Wildlife Photography | Long Beach Animal Hospital - Part 6

Category: Wildlife Photography

Lion-Hyena encounter

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This was my fist chance to see a close encounter between lions and hyenas. It happened at 9 Am while driving  in the central Serengeti.

A clan of hyena were feasting on the significant remains of a wildebeest

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The ripped away and engorged themselves

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Tanzania2015-HyenaMunching

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They kept a wary eye in the distance, and we soon found out why

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Tanzania2015-WaryHyena

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As it turns out, a small pride of male lions had killed the wildebeest earlier and already feasted. They were lounging about 100 yards away after gorging on the wildebeest. They left their kill to the hyenas since they could not eat any more.

One of the males decided that he did not want the hyenas eating his meal so he returned, walking right down the middle of the road

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He was a big boy, and could not move very fast due to his full belly

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When he got close the hyenas scattered.

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Hyenas have powerful jaws, and in sufficient numbers are not usually afraid of lions, especially lionesses. This is not the case when a large male lion approaches.

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He grabbed his carcass and started walking it back to the other male lions

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He stopped to rest frequently, with the hyenas watching from a safe distance

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As the hyenas amassed in greater numbers they got their courage to start approaching the male

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When there was 15 of them he decided it was not worth it and left the wildebeest to them

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When it was obvious he was far enough away they returned to finish eating

Tanzania2015-HyenaAmassing

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Serengeti 2013 Group

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Carole

Jan

Janelle

Mark

Les and Cindy

Yuriko

Greg and Claudia

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Photographer’s Africa

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In February of 2013 I took 10 people to Lake Ndutu in the southern Serengeti of Tanzania to photograph the wildlife, particularly the big cats.  The Serengeti is a wildlife photographers dream, and will spoil you when you travel to other parts of the world to photograph wildlife. Click here to see my prior page on the Lake Ndutu area in 2011 to get more details why I go back to this specific area of the Serengeti. We are planning another trip there in 2015.

I have lots of pictures and stories from prior Africa trips in the Wildlife Photography section of this web site. They are detailed pages with hundreds of great photos to entice you to go. In keeping with my philosophy that it is not “just about the photo”, I wrote these pages as a travel log so you can learn about different cultures and see what is going on in the world in regards to conservation of endangered animals. There is a whole lot of information there, so pace yourself if you decide to read it, and make sure you read some of the smarty pants comments and not just look at the pictures.

On this Photographer’s Africa page I take a different approach from my prior pages and present my trip in Feb of 2013 from a more technical photographic point of view. This might help the increasing amount of nature and wildlife photographers who have invested in good camera equipment and want to bring home more keepers of their once-in-a-lifetime trips. It also might save me from lots of questions that I have already answered over and over.

On this page you will get your fill of cheetah, and see photos of an actual hunt. This is the end result of many hunts we observed. Its a female cheetah eating a one day old Grant’s gazelle.

This was her minutes earlier as she searched for this baby hidden in the grass.

Since I already have hundreds of photos of wild animals staring back at me, my primary interest on a trip like this is to take action shots of animals interacting with each other, particularly the predator-prey battle. Cheetahs on the hunt were my main quarry.  Since they hunt in the daytime in the open plains you have a greater chance of watching them run down their prey, as compared to the elusive leopard or the lions that usually hunt in the night. You need to be in the right place at the right time on this one because of the speed involved and the fact the whole hunt from take off to landing is completed in 20-30 seconds in most cases.

When you are lucky to observe this you get a big dose of survival of the fittest shoved down your throat. Some people find this aspect of nature disturbing. Later in this page there are pictures of adolescent cheetahs killing a 2 day old wildebeest, with a link to a whole page on the hunt from beginning to end. They are highly graphic in nature and not suitable for children.

Click on any picture on this page to see a larger version or a link to more photos. All photos have been saved as jpeg medium compression for rapid downloading.

Our tired but satisfied group as we are leaving the Serengeti. I usually take 10 people maximum and put them in 4 cars. This gives us flexibility and gives the photographers in the group more than enough room to bring equipment and move around without knocking someone out of the vehicle.

Carole and Yuriko missed the group photo (we don’t need to mention why), so they get her own “group photo” picture.

