Ahead of World Animal Day (Oct 4), leading wildlife photographers, including Brian Skerry, Angela Scott and Peter Eastway, pick their favourite countries for photographing lions, gorillas and more...
Kenya is a photographer’s paradise. It has great access (most places are within an hours flight of Nairobi), highly habituated wildlife and gorgeous light.
The variety of landscapes creates a multitude of backdrops from the green rolling plains of the Maasai Mara, where we are based at Governor’s Camp, with its iconic big cats that we’ve spent time photographing and filming to the rugged Samburu country further north boasting massive rocky outcrops and palm-fringed rivers with reticulated giraffes and Grevy’s zebras to enthral the eye.
The people are proud yet incredibly friendly, whether hawking their wares in the city or tending livestock out on the savannah. There are no excuses for snapshots in Kenya. The challenge here is to be at your most creative.
Brazil is one of my favorite countries to photograph wildlife in. There’s so much to see across the country.
Within Brazil (and extending in to Bolivia and Paraguay), there's the Pantanal, the world's largest wetland and home to one of the densest concentrations of wildlife on the planet. This land-locked river delta, where Brazilian cowboys herd their cattle on the plains alongside toothy caimans and capybaras, is 20 times the size of Florida’s Everglades.
Here, conservation objectives have been attempted with the establishment of national parks and reserves, though real achievement is always debatable. 95 percent of the land belongs to sprawling fazendas, or ranches, which run huge cattle operations, some of which have effectively mixed a mission of wildlife conservation and agricultural production. At times it seems like the Old West here, with palm trees and large reptiles.
There are so many species here - over 10,000 species and subspecies of birds, fish, mammals, reptiles and, importantly, the invertebrates that are the base of the food chain - that one need not go anywhere else.
The Okavango Delta belongs on the shortlist of places you have to visit if you have the opportunity. It’s a singular phenomenon, an oasis in the middle of the desert and a magnet for wildlife. It’s breathtakingly beautiful and quite diverse around the periphery. It’s a haven.
There’s also the famed Kalahari Desert that surrounds the Okavango Desert and stretches much further to the south and the west, which a very different ecosystem. Things are not quite as dramatic as you can find around the Okavango. It has it’s own unique features. There’s a substantial population of cheetahs and lions, and seasonal migrations of hoofed animals.
To the south of the Okavango Delta, there’s a place that’s quite unique, the Makgadikgadi Pan, which is a vast area of salt pans, and then to the north of the Okavango Delta, there’s an extensive area of rivers and wetlands, including the Chobe river, flowing into the Zambezi. For a photographer, that diversity is just fantastic.
Botswana is a country that’s taking care of its wildlife quite well compared to a lot of other countries on the continent. I like to publicise countries and governments who are doing a good job. Often the publicity I can attract to a place can lead to more people visiting there or more people working there, and then we’re pointing in a good direction.
For a photographer specializing in Africa’s wildlife, few places match the endless savannahs of Tanzania. The concentration of animals is extraordinary. Over one million wildebeests sometimes graze on the plains, stretching as far as the eye can see.
In the heart of this immense wilderness, magnificent rocky formations, called kopjes, host predators during the daytime. I love to photograph the big cats in this timeless setting, looking for unique combinations of rock formations, wildlife and light.
Another place that totally captures my emotions is the Ngorongoro Crater, with mist and clouds wrapping the rim in the morning and majestic wildlife underneath.
The diversity of life, progressive conservation ethic and natural beauty of New Zealand makes this my favourite country for photography. I did my first assignment in New Zealand in 2006. I’d proposed a story to National Geographic about the value of marine reserves. I wanted to document a place that had a history of protection and where I could see the evidence of the ocean’s ability to heal and restore wildlife.
I made three trips for this story, each one to different marine reserves within the country. From the bottom of the South Island to the top of the North Island, everywhere I dived I saw an abundance of life and ecosystems that were thriving. My personal favorite places were in Fiordland, where tannin-stained freshwater flows into the ocean, blocking out much of the sun from reaching below and creating a permanent layer of darkness on top of the seawater. Deepwater species, such as sea pens and black coral, are ‘tricked’ into emerging into shallower depths.
In the years since, I’ve done several more trips to New Zealand and I’ve never been disappointed. I’ve photographed sharks, whales, seals and so much more here.
