Fritz Pölking

The magic of the nocturnal hunt with a camera

 Somewhere between day and dream with a camera and a remote flash 
in the mysterious world of leopards.


It was about 5 pm : A dead impala was hanging in a tree in front of me, the tree and I situated in Kenya ’s Masai Mara Wildlife Reserve, the impala completely intact - just dead. Half-Tail, the leopard mother was laying underneath the tree and a few meters next to her, her two youngest cubs Mangáa and Taratibu, both about 6 months old and about 15 meters away the big daughter Beauty, a year older then her two siblings. All four of them were difficult to see in the high grass.

The mother seemed to be guarding the kill for the two little ones, because every time when the oldest daughter came too close to the tree with the impala, her mother growled at her in warning.

This is how the situation stayed until I had to leave my observation post at dusk. Here in the wildlife reserve it is not allowed to be outside of the campground at night. So next morning I encountered the following scene: not one leopard left to be seen and the grown impala completely eaten, up to the skull and horns bearing witness to this feeding frenzy underneath the tree.

Did the mother feed first or the oldest daughter? Or was it the two little ones and then the mother? Or maybe it was the mother together with the little ones and then the oldest daughter? Or, in the final analysis, was it all four leopards together that devoured the impala in or under the tree? I would have loved to have observed this with a camera and flash and I swore to myself that I would take night photos of leopards at the next possible opportunity.

Something that is easier said then done. First of all you have to have leopards that you can find in one place with relative regularity. The best time for this is when a female leopard has cubs that are approximately 3-4 months old. For the time that they are smaller they are hidden in caves, ditches or in the thicket and when they are older and bigger then 3-4 months the mother is on the move with them far too much so that the youngsters get to know their homeland and the dangers in the life of a leopard. You waste too much time to try and find them anew each day.

But at three to four months they are already pretty agile and could climb around on trees and rocks when mom was not around. Mom comes every day – or night – so that the cubs still get their milk. However all this is only theory – the nature photographer thinks, but the leopard acts.

The opportunity came about two years after the in the beginning mentioned experience: Half Tail had had two new cubs on January 28th and about the middle of April I was there to take pictures of mom and her third litter of little cats – and this time at night as well, at least that was what I had planned.

Unfortunately one of the two cubs had already died before my arrival. It was last seen the end of February at an age of about 4 weeks. No one knows the circumstances around its death, whether it was lions, hyenas or sickness. The surviving cub was a rather dark colored female and, just like her mother, not at all shy in any way. When I saw her for the first time on April 17th, shortly before sunset, she was peering nosily over the edge of a rock towards the car. She then climbed into a heavily foliaged tree as a hyena came wandering by, and that is where she stayed until complete darkness fell. We waited for while longer, but there was no sign of Half Tail.

Zawadi was peering with huge eyes over the rim of a rock wall.

The little leopard girl seemed to have inherited her mother’s character just as Mangáa, who up to today, 2 ½ years later, treats and meets cars without much care. Beauty on the other hand has become much shyer and always disappears immediately when cars are in the vicinity or approaching. Only at times when she is with her mother, does she throw off her shyness of cars.

Something that is very interesting is that mother Half Tail and daughter Beauty have territories that overlap to this day even though the daughter is almost 3 ½ years old already. Now, this March, they were once again seen together. Daughter Beauty had slain a warthog and deposited it in a tree only about 2 km away from her mother’s third litter. Later the oldest daughter and her mother were seen feasting on it harmoniously. The younger son Mangáa at age 2 ½ still lives in his mother’s territory as well. He prefers the southern part, in the area around No-Camping Grove.

I had a number of preparations to make for the night shooting of leopards the way I had planned it: First of all I had to have permission, so that I could drive around in dark to begin with. Then I needed an infrared lamp or spotlight that would draw its power from the cigarette lighter socket of the car and where I could focus the red beam of light with an auto focus so the leopards would not feel disturbed by it. A way I had tried before during my travels. 

Then I needed night vision binoculars which would magnify the remaining light extremely in order to be able to see in the dark. Together with that, an interesting accessory from Nikon, the SK-6 power handle which reduces the flash timer sequence on a Nikon SB-24, SB-25 and SB-26 from 7 to 3 seconds. If you are standing in front of a leopard in the dark while he has just slain a zebra and you have to wait 7 seconds between each take you will end up being close to a heart attack or have the beginnings of an ulcer starting inside of you.

