As a visitor to Africa’s game reserves, your number one goal is ‘game viewing’ – either watching or photographing animals, yet we often get back to our camps in African game reserves and chat to our neighbors who sadly tell us they did not find any of the big-5 animals that day.
There are hundreds of articles on the web on how to photograph animals but not much information on the crucial step before that – how to find the animals – because if you cannot find the animals you will have nothing to photograph!
Here we will look at 12 strategies that will help you to be more successful in finding African animals on a big-five safari:
1. Game viewing methods – Many visitors think ‘safari tour guide’ but here you have a choice – you can choose between a self-drive safari or a guided safari. We prefer self-drive in game reserves such as the Kruger Park, Kgalagadi, and Pilanesberg in South Africa and Etosha in Namibia. Contrary to popular belief, we have seen more animals by driving ourselves around than going out with a safari guide – and its way cheaper too!
2. When to look – most animals are active in the cool hours of early morning and then again at the end of the day. In summer these hours are shorter than winter, hence winters are more favored for game viewing.
3. Sighting boards – these are important tools in locating game on a daily basis. Each camp has one or more sighting boards in addition to sighting books. At the end of every day you should view these sighting boards so you can see what other visitors have seen and you will then start seeing animal movement patterns that you can follow the next day.
4. Animal Behavior – understanding animal behavior is another key to finding them. We have seen many of our predators by stopping to watch the prey – yes we do stop to watch impala in the Kruger Park and Pilanesberg or springbok in the Kalahari and Etosha – and sometimes we are rewarded with a cheetah, lion or leopard sighting and even some kills! The prey animals provide us with indicators to a predator’s presence. We therefore listen for warning or alarm calls such as barking of Baboons, snorting and roaring of Impalas, or screeching of vervet monkeys. We also look for antelope stretching their necks, erect posture, ears pricked up and staring intently into the bush.
5. Best routes – some routes are consistently more productive than others – If you want to find leopards, as an example, you should travel along roads that follow the rivers and streams in the Kruger and Pilanesberg. In Etosha leopards are more common around Namutoni and Halali camps and in the Kgalagadi leopards are more common in the south of the park.
6. Camps and bungalows – each camp is unique in terms of feel, location, local species and so it’s important that you choose the right camp depending on what type of animals you want to see. For example, if you want to photograph the rare Roan antelope you will find these in the northern Kruger.
7. Veld condition – The Kruger Park and Pilanesberg have many veld fires each year and some people are put-off from visiting these parks at these times yet this is the ideal time to go! Tall grass is a photographer’s nightmare as it can spoil your photograph, so after a fire this grass has gone – you can now see the animals more easily, your photographs won’t have distracting grass in them and the blackened veld makes a very nice backdrop making your subject ‘pop’.
8. See the animals – we are amazed at how many people drive past animals, even large elephants, as they did not ‘see’ them! Whether sitting at a hide or driving in a vehicle you should be scanning the veld looking for movement or flashes of color and listening for branches or twigs snapping.
9. Patience – if you have patience you will end up very successful in finding and photographing game. Often we have been sitting in a hide and people walk in, look around, see nothing and then they leave. A few minutes later a lion steps out the grass and drinks! On other occasions we have pulled our car over to the side of the road and switched off in order to watch some cheetahs under a tree. People pull up behind us look around see nothing and then drive off – a few minutes later the cheetahs get up stretch climb onto logs and give us great photographs!
10. Drive slow – the speed limit in the Kruger Park, Kgalagadi and the Pilanesberg is 50 kilometers per hour, while in Etosha the limit is 60 km per hour. We would suggest 30 km per hour in all these game reserves and national parks as this will allow you to see much more.
Once you have found the animal you then need to ensure two things:
11. Don’t make a noise – this will frighten the animal away so switch your car engine off and keep your voices down!
12. Pull your car over to the side of the road closest to the animal – there are three good reasons for this –
1) you allow other traffic to continue past you,
2) you ensure that other cars cannot drive in front of you and so block your view and
3) by parking on the side the road that the game is located will bring you closer to the subject and provide you with better photographs.