Click on either of the photos above to see our group enjoying themselves

The Trip

This was my 7th time to Africa, my 5th to the Serengeti, and my second to a specific area of the Serengeti called Lake Ndutu. Lake Ndutu is in the Southeast corner of the Serengeti. It is here, when the rains start, in a 3 week span every February, that wildebeest calves are born by the hundreds of thousands. This makes it a spectacle, and along with the large amount of other animals (especially the predators), there is lots of action.

The wildebeests, numbering over 1.7 million, follow the rains as they nourish the savannah grasses (C4  and C3) in different sections in this vast area. When the rains start in the Ndutu area it is a signal for the stork to start delivering the babies.

These ungainly looking animals with goatees are wildebeests (also called gnus). People sometimes joke they are so comical looking they were probably designed by committee. Looks are deceiving when you consider they have been around for millions of years and number upwards of 1.7 million.

None of the wildebeest or predators would be here if it weren’t for the grasses. The Serengeti is unique because it is a vast grassland almost on the equator. In other places of the world there are tropical rain forests on the equator. The Serengeti is a grassland, and not a tropical rain forest, because of seismic activity millions of years ago that created the Great Rift Valley.  When the rains come the intense tropical sun causes the C 4 and C 3 grasses to grow in abundance. It is these grasses that feed the millions of ungulates (hooved mammals) that graze year round.

This area also gave birth to human evolution. Olduvai Gorge, where Louis Leakey did his seminal work discovering early humanoids (zinjanthropus), is close to our camp and an easy visit. If you go there you can look back in time to our ancestors.

You can see the rain coming at great distances in this vast landscape (Serengeti is Swahili for extended landscape). Can you tell what animals are grazing in the foreground?

As you drive amongst the vast herds there are calves everywhere. The mothers are stimulated to calve now due to the nutritious nature of the grasses in this area that are now nourished by the rains. This is also a survival strategy, because the sheer numbers of calves born at the same time overwhelm the predators’ ability to eat all of them.

This calf is only a few minutes old and looking for his first meal. The milk he will take in for the first few days is called colostrum, which provides critical antibodies he cannot produce at such a young age. If he does not get separated from his mother he stands a chance of returning back to this area in one year as an adult.

Unfortunately, many of the calves are displaced from their mothers and are doomed. Up to 20% of the newborns suffer this fate. It does not affect the overall numbers of wildebeests because they have fine tuned their community over millions of years to produce only enough adults that the grasses can support.

Some of them think of our vehicles as their mother and will follow us down the road.

As helpful as it is to go on the web and plan your trip on your own, nothing beats talking to the boots on the ground and tapping into their tremendous expertise. On each trip I meet with the main guides to plan a follow up trip a few years later. This detailed planning is the hallmark of my trips and has paid off handsomely. Once the preliminary plans are set, I communicate with the guides via email to refine it based on their experience in the field over many months prior to my trip.

 This is me, Firoz, and Evans planning my next trip with the help of a detailed map.

For Serengeti trips, most people from the U.S. fly Delta/KLM through Amsterdam. Plan on a good 10 hours to Amsterdam, and then after a few hours layover another 10 hours to Kilimanjaro International Airport. You arrive late at night and by the time you get to sleep it is around 2 AM. Do yourself a big favor and save up the frequent flyer miles to go business class.

Most trips are set up to fly or drive off to the Serengeti the next morning after a one night hotel stay. Over the years I have found this to be too rushed, along with the fact that people are exhausted from the flight and time zone change. On all my groups we stay at the arrival hotel an additional night and get off to a good start when we get to the mobile tented camps. We oftentimes do this on the way back home.

Much is written on the web about airline restrictions regarding how many camera bags you can bring, along with the weight of this equipment. I have not encountered this problem when bringing two carry-ons on the international flights. For the flights in-country with the smaller planes our travel company International Expeditions reserves a few extra seats so weight restrictions are not of any significance.

Even though you are going almost directly East-West on this trip when looking at a map, the flight from Amsterdam to the U. S. and back flies across the top of the planet. Get out your globe and draw a straight line from Amsterdam to Los Angeles and you will see what I mean.

This picture was taken from the plane as we passed over Greenland, the largest island in the world.