Together with that I packed the Lepp Tele-Flash-Adapter. Trial takes in Germany at night showed that the SB-24 with a reflector setting of 85 mm – with the Sensia-100 with an aperture of 2, 8 even up to 10 m distance was enough. With the Lepp adapter it easily reaches 25 m. For me in actuality and praxis it means: up to 25 m I use Sensia-100 and when the leopards or other animals are further away the Sensia-400.

Now, test photos had been made, permission was granted, infra-red spotlight, night vision binoculars, tele-flash-adapter and “flash-sequence-reducer” were ready to use, the little leopard had been found: we were all set to proceed.

April 18th:

This morning we came upon the cheetah “queen” with her about 16-months old cubs by surprise. She is the only female cheetah in the entire Masai Mara who has the habit of jumping onto the hood of cars on a regular basis. More then likely because she has realized that from up there it is easier to observe your surroundings and that means spotting prey. Not only does she jump onto the hood for just a moment, a lot of times she actually stays there for 15-30 minutes. This morning she sat on a Toyota Land cruiser from the Mara Buffalo Camp for a lengthy period of time and then changed later to a small Suzuki to give the Japanese Television crew the honor that unfortunately they were not able to film.

The rest of the day went quietly and at 5 pm we had our car parked in Leopard Gulch about 20 m away from the descending rocks. That is where the little leopard must have spent his day in a cave hidden among the brush. At about 6 pm – with the last rays of the sun – he came out on a large block of stone and playfully hunted agama lizards. Towards 6.30 pm he suddenly disappeared into his hideaway: At a distance of about 100 m a rock hyrax sent off a warning and that was reason enough for the little leopard to scramble to the safety of his cave immediately. What he could not and did not know was that the alarm was set off by his mother who was just coming back from her place of rest that day – a rock formation about 2 km away – in order to check on her daughter.

The greeting unfortunately took place hidden behind the brush but 10 minutes later – darkness had just fallen - Half Tail and her little daughter came down the wall of rocks and lay down on the grassy ground of Leopard Gulch right in front of our parked car 10 meters away and the little leopard started to play with mom immediately. He ran up and down the rocks within a radius of 20-40 meters and in between that he kept playfully jumping at his mother. You could tell just how much the little female leopard enjoyed the freedom of playing carelessly within the Safety of her mother.


Daughter Zawadi is frolicking on the rocks behind her mother 
as it is dark in Leopard Gorge

After the playtime which lasted about 30 min. mother leopard and her cub went up the opposite lying wall of rocks and disappeared a few minutes later into the darkness of the night. Unfortunately we were not able to follow the two in this type of terrain and in those types of situations I really wish one could transform the car into a silent helicopter.

The first evening was a complete success: all the equipment functioned perfectly and the leopards were not disturbed by the infrared light nor by the flash. I made an additional pleasant discovery: When the leopard mom was lying down 10 meters away in front of our vehicle, I was shooting with the 2.8/300 mm lens and the Lepp Tele adapter in front of the Nikon flash SB-24. Through the support of the flash timer sequence reducer I ended up having so much power at my disposal that the time of the flash sequence was at under a second. I practically was able to snap pictures constantly without waiting for the flash to reload.

April 19th:

After the lady leopard had deposited her daughter in two different places in Leopard Gulch within 4 weeks she had now moved to somewhere without leaving a forwarding address and we were searching all day at all the possible locations without finding a trace of her.

April 22nd

This afternoon about 5 pm we met up with five giraffes, of which one of them was fixated on a point 100 m away in the tall grass. We systematically searched the surrounding area of that spot and ended up finding a dead impala buck underneath an umbrella tree (acacia tortilis) whose right hind leg had already been chomped off. Maybe the giraffe happened to see the leopard sneaking away from its kill. When we came back that way again before complete darkness fell, we found the leopard feeding on the dead impala but he would not let us get any closer then 40 meters. In any case it was not our mother Half Tail but a different and unknown leopard.

Later on in the darkness we suddenly saw a desert lynx (caracal), but it was too shy and immediately disappeared into the night.

The eagle owl, sitting on a termite hill on the other hand, gazing around with its big black eyes, let us take pictures for 20 minutes. He wasn’t disturbed by the infra red light, nor from the flash, showed no reaction at all and continued to search the surroundings for possible prey. That gave me the opportunity to take an extensive amount of pictures with a 1, 4 X converter in front of the 2, 8/300 mm AF-lens, vertical or horizontal format, centered or not, he just did not let anything bother him.

