King of the jungle or biggest fish in the sea – what is it like to top the food chain with no natural predators? We asked five internationally-acclaimed photographers to share their thrilling captures of apex predators ahead of the Wild Shots Wildlife Photography Symposium on 2 November 2019, to better understand how these alpha species are critical to flourishing ecosystems. By Rebekah Funk
Every year the Wild Shots Wildlife Photography Symposium draws together talented nature photographers for a day of inspiration. The event is open to everyone with an interest in wildlife and nature photography, from amateur shutterbugs and professional photographers to nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. This year sees the 8th annual conference in Cape Town, an opportunity to learn from 14 of the best nature and wildlife photographers from around the globe, including keynote speaker Michael Poliza. More details below.
For these pro photographers, apex predators present an irresistible opportunity to capture the power and beauty of the natural world – yet also the vulnerability and precariousness of ecosystems. Five Wild Shots speakers share their images of these consummate hunters, an insight into the role alpha species play in shaping ecosystems.
Much of Disney’s The Lion King reminds viewers of the importance of balance (and the lion’s role in maintaining the savanna ecosystem). And while it’s a child-friendly version of life and death on Africa’s plains, its sentiment reminds us how delicate the “circle of life” can be – and how apex predators can, in fact, practise self-regulation.
Lions play a key role in the savanna’s food chain by helping to control the herbivore population (primary consumers) and, in turn, the plant populations (primary producers). As a chief predator that goes largely unchallenged, lions have little trouble chasing down and killing large herbivores such as elephants and giraffes at speeds of up to 80km/h. It’s something pro photographers Michael Poliza and Isaac Kalio have witnessed up close, in their photographic hunts for these majestic big cats (which can weigh up to 190kg).
Isaac Kalio grew up in a remote village in the Lower Zambezi. His childhood was spent dealing with the wildlife that raided his family’s farmlands by day and night. (He and his mother would spend their nights in a tree-house in the fields, waking up to chase elephants and hippos in the dark.) But from canoe guiding to working for Wilderness Safaris in the legendary Busanga Plains in Kafue National Park, Isaac has developed a love for wildlife. Today he devotes his life to protecting and photographing all he encounters, including “The majestic Kings of Kafue”, the topic of his Wild Shots presentation.
Meanwhile for Michael Poliza, repeated trips to the African continent have allowed him to develop a unique relationship with its landscapes and animals, one that is palpable in his touching images (including those taken from the air). By focusing on small details (like the lion’s whiskered mouth, below), he’s able to produce new, autonomous pictures, “estranged in their expression but always without disturbing the essence of nature”. Award-winning Michael will be the keynote speaker at this year’s Wild Shots Wildlife Photography Symposium, with the topic “Eyes over Africa – how my life changed through photography”.
Great white shark
Apex predators are thought to have existed since at least the Cambrian period, around 500 million years ago, and there are few more impressive than the stealthy great white. Reaching lengths of up to 6.4m and weighing as much as 1,100kg, these submarine-like hunters can propel themselves towards prey (including up and out of the water, as South African photographer and shark conservationist Chris Fallows has captured) at speeds of 56km/h!
While most people think sharks influence the food web simply by eating other animals, their impact is much greater. In Cape Town, for instance, scientists are just starting to see the effects of the mysterious disappearance of great whites from False Bay in the past year. Research shows sharks’ presence can influence the foraging behaviour of other animals (such as dolphins, fish, turtles and even birds) which will move on to avoid them. In doing so, these marine animals indirectly impact the structure of the marine seagrass beds, which form the physical architecture of the ecosystem.
Chris will share more about what it takes to “Get to know your subject” at this year’s Wild Shots event, recounting his intimate experiences with great white sharks. Together with his wife, Monique, they run Apex Shark Expeditions, educating guests and audiences alike about the need to conserve sharks and wildlife globally. His work has appeared in more than 50 international documentaries, including the acclaimed BBC Planet Earth, Africa & Life series.
African wild dog
Photographer Nick Dyer’s images of “painted wolves”, the subject of his Wild Shots presentation, highlight the prowess of Africa’s critically endangered wild dogs. While relatively ineffective on their own, these canines hunt in formidable, cooperative packs of six to 20 (or more), with an 80% success rate. They have a powerful bite with specialised molars for shearing meat and breaking bone, as well as exceptionally keen senses of sight, smell and hearing.
Wild dog packs hunt antelopes and smaller animals such as rodents and birds, relying on stamina rather than stealth. But they will try for much larger prey, such as wildebeest, if their prey is ill or injured – in this way, they help with disease control as an apex predator.
Yet the survival of the nomadic African wild dog is threatened by shrinking habitat, as humans encroach on wild spaces with development and farmland. In Africa there are just a handful of viable populations, one of which is in the Kruger National Park.
Leopards’ reclusive and nocturnal nature makes them one of Africa’s most resilient predators. They’re often able to survive in relatively close proximity to humans without being detected. Highly adaptive, they hunt a variety of prey species: from mice and baby giraffes to reptiles and fish. With awe-inspiring power, leopards can jump metres in the air with carcasses heavier than their own body weight, stashing their prizes high in trees and beyond the reach of other predators or scavengers.
Photographer Villiers Steyn completed his Masters in Nature Conservation, focusing on leopard movement patterns and densities in Botswana’s majestic Northern Tuli Game Reserve. Since then, he’s been a presenter on NatGeo Wild’s Caught in the Act, where he gives expert commentary on rare and interesting behaviour of leopards and other wild cats. Catch his talk at the 2019 Wild Shots Wildlife Photography Symposium: “Avoid the Traps – five mistakes even the pros make!”
When an ecosystem loses a key apex predator species, it triggers what ecologists call a “trophic cascade”: a butterfly effect that spirals down the food chain.
Humans have hunted many apex predators close to extinction, but in some parts of the world these predators are now returning. Nevertheless, they remain threatened by climate change, habitat loss, poaching and fragmentation, as is the case with India’s Bengal tiger.
With no natural predators, tigers are solitary hunters that roam mostly at night. Their diet includes wild pigs, deer, water buffalo, monkeys, hares and crocodiles. Villiers Steyn captured this stalking big cat on a trip to India. The picture makes for a beautiful, yet haunting, reminder of the importance of ensuring the survival of apex predators.
After all, it can be lonely at the top!
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Wild Shots Wildlife Photography Symposium 2019
Date: Saturday, 2 November 2019
Venue: Nedbank Auditorium, V&A Waterfront, Cape Town
Time: 8:30am (for 9am start) to 5pm (with Bouchard Finlayson wine reception until 6pm)
Keynote speaker: Michael Poliza, award-winning author of Africa and Eyes over Africa.
Other speakers: Colin Bell, Peter Chadwick, Chris Fallows, Jacques Marais, Janine Krayer, Villiers Steyn, Aubrey Tseleng, Isaac Kalio, Jan Roode, Jay Roode, Ian Michler, Mike Kendrick, Nick Dyer. View the full programme.
The full delegate package (R950) includes entry to the entire programme of events, presentations and panel discussions by award-winning photographers, book signings, exhibition area, lunch and refreshments, and a delegate pack. Pensioners (over 65 years) and students will pay R750 per person. Register online here, or send an email to [email protected] for more information.