The mobile tented camps are where the action is because you are literally in the savannah. You have all the amenities needed, including a flush toilet, hot water shower, very comfortable beds, generators to charge your batteries, bonfires before dinner, and good food. It is the best of all worlds and  great value for the money. At night you get the full effect of the sounds of hyena’s cackling and lions roaring before you crash asleep in comfortable beds from an early and busy day. The stars and Milky Way at 5 AM when you get up for tea and breakfast is stunning.

In the mobile tented camps you might find a visitor hanging around your tent after lunch

A man named Hugo Van Lawick is my inspiration for nature and wildlife photography in the Serengeti. As a matter of fact, he was my inspiration in becoming a veterinarian although I did not realize it at the time because I was only in grade school. Hugo was the first cinematographer to professionally capture the timeless story of survival of the fittest in the Serengeti. Most of the original National Geographic TV shows and movies about this area were filmed by him.  Hugo was way ahead of his time.

There is a memorial to him near our campsite. Our budding wildlife photographer Yuriko learned of Hugo before the trip and wanted to see his memorial. Do you notice anything behind us?

My Equipment

Photography is a priority to me, so I spend the time learning the craft.  I love good optics, so I purchase the best equipment Canon makes, then I practice with it in field conditions before any major trip.

If I have not taken pictures in a while I find an excuse to get out in nature and just shoot to keep my skills up. The most important skill to learn in your pre-trip practice is autofocus on rapidly moving objects. You also need to learn all the features, nubs, and dials on your camera, so that you can instantly change any setting as photographic conditions change.

Canon 1Dx Mark II

Used for the overwhelming majority of action photos due to its frame rate and autofocus capability. I kept the 500 mm on it almost 100% of the time. Even at up to 14 frames per second it is not fast enough for many sequences I shoot. More on this later when we look at individual pictures.

I also keep a 1.4X teleconverter on it, and sometimes the 2X, almost all the time. You need a lot of reach with wildlife, and that 700mm with the 1.4X teleconverter works well.

Canon 5D Mark IV

Used for close shots with the 70-200 mm f/2.8 IS. This strategic decision was beneficial most times but not always. I occasionally put the 500mm with either teleconverter on this camera when shooting a distant static object when I needed the extra megapixels over the 1Dx.

Canon 7D Mark II

Used mostly for teaching purposes and as a backup camera. I used it once for extra reach on the Kori Bustard that was in full mating plumage and the other cameras did not quite have the reach I needed.

Canon 24-105 f/4 IS lens

Used on occasion for scenery and close in shots.

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II lens

In prior trips I did not take this lens, but I am glad I took it this time. It handles teleconverters well so it is flexible for changing conditions. It was attached to the 5D mark III almost all of the time. This is an ideal lens to put on the 1Dx when the action is near you and the 500mm is just too much focal length.

Canon 500mm f/4 IS II

By far the most used lens, with the 1.4X TC on almost all of the time giving me 700mm reach on the full frame 1Dx Mark II.

 Teleconverter 1.4X ver III

Mated to the 500mm for almost the whole trip

Teleconverter 2X ver III

Used on occasion with all cameras for distance shots

We used bean bags for stability on the edge of the LandCruiser while standing. There is no need to bring a tripod or monopod when you learn the skill of using a bean bag. A tripod or monopod will make it difficult to rapidly move from side to side and front to back in the vehicle to get the best angle.

I spent a significant amount of time practicing with this equipment months before the trip. In addition to practicing that all important autofocus on rapidly moving objects, I also found out what settings work best in my hands. It is imperative that you do this prior to any trip of this magnitude.  If you want to come back with many photos you will be proud of, it is not realistic to think you can “learn while doing’ while on safari.

The Guides

If this is truly a once-in-a-lifetime trip put your money into getting the best guides before you purchase any camera equipment. You are much better off having great guides and mediocre equipment than having the best of equipment but with just average guides. I don’t skimp here, and have found a group of guides that work for Ranger Safaris that is outstanding. I am in touch with them via email and they have become personal friends over the years. I bring them technical information from the U. S. they cannot get at home,  and also teach them veterinary medicine. They appreciate this and respond in kind by going out of their way for us (and  find hunting cheetahs for me!).

I have used the same awesome guides for the last 3 trips, and will use them again when we return in 2015.  They make the trip!