The Eagle Owl

23rd of April:

This afternoon we found a large group of lions with 2 males, three females and 14 cubs of different ages. They were lying under and in the dense brush in order to find some protection from the sun. An hour before sunset they came out in the open and played, but only in the dark did they really become more agile and wandered off into the savannah. There the cubs tried to suckle from their mothers who did not seem to be very happy about that. Continuously they bared their teeth at the young ones or moved a few feet off in order to get away from the little nuisances. The night was no help whatsoever for the moms, because it seemed that the cubs knew exactly where they were, surely they were able to see at night just as well as their moms.

24th of April:

This morning at about 7 am we finally found Half Tail again. She was dragging a fully grown impala buck through the savannah and you could see by the tracks that she had dragged him for 200 meters already. She finally put it underneath a bush and flopped down close to it by a tree, completely exhausted. We had not seen her for five days in spite of searching for her constantly. Now it meant staying close to her all day, so that she would (hopefully) lead us to her daughters in the evening.

What was odd was the fact that tourists were able to get as close to her as 20 meters and they would have a loud conversation without her showing any kind of reaction, but when Maasai would pass at a distance of 200 meters while conversing, she would be completely alert and ready to take off. 

Tourists – especially journalists on a sponsored trip by organizers through the wildlife preserves of Eastern Africa – at times are of the opinion that the animals are being disturbed through the 5-10 vehicles that sit there with their passengers and from which observations and photos are being made and conversations can be heard. Sometimes we are unaware that each vehicle stays only for a short while with any one animal and that the caravan moves on quickly.

That is what happened here that day: Between 9 and 10 o’clock a few vehicles with tourists arrived and then again during the afternoon tour towards 5 pm. During the 13 hours that I was there, for at least 11 hours there was not one vehicle in sight and the female leopard slept, rested or snoozed all day long in the shade of the trees close to her kill. She changed her position about every one or two hours and ate twice from her kill,

Actually nothing really happened all day long until she went over to the carcass just as dusk was about to fall and fed on it for 10 minutes. In the meantime the impala had shrunken to half its size and I had expected her to stow it in a tree, but nothing happened. When darkness fell she strolled over to a water hole 80 meters away and drank deeply. After 2-3 minutes you heard hyenas fighting over the carcass. Apparently they had been in the area for some time and were just waiting for a moment like this where we – the leopard and the car – would distance ourselves from the kill.

Of course the leopard heard them as well and carefully went back half way, stopped for a moment as if she was thinking about what exactly she should do and then went off into the darkness of the savannah. She knew she didn’t have a chance to get the dead prey back from 3-5 hyenas. 

The hyenas at the carcass let off scary sounding calls that I had never heard during the light of day and it sounded as if they were having some serious problems in sharing the impala buck among them. I really would have liked to have seen this through a night scope and taken pictures with the camera and flash but I had to make a decision: either stay photographing the hyenas with the kill or to follow the leopard through the night for a chance to find her and her daughter at their new cave. I decided in favor of the leopard and followed her for about an hour and a half then she moved over some extremely rocky terrain where the vehicle was under no circumstances able to follow and thus we unfortunately lost her track.


Here you can see Beauty, the bigger daughter, 
try and deposit a grown impala in a tree 
to keep it safely away from hyenas.

Night vision binoculars, goggles or scopes (intensifier of remaining light) are great. Simply said, you can’t see a thing with the naked eye and then with the night vision binoculars you see everything. With that there were two other interesting encounters while we were following the leopard. First of all, there suddenly was a pigeon sitting in the middle of the path that the leopard was using for a bit. This pigeon let the leopard advance on her up to about 2-3 meters and then she fluttered up. As she was doing that the leopard sprang up and swatted at it with her paw the same way a housecat would swat at a ball of yarn that you’d throw at it.

The second encounter was even more interesting: The leopard suddenly froze in her tracks – she had discovered a hyena about 50 meters away, so she ran quickly to a tree which was only 20 meters away. The hyena followed her and I thought the leopard would jump up into the tree. But she just sat down underneath the tree and when the hyena was close enough she laid down on her side. This type of behavior I had witnessed in the years before and during daylight. The female leopard would lie down on her side when hyenas or male baboons would come too close.

The hyena circled the leopard once and then moved away. The leopard waited for a moment and then she also went off. Why did she seek safety under the tree instead of climbing it? Maybe it was just a back-up in case the hyena would have attacked or that there were others to follow? Maybe she wasn’t able to really make out if it was a hyena… it could have been a lion. After all it was pitch dark and we were the only ones with night vision binoculars to see everything as clearly as we did. 