South Africa has such the variety to offer for a wildlife photographer. In the eastern part of the country, there’s Kruger National Park, well known worldwide as one of the great game reserves in Africa. Neighbouring Kruger is a wide variety of privately owned and managed game reserves, such as the Sabi Sand Game reserve and the Timbavati Game reserve, where you can photograph the Big Five, as well as other animal and bird species that are quite habituated to game viewing vehicles, so you can get some superb wildlife images.
Throughout South Africa, there are a multitude of National Parks and private game reserves, each offering a unique perspective on the local wildlife, such as Pilansberg National Park, Addo Elephant National Park, and Kgalagadi National Park, which has a desert and sand dune environment that is spectacular for combining wildlife and landscape photography. Mountain Zebra National Park, Karoo National Park, West Coast National Park… The list goes on and on.
To compliment the wildlife photography, there are some beautiful landscapes, including the Drakensberg mountains, Golden Gate National park, Camdeboo National Park and the ruggedness of the Richtersveld. We have Bushveld, desert, mountains, forest and everything in-between to satisfy almost every photographer. We also have some of the clearest night skies anywhere on the planet.
While I have travelled to many other countries, from Tanzania to Sri Lanka, I enjoy travelling and photographing wildlife in India the most. Our country has a fascinating variety of fauna and flora in different topographies, from grasslands and forests to lakes and rivers.
The two main biodiversity zones that we have, the Himalayas and Western Ghats are home to innumerable bird and animal species. There are many other hotspots for bird photography, like Keolodeo National Park Bharapur in Rajasthan, Little Rann of Katch in Gujarat, Pangot and Sattal in Uttaranchal, and Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary and Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary in Kerala.
We also have national parks in Northern and Central India that have a good population of tigers and leopards. Unlike some other countries, during all the seasons, we can find something to shoot with good lighting for photography.
Ethiopia’s most interesting wildlife is up in the Highlands. Like the country’s proudly independent cultures, the wildlife here is also distinct from the rest of Africa. There’s no Big Five and many of the animals aren’t as easy to find as in places like Kenya or South Africa. In fact, many of them are rare. Some, like the Ethiopia Wolf, are critically endangered.
The challenge of finding the unique endemic species is part of the fun of photographing here, whether that’s tracking Walia Ibex up at above 4000 metres in Simien Mountains National Park or scouring the high plateaus of the Bale Mountains for golden wolves or the giant mole-rats they feed on. There are big birds of prey around, too, including Lammergeiers (known as ‘bone-breakers’), Griffon Vultures, Verreaux's Eagles and Augur Buzzards.
The one creature there’s no problem finding is the Gelada monkey, also known as the ‘bleeding heart monkey’. Every day, hundreds of the monkeys make their way up from the safety of the cliffs to graze their way across the grassy plateaus. They can be a challenge to photograph, as they’re fast-moving and, like humans, they don’t like to be watched while eating. But sitting among the Geladas and photographing them as they go about their daily lives is a memorable and rewarding experience.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Borneo. The rainforests there are very spectacular both visually and aesthetically. It’s such a dynamic landscape. It’s remote and hard to get to the interior but Borneo is an incredible place for wildlife and landscape photography.
I’ve done 40 trips and expeditions there, including for cover stories for Nat Geo, books and films. It’s a place you can find incredible wildlife: the orang-utans, the king cobra, gibbons, the Borneo forest elephants, reticulated pythons, proboscis monkeys…. It’s incredibly cool and diverse.
What makes Borneo special is it has such different topography. It’s the third largest island on the planet, so it’s a sizeable chunk of forest, although 70 per cent of the rainforest has been destroyed due to palm forest exploitation. When you venture into the last rainforest spots there, it’s still quite divine. You have the huge trees, which are 60 or 70 metres tall. When you climb them, to build blinds and hides to get other kinds of pictures, you’re entering another world. I’ve done that a lot. I did one expedition that lasted 14 months in Borneo, including 4 months up in the trees, including 4 months up in the trees.
I’ve done a lot of work there and I really appreciate it, not just for the wildlife, but the textures and the light. It’s a primordial soup. It really works against you, with leeches, all the moulding of gear and difficult light conditions. But when you work them out and work with nature, not against nature, you can be greatly rewarded. It’s a ‘heaven on Earth’.