The guides know how to drive and put those LandCruisers through their paces. Each one costs over $100K when modified and lasts 4 years due to the heavy beating they take.

Find the wildlife

Before you can capture an animal with your camera you first need to find it, especially the big cats who are masters at staying hidden.  Lets test your animal eyes with a few fun photos by trying to find the wildlife.

Scan this photo and see if you can come up with anything. Click on it to see it in a larger size

If you need help finding the lion hiding in the grass it has been enlarged further and the white arrow points to it

Do you see her staring at us?

Photos- lets get technical

Now that you have the background on this trip lets get to the reason I posted this page. All photos were saved at medium jpeg compression, and are low resolution compared to the originals.

I cropped them tight to give you an idea of the quality of the 1Dx and the 500mm lens with 1.4X TC.  Click on them and they will enlarge or take you to a new page.

I took 4,000 photos, and after lots of deleting I ended up with 1300 photos, with only a few shown on this page. Since my main interest is in taking only action shots, almost all of these photos were taken with the 1Dx Mark II.

I keep my camera on AI SERVO all the time. I use one central focusing point for all my autofocus. I am used to it from all my prior cameras and do not use auto selection of autofocus points. With enough practice you can use the one autofocus point for almost all your shots, even for your birds in flight.

I don’t have time to spend hours on any photo getting it perfect. Like most photographers I strive to take the best photo possible. I shoot raw almost always, and use Lightroom to crop, adjust exposure, saturate if needed, then sharpen a touch. I spend 1-2 minutes on each photo during editing. Most of the people I show my photos to cannot see any difference if I do more than that, so I don’t bother. I rarely print any more since my walls are covered with photos of prior trips. Getting a perfect photo is less important than using the photo to tell a story on this web page or when I give slide shows. This is especially important from the conservation point of view.

Test shots for focus

I rarely micro adjust my lenses. This tightly cropped picture was taken of a crowned crane to test focus on a static object. It passed my field test so I felt no need to adjust anything.

Click on it to enlarge and see what you think.

Canon 1Dx

500mm with 1.4X TC

ISO 500,   f/5.6,   1/1600th

 Same thing with this Lilac breasted roller close up

Canon 1Dx

500mm with 1.4X TC

ISO 500,   f/5.6,   1/640th

Going to f/10 helped bring the rear Nubian vulture into better focus

Canon 1Dx

500mm with 1.4X TC

ISO 500,   f/10,   1/400th

When vultures eat they don’t fool around

When I am comfortable with my autofocus I progress to my main photography interest, which is action shots of animals in motion while they do their thing.

Black shouldered kite

Its from a sequence of 7 shots taken at 50 yards as it came in for a landing. I noticed it in the distance and got my focus point on it easily because it came in a steady motion as it landed on the tree. All were in good focus and I picked the one I liked the best.

Canon 1Dx

500mm with 1.4X TC

ISO 640,   f/5.6,   1/3200th

Exposure compensation- +1 2/3

African fish eagle

Its from a sequence of 10 shots taken over 15 minutes. I was slow to see it approach so I did not get a landing shot like the kite above. I did have time to get my exposure right. I waited hoping it would take off, getting several false alarms as it hunkered down due to the wind, thinking it was crouching to take off.

This was the best in the series when it flew away 15 minutes after landing

Canon 1Dx

500mm with 1.4X TC

ISO 640,   f/5.6,   1/2500th

Exposure compensation- +1 1/3

Nubian vulture

I had plenty of time to focus because these birds are large and you see them in plenty of time.

Another tight crop so you can see the detail in the face

Canon 1Dx

500mm with 1.4X TC

ISO 500,   f/5.6,   1/1250th

 Secretary bird strafed by plover

Even at 12 frames per second, the plover harassing this secretary bird, that is too close to its nest, is only caught in 2 frames.  This gives you a feel how fast these animals move. To catch the plover in the frame I started shooting one second before it appeared by watching when the Secretary bird crouched down in anticipation. I have 20 good shots of this action.