Later, on the way back to our camp we saw a young giraffe being chased down by a lioness in the darkness. Both were running at a distance of about 100 meters past our vehicle and the outcome of the chase has to remain a secret since the speed with which the animals were traveling past us was unfortunately so fast, that we were unable to follow.

25th of April:

Today we were searching for the mother with her daughter again, starting at 6 am but again without result unfortunately. But at 6.10 pm –there were only 20 minutes left before dusk – when we suddenly saw the daughter 2 meters up in an umbrella tree and then we saw mother Half Tail as well, lying in the high grass some meters apart and another 10 meters away there was a hyena that probably was just checking if there was a kill to steal from the leopards. In the final analysis it was the hyena fault that we were able to find the leopards as it was because of her that the little leopard had to jump into the tree. Without the hyena she would have stayed in the grass with her mother. After the hyena finally moved on, the cub climbed back down from the tree, ran to her mom and started to drink her milk. After darkness fell completely the two of them wandered on to the 500 meter distanced Leopard Gulch. They followed the whole length of it and almost at the end they swung up the rocky side and disappeared.

April 26th:

Of course this morning we were right back there before dawn and immediately discovered the baby girl leopard. At almost 7 am mother Half Tail turned up and climbed into the only tree situated directly at the top rim of Leopard Gulch. She came right back with a grown male vervet (a monkey) in her mouth. She must have caught it during the night and deposited it up there. They started to feed. After about a half an hour the little leopard, now almost exactly 3 months old, took the grown monkey and dragged it to a tree 10 meters away, where she wanted to climb up into it with the dead prey. She tried three times, three times she and the carcass fell down from about halfway up and landed in the grass on her back with the kill on top of her, a sight for the gods. After 5 minutes the mother came, took the carcass away from her daughter and brought it back to the spot they were eating at just before. They continued eating the monkey until there was nothing left.

A delicacy, blue eggs for breakfast.

After we had named the first daughter of Paradise, Beauty three and a half years ago, and two and a half years ago the daughter from the second litter Taratibu (careful), we called the son Mangáa (carefree), so we decided to name this new daughter Zawadi (present) because she had presented us in the last few days with such enchanting scenes.

Altogether our leopard lady Half Tail, named for her half tail that was partly bitten off by baboons years ago, had had about 10 cubs in her life. In the fall of 1990 it was assumed that she had had two male cubs which must have died shortly after birth. In November of 1992 it was supposed to have been three, of which only the daughter, Beauty, survived. In the fall of 1993 again three cubs of which at first Mangáa and Taratibu survived, but daughter Taratibu was killed at the age of one by a lioness. Now, in January, she had had two cubs, of which only one, Zawadi, survived. Paradise is now about 9 or 10 years old and from the 10 kids, of which only three are still alive, not one has brought forth any offspring. Beauty though should be about ready to soon make Half Tail a grandmother.

Here you see mother Half Tail in the lower part of the tree, 
while the two kids above her in the crown of the tree 
are devouring a rabbit that was caught during the night.

When you watch any type of animal for a longer period of time you will make many interesting observations that you would never notice if you just happen to take a picture or two of a leopard, or an elephant, an impala, bat eared fox, etc. This way we know that Half Tail always chooses the hiding places for her kids so that there is always a tree as well as a cave close by. The little one will crawl into the cave when baboons are close because baboons are afraid of the darkness in the cave. The little leopard will climb into the tree when hyenas or lions are in the vicinity because they would drag it out of the cave and kill it, but are unable to climb into a tree. Even the kill (the monkey) was chosen so that it could be devoured quickly without having it lying around long enough for hyenas or lions to catch its scent. That is something I had noticed before: Whenever the mother brought any kind of dead prey to the kids it would always be a rabbit or an impala kid, but never larger animals that could cause problems.

These first photos shot during the night in the African Bush were only supposed to be a test and a warm up for the beginning of a – at least for me – completely new subject. It was easy to see that already there would be many possibilities opening up for the future and a wide and relatively untouched field for a nature photographer that is engaged was spread out in front. Think about it, what do you think happens in the African wilderness at night that is not captured by a camera?

The additional tools for the nocturnal hunt with a camera in Africa .

Nikon flash SB-24 with flash timer sequence minimizer Nikon Power handle SK-6,
 Lepp Tele. Flash Adapter, Infrared floodlight with power plug 
for the car cigarette outlet and all the way to the right the 
night vision binoculars BN-2,5 by Kettner in Germany.

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