I’m in love with too many countries in Africa, especially specific places like Amboseli and the Maasai Mara in Kenya. But my first cat name was called Namibia, which shows how special this country for me.
The first time I went to Namibia, I was invited to the largest private game reserve in the country, which is called Erindi. For me, it really was an encounter with the origin, with Earth, with my wild insides. Erindi is rich in wildlife and has a very romantic spirit in the air.
Namibia also has Etosha National Park, a unique place where the white earth from the ‘pan’, a dried salt, gives a special character to all the animals that live there. Every place has something specific you can fall in love with. With Etosha, I can see one picture in a 1000 and I recognise its Etosha because the light and the land are very specific. It has a landscape full of intense warm colours and splattered with different waterholes that make fantastic images possible with big herd of elephants drinking, or giraffes, leopards and rhinos. For wildlife photographers, it’s a paradise.
The UK may not be the first place you’d think of for wildlife but if you scratch the surface, it hides a wealth of incredibly beautiful locations to find and photograph wildlife. Here, you have everything from the urban treasures of badgers and foxes passing through our gardens at night to owls residing in picturesque, weathered old buildings in the countryside.
However, the puffin colonies of Skomer Island have to be one of my favourite places to spend time. The clean air, the sound of thousands of seabirds and breathtaking scenery in ‘golden hour’ light make these wonderful little birds a real photographic gem that should be experienced by everyone.
For most people, the Bahamian islands are synonymous with sunny beaches. But they’re also a privileged destination for shark lovers and someone who’s into underwater photography.
The Bahamas is one of the few places in the world where you can swim with a variety of shark species in crystal-clear waters in just a matter of days. The good visibility is a major advantage, as it brings a sense of safety. You have an expanded field of vision, with ample time to anticipate the next move of the shark. These optimal conditions make it very comfortable to realize pictures.
The islands' proximity to the Atlantic drop-off and the Gulfstream means constant exposure to rich, biodiverse waters, favouring the presence of top predators. Aside from the main shark species, such as tigers, lemon, bull, nurse, great hammerheads and greys, chances are that you will encounter many other large marine species, including turtles, eagle rays and stingrays, spotted and bottlenose dolphins.
Given my affinity for elephants, I find Zimbabwe and, in particular, the magical Mana Pools, hard to beat for photography and wildlife experiences. There, you are on foot with elephants, so close you can feel their low rumbles echoing through your very being.
The beautiful forest has light like nowhere else. One memorable day, I sat on a forest floor surrounded by a family of elephants gently grazing, holding my breath so much I almost forgot to take pictures. Another experience involved kayaking down the Zambezi while a family of elephants swam alongside us. The memory can still provoke tears now.
Of course, Zimbabwe has more to offer than elephants. From wild dogs to lions, buffalo to hippo, this incredible place provides the chance to get a more intimate view of wildlife than almost anywhere else in Africa.
The ‘Land of Opportunity’ has so many photographic possibilities to offer my wandering heart. The USA’s cultural and biodiversity is simply staggering, providing the photographic adventurer a lifetime of opportunities. From the highs of the Sierra Mountains to the depths of Death Valley or the Boreal Forests of Alaska, there’s a rich world to explore and share with our cameras. The freedoms we enjoy to travel and explore make it a rich palette to express our love for country and photography.
The diversity of wildlife is incredible and has been feeding my habit for over 40 years. You have places such as California’s deserts with the San Joaquin kit fox right through to the grizzly bears of Alaska’s coastal regions. Add the birds of Florida’s beaches and Ohio’s forests and that’s still but a small sampling of the biodiversity contained within the US borders.
The incredible and diverse wildlife, the landscapes and the whaling ruins are what make South Georgia my favourite country to photograph. It’s not the easiest location to visit. Access for me has been on voyages to or from Antarctica, and even then, the weather can be so challenging you can't get ashore or even out on deck with your camera.
But when you do, it is a very special place. You see towering peaks with sparkling glaciers, reminiscent of the Himalayas, that reach down to remote stone beaches covered with millions of seals, penguins and birds. It's hard to point your camera anywhere without capturing an amazing image.
(Wildlife destinations are listed in no particular order; numbers don’t equate to rankings).
Main image: Cheetah and cub, Kenya (Angela Scott)