The shutter speed of 1/2000th was not enough to stop the blur of the plover’s wings

Canon 1Dx

500mm with 1.4X TC

ISO 800,   f/5.6,   1/2000th

Failed cheetah hunt

High grass causing focus difficulties, mid day sun causing heat waves and harsh light, and 400 yards distance, made it difficult to get a good shot on this female as she failed to bring down this Thomsons’s gazelle. The action does not always occur when it is optimum conditions for photography.

This female had 3 cubs that interfered with her hunt two times while we were there. This is why she did not get a good jump on this gazelle, leading to failure.

Canon 1Dx

500mm with 2X TC

ISO 1600,   f/8,   1/2500th

Cheetah with a full belly

This is one of two brothers that were successful in their hunting. We tried to follow them the next day but could never find them again. Too bad because they were accomplished hunters. When we go back again in 2015 we will make finding them a priority.

I have never seen such a full belly on a cheetah (kinda like some people I know at Thanksgiving)

Canon 1Dx

500mm with 1.4X TC

ISO 640,   f/8,   1/640th

Cheetah that did not want to hunt

We came across a strange situation with a lone female cheetah that obviously had not eaten recently (especially compared to fatso above). She was given the ultimate opportunity when two Thomson gazelle walked within 10 yards of her as she was hidden in the grass.

She had good cover and walked to the edge of the grass and watched the 3 gazelle in the top right of the photo grazing with zebra. After this photo was taken our guide moved us off to the left between them for a great vantage point.

Canon 5D Mark III

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS

ISO 640,   f/8,   1/1000th

One of the gazelle walked across the open field 10 yards from where she was hiding at the edge of the grass. The other two soon followed and all 3 were within easy striking distance of the cheetah.

The gazelle had no idea the cheetah was there, and spent most of their time gazing at us as they grazed closer to the cheetah

Canon 1Dx

500mm with 1.4X TC

ISO 2000,   f/5.6,   1/1000th

The cheetah did what we all thought was bizarre. She watched them walk right past her, and only when they were out of range did she attempt a futile chase. It goes to show that we do not always understand what is going on in nature.

As you can see by the dust kicked up she is moving at a good clip, but not at full throttle

Canon 1Dx

500mm with 1.4X TC

ISO 500,   f/10,   1/400th

Successful cheetah hunt

We were rewarded at the end of the trip with an amazing show put on by 4 juvenile cheetahs, led by one aggressive male. Throughout our whole trip we watched young cheetahs interfere with their mother while she hunted as they scared off the potential prey before their mother could pounce. This time we watched as they did the whole hunt while the mother just watched, scanning constantly for lions or hyenas, before she joined them in the feast.

Click on either photo to see the full hunt from beginning to end. It is highly graphic in nature and not suitable for all ages.

The mother cheetah as she watched the events unfold

Canon 1Dx

500mm with 1.4X TC

ISO 800,   f/9,   1/1600th

An example of the young male trying to bring down a 2 day old wildebeest calf.

Canon 1Dx

500mm with 1.4X TC

ISO 1250,   f/9,   1/640th

Miscellaneous Photos

 

Augur buzzard

Male Cape buffalo

Long crested eagle

Hippopotamus with red billed oxpecker

Burchell’s (common) zebra

Secretary bird

Masai giraffe (tongue)

Bat eared fox

Black shouldered kite

Female leopard

Masai giraffe and wildebeest

 Male Pygmy falcon

Herd of Cape buffalo

Several photographers that accompanied me on this trip take their photography seriously also and got some great shots.

Les

Bee eater

Male lion

Lion brothers

Yuriko

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Young cheetahs hunting a baby wildebeest

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GRAPHIC PHOTOS IN THIS PAGE NOT SUITABLE FOR ALL AGES

All photos are in low resolution saved as jpeg medium compression. Click on them to see them in greater resolution.

They were taken with (unless otherwise noted):

Canon 1 DX

Canon 500mm f/4 IS  II with 1.4X TC ver III

Bean bag and hand holding

In the late afternoon we came across a family of cheetahs that consisted of an adult female with her four offspring that were a year old. A female cheetah with her offspring needs to hunt at least daily because she has 5 mouths to feed and she tends to hunt the smaller plains animals like gazelles which is not a big meal for all of them. It is unusual for one adult female cheetah to hunt prey that is larger than gazelle, so we did not think much of what they were doing by looking at the relatively large wildebeest 300 hundred yards ahead of them.

At first it did not look like they were very serious about hunting. The mother is on the right.

Canon 5D Mark III-  ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/80th

In short order they were on the alert, with the youngsters leading the way and their mother staying back. This is unusual because the youngsters are not experienced hunters and usually end up just scaring their prey away while their mother is patiently stalking. Within a few seconds the youngsters took off in a cloud of dust as our guide Firoz drove us closer to the action. It happened so fast we were caught off guard initially.

You can see the young male cheetah at the far right jumping onto something. He was the most aggressive of them, and initiated most of the contact with the wildebeest.

ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/4000th

He grabbed a wildebeest calf and attempted to take it down in full view of its mother. We don’t know why they singled out this individual calf. It must have had something wrong because even though it is only a few days old it can run fast enough to stay away from danger, especially from young cheetahs that are inept hunters at this age.

ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/2500th

One of the cheetahs chased the mother off, and what transpired next is 30 minutes of these inefficient young cheetahs literally mauling this wildebeest calf to death.  The mother cheetah only watched and did not participate at any time. It was strictly a learning experience for her cubs. It shows how brutal nature can be to bring all that beauty we see. This “survival of the fittest” has been going on long before we were around to watch and capture on our cameras.

Most of the time a specific male, facing us, did most of the work, with the other cheetahs jumping in on occasion

ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/4000th

The calf put up a super valiant effort, and got out of their clutches many times in an attempt to get away

ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/4000th

The cheetahs have blinding speed so the hapless calf never got far before it was pounced on again

ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/500th

ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/500th

ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/500th

The male cheetah kept biting the calf on the top of the neck. It needs to bite at the throat to give the quick kill, a skill it still needs to learn. This lack of skill prolonged the calf’s demise.

ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/500th

ISO 1250, f/5.6, 1/1000th

It has a strong hunting instinct but did not quite have the strength and coordination it needed as another cheetah joined in

ISO 1250, f/5.6, 1/2000th

ISO 1250, f/5.6, 1/2000th

The calf was amazingly resilient and kept trying to elude them

ISO 1250, f/5.6, 1/2000th

ISO 1250, f/5.6, 1/1600th

ISO 1250, f/5.6, 1/1600th

ISO 1250, f/9, 1/640th

The calf ran under one of the vehicles with the cheetah still biting at the top of the neck

ISO 1250, f/8, 1/1600th

Eventually the male cheetah applied the throat bite. You can see the mother cheetah standing behind him

ISO 1000, f/8, 1/500th

The mother cheetah never interfered, and kept scanning for the appearance of lions or hyenas. They are attracted due to the length of time these young cheetah are taking to make the kill.

Canon 5D Mark IIIISO 1000, f/10, 1/250th

After even more escape attempts the calf finally died and the feast began for the exhausted cheetahs. This is not a lot of food for 5 of them, so they would have to hunt again soon.

Canon 500 mm f/4 IS II, ISO 1600, f/4, 1/320th

Even while feeding the mother kept a wary eye out for trouble.

Canon 500 mm f/4 IS II, ISO 1600, f/8, 1/640th

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Orangutans of Borneo

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On a trip like this you can spend countless hours watching our early ancestors in their daily routine. In Tanjung Puting NP the wild orangutans are given food daily at feeding stations. This gives you a golden opportunity to observe their behavior. In this video you get to meet Doyak, the dominant male in this area. Keep in mind you are seeing him at his more “docile moment”, and you need to stay away just in case you cross that invisible line where he feels threatened. He has the strength of 8 men in case you decide to challenge him. You will learn more about Doyak later in this page.


My first trip to Borneo was in 1991, working with Dr. Galdikas at Camp Leakey. This trip is already chronicled on this web site. At that time I never dreamed I would go back, but in October of 2012 Dr. Galdikas gave me and my three travel companions permission to work with the orangutans at the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine.

This center is closed to the general public, so it was a special treat to be able to go there and help out as a volunteer and veterinarian. On this October trip I spent a significant amount of my time photographing and documenting the work done by the dedicated workers and volunteers at the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine, along with the orangutans at the feeding stations on the way to Camp Leakey.

My goal is to illustrate the plight of the highly endangered orangutans and show how you can help in this time of tremendous need to save one of the great apes from extinction. Click on any photo to see it in much higher resolution. Only then will you get the full impact of these intelligent and beautiful primates, along with the beauty of the rainforest. A primary problem is the tremendous pressure put on the rainforest habitat by the palm oil and timber industries in Indonesia.

The rainforest is being depleted at an alarming rate, and without this habitat the orangutans are doomed. Before you continue on this page that gives details of my trip, and the work I did with my fellow travel companions at the Care Center, you need to learn much more about this problem and how you can help.

The Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine cares and feeds over 340 orangutans on a daily basis, and does this solely through donations. Everyone can help by donating money to Orangutan Foundation International. In addition to the tremendous cost of caring for and feeding the orangutans at the Care Center, money is needed to protect and restore critical habitat. You can learn how you can help by reading more about the Rawa Kuno Legacy Forest. All of this information can be found at the  Orangutan Foundation International web site.

Present day Borneo

Borneo, the 3rd largest island in the world, is made up of 3 countries; Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Indonesia is the largest of these 3 countries. The Indonesian part of Borneo is also known as Kalimantan. Borneo is on the equator, so there are no seasons like we are used to (except rainy and rainier), and it is hot and humid all the time.

I sometimes get blank stares when I tell people I went to Borneo. Here is a big picture map for the geographically challenged!

This map shows the 3 countries that make up Borneo. The green arrow points to Tanjung Puting National Park,  where we spent all of our time

We were in the southern part of Kalimantan near a town called Pangalan Bun. We stayed with a Dayak family just outside of Pangalan Bun in a smaller town called Pasir Panjang. We stayed here because it was across the street from the Orangutan Rehabilitation and Care Center and we could literally walk there in 5 minutes.

This map shows more details of the area and Tanjung Puting National Park:

From Jakarta we flew into Pangalan Bun (you can see the airport symbol).

We stayed at a house in Pasir Panjang (PP on the map) for 2 weeks

I took 2 boat rides up the Sekonyer river, past 2 Feeding Stations (FS) and all the way to Camp Leakey (CL)

In Borneo you will encounter many Dayaks, people that have a profound understanding of the rainforest. All are exceptionally friendly. When walking down any street they will shoot past on their scooters (sometimes a family of 4 is on one of these scooters) and yell “hey mister”. It does not matter whether you are male or female, everyone gets the “hey mister” scoot-by.

Some things in Borneo are a constant over the decades:

  • You better like rice because it is served at almost every meal
  • You will be barefoot when indoors (and most of the time in general) because all shoes are kept outside
  • It is hot and humid all the time, so plan on being wet or damp continuously. Your body will start adjusting within a few weeks, although it is draining, and you will move slower just like the local people.
  • Its better to be there in the dry season (late spring to early fall) because there are less mosquitoes, less leeches, and less water to slosh around in when walking in the jungle. On my current trip there was a drought during the summer so we encountered few mosquitoes, which means less chance of exposure to malaria.
  • You are on the equator, so bugs will be a part of your life. They are a fascinating part of life on this planet if you are not squeamish. Do not go to the equator if you find insects icky.

This praying mantis found our fan a convenient place to hang out one night

  • Scooters are the mode of transportation. They drive on the left, although they are reasonably conservative drivers, far removed from drivers in Naples, Italy, where driving is a high speed video game.
  • Fuel is rationed due to a lack of refining capacity, so lines at gas stations are long and it can take up to 2 hours to fill a small scooter tank.
  • Prices are very inexpensive compared to what we are used to. An hour at an Internet café when we tried to reschedule our flights cost only 40 cents. The room at Pak Sia’s house, which included 3 meals per day, was $100 per person for 2 weeks.
Rupiahs are the local currency. This 50,000 rupiah note is worth a little over $5 US.  To get the best rate exchange your money at the airport in Jakarta.

Pasir Panjing is populated mostly by Dayaks, almost all of whom are related. Whenever any community event is involved everyone is invited, including us. In our 2 weeks we went to two going-away parties and one wedding. Children can walk the dark streets at night without any concern.

We stayed at Pak Sia’s house in Pasir Panjing and were welcomed like we were family. He welcomed us with refreshments upon our arrival.

His family provides room and board for volunteers that work at the Care Center across the street. These are usually young students or young conservationists, and they pay for this on their own.

