works here.

Senthil Kumaran, India

people with a dead tiger by Senthil Kumaran

Photo courtesy of Senthil Kumaran

“The first time I saw a tiger was on a black and white TV at the age of ten. The BBC was telecasting a documentary on tigers that deeply impressed me. I was so fascinated that I couldn’t even describe its majesty in words. 

The impact it left on me through its majesty and its behaviour sparked an avid interest to somehow see the tiger in its natural habitat. I started roaming around several forests with an interest to see the tiger the way I saw it on TV but couldn’t find any even after a decade.

In 2012, several years later, I was in Mudumalai (in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu) photographing elephants, when I received a message from the nearby Valparai that a tiger had entered the town. After 25 years of waiting, the opportunity of seeing the tiger had presented itself to me. I travelled to Valparai immediately with great excitement to see the tiger.

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It was a rainy evening when I reached the place along with the forest department veterinarian. The place was heavily crowded with nearly 50 forest workers and more than 500 civilians, armed with poles and weapons to kill the tiger.

Amidst the huge crowd, I saw the tiger that had been savaged by the civilians, lying on mud at the back of a house. I can never forget the event, where hundreds of people were preparing to attack the tiger in fierce anger. The excitement to see the majestic animal that I had built up for almost 25 years came crashing down in deep disappointment.

It was those scenes that made me realise the dark side of the tiger and its contemporary ecology. That passion and search prompted me to start a photo story depicting the conflict between tigers and humans, that I have since been documenting for the last eight years.” Check out Kumaran’s other works here.

Stephen Axford, Australia

Luminous fungi at Mawlinnong- Stephen Axford

Photo courtesy of Stephen Axford

“Everywhere I go, I always ask if anyone has seen glowing mushrooms in their local forests. When I asked my guide the same question as part of Planet Fungi in Mawlynnong in northeast India, he said yes. That’s how I discovered these bioluminescent mushrooms that the locals call Bright mushrooms. There are 80 species of luminous fungi recorded around the world, but these were so far undocumented. They emit a ghostly green light, but only from their stems, not their caps.

Those were the most difficult, as they are very small. Photography of very small things is already difficult as the depth of field decreases as magnification increases. So I almost always try to get as much of my subject in focus as possible so I would like as large a depth of field as possible. To add to that, the images have to be taken at night with only the light from the mushroom. I still think I got lucky with this fungus, since it is very bright for a fungus. In the end, the technical challenges were many, but the results were quite good.” Check out Axford’s other works here.

Nikit Surve, India

mumbai leopard image by Nikit Surve

Photo courtesy of Nikit Surve / SGNP

“When I first started volunteering at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) in Mumbai as a wildlife researcher in 2012, I was assigned the task to monitor the locations where we had set up camera traps to capture leopards. I’d noticed this one elevated spot where I thought it would be amazing to capture a leopard with the city of Mumbai in the background. 

However, camera trap images mean you’re not physically present when the image is taken. They use heat and motion sensors, so an image is captured when there is movement around the location. So it was quite a reach for me to imagine I’d get the perfect shot, especially with the limited technology available back then. But I did identify a couple of trails that would allow me to capture the image I had in mind.

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Then I went away for my Masters degree, before returning to Mumbai. In 2015, I was working on my own project and researching leopard prey densities and dietary patterns. I had already identified a couple of trails suitable for this image, but it was difficult to set up camera traps at an angle that would capture both, the city and the leopard at the same time.

So I tried a tripod setup, setting up the camera higher than you usually would in a camera trap. It was a rigorous process; we also did a couple trial runs where we walked around the location to be able to see what kind of images the camera was taking.

Leopards are highly nocturnal, so I wasn’t expecting a daytime image. I was so excited I’d go there every morning to check what the camera had captured, and return disappointed. I managed to capture other animals like civets, but not the one I was hoping for.

At the time, the Hindu festival of Holi was just around the corner. My tripod was suspended at a height tied to some rocks, and I didn’t want it to get ruined when people passed by the area during the celebrations. So, giving up, I brought the camera back. 

But when I checked the images, I found that it had managed to capture this dream image. I was elated; I’d been after this one shot for so many years! 

This was the first ever image I caught of a leopard with the city in the background, and it perfectly frames my research. Till date, it has been the cover for many of my reports.” Check out Surve’s other works here.

Keri Fisher, Canada

Keri Fisher Leopard

Photo courtesy of Keri Fisher

“This is one of my favourite wildlife photographs I've ever taken—an adult female leopard. It was taken in the Sabi Sands region of South Africa in June 2019, in the far northwestern part of the country near Kruger National Park. Getting this picture was not easy. I had to embark on a long and tiring journey from Canada to South Africa, and then to the Sabi Sands. On top of that, we had to wake up before dawn each day for two weeks to search for wildlife. Leopards are secretive and nocturnal, so the only time to photograph them well is just after sunrise or before sunset. We were lucky enough to encounter this leopard early one morning with our guide Rhein. In addition to the difficulty of finding a leopard, the early morning lighting made getting a good photograph technically difficult. All of this makes this a very special photo for me.” Check out Fisher’s other works here.

Jens Ludwig, Germany

jumping deer Jens Ludwig

Photo courtesy of Jens Ludwig

“This image I shot of a jumping deer is really special to me, but it was also difficult on many different levels. It was taken close to my hometown in Saxony, in a period called ‘Setzzeit’ that falls between May and June. It’s when deer give birth to their babies. In the initial days, the fawns lay in the grass all day long, without moving an inch. They also don’t have a unique scent in the first days, so no natural predators can locate them easily. 

However, that day, when I entered the field, I saw a mother deer running around frantically, completely out of control. I thought to myself that something out of the ordinary had to have happened, since this wasn’t the normal behaviour of a deer, especially during this time of the year.

After walking around the field, I found the remains of the little fawn that had been run over by a forage harvester mowing the grass in the field. Traumatised by her baby’s death, the deer was running around all day, without any fear or even consciousness of her surroundings, to ward off any crows or buzzards trying to pick at the fawn’s flesh.

Seeing the dead fawn was extremely saddening, but I still stuck around and waited all day to see what happened, and I was rewarded with this shot. Later, I also showed the fawn’s corpse to the guy driving the harvester. He was remorseful but at the end of the day, they have to clear out these huge fields as fast as possible, so no one really cares about one deer.

In recent times, conservationist groups have started searching for newborn fawns in the grass, and also flying thermal drones over the fields to mark the area where the babies lay, to prevent such deaths.” Check out Ludwig’s other works here.

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