His knowledge of the area and the orangutans (he can look at a picture of any orangutan from decades ago and tell you its name) is impressive.

This extensive page has many photos broken down into several major summary sections. Within each of these major sections are links to much more detail on that section:

  • Do you really want to fly this far?– the logistics of getting in and out of Borneo
  • Klotok ride upriver– taking a boat into the rainforest and seeing the wildlife along the way while visiting feeding stations. This section has a special link on the proboscis monkeys and the gibbons, two other primates in the area.
  • Camp Leakey– the final destination on the klotok ride. This is where Dr. Galdikas did her seminal work starting in the 1970’s, and where I spent all of my time over 2 decades ago
  • Doyak and Tom– the dominant males that hang around (pun intended) the feeding area
  • The orangutan care centre and quarantine– this will give you an idea of the tremendous care given to the orphans and other orangutans. Do not miss this section because of the babies!

This time I brought professional digital camera equipment that was not available in 1991. For you photography fans here are my tools:

  • Canon 5D Mark III- used for most of the static photos, especially the babies at the Care Center and some of the orangs at the feeding stations
  • Canon 1DX- used on the klotok ride upriver, the feeding stations,  and any time I anticipated action shots
  • Canon 24-105 mm f/4 IS lens- used mostly with the 5D Mark III and mostly at the Care Center and somewhat at the feeding stations
  • Canon 70-200 mm f/4 IS lens- used mostly with the 1DX at the feeding stations and on the klotok shooting wildlife along the river
  • Canon 100 mm f/2.8 IS macro with ring flash- used mostly with the 5D Mark III for portrait and insect shots
  • Canon 400 mm f/5.6 lens- used only on occasion and with both cameras to shoot wildlife
  • Canon 1.4X teleconverter- used on the 70-200 mm f/4 IS with the 1Dx on the klotok rides

Do you really want to fly this far?

Getting there is an adventure in itself.  Borneo is over halfway around the world from California. This is the second time I have flown Cathay Pacific and I find them to be outstanding. The flight leaves Los Angeles at 1:30 AM and arrives in Hong Kong 14 hours later (don’t forget you cross the international date line and lose a day).

Even though it is midnight, the anticipation of our upcoming trip has us smiling for this photo. From left to right my travel companions are Jade Chang, Ann Ichikawa, and Natalie Hipskind.

The airport in Hong Kong is beautiful, busy, modern, and filled with high end perfume and clothing stores. When you arrive you walk past a nurse with a surgical mask holding a thermometer. She is there to take your temperature if you want. Interesting custom to say the least. After a 3 hour layover in Hong Kong its another 5 hour flight to Jakarta. We spent the night at the Sheraton in Jakarta before continuing on to Borneo and Pangalan Bun the next day.

We had an interesting time finding the gate to our flight from Jakarta to Pangala Bun then next day. We had an even more substantial problem when our flight back 2 weeks later was cancelled. For more details on this and to understand how crazy things can get in Borneo click on this link.

Klotok ride upriver

Even though we stayed  at Pak Sia’s house directly across the street from the Care Center, we did not go to the Care Center for 5 days due to quarantine protocols. We took advantage of the time and took a 3 day klotok ride up the Sekonyer river to Camp Leakey (I took a second klotok ride a week later). This camp is where I spent all of my time when I was last here 21 years ago to the month.

Taking a klotok upriver is the usual trip for most tourists to watch the semi-wild orangutans being fed and see the wildlife along the river. Many tourists from all over the world take the klotoks up the Sekonyer river to Camp Leakey. Even though it is touristy, the 2 night 3 day trip is worth it, and a must see for any trip to Borneo.

My klotok in 1991 as we left the port of Kumai and approached the Sekonyer river mouth

The current ones are bigger and nicer

The engine room of the Klotok, with its twin 1,000 horsepower Detroit Diesel engines

 The wildlife along the Sekonyer river are elusive and move very rapidly. I had to be in front, on the alert, and ready to shoot, to be able to capture the photos you will see on this page.

An interesting animal we saw along the river was the proboscis monkey

Beautiful bird life abounds along the river, including this stork-billed kingfisher

You might even get to pull the tail of a long-tailed macaque as you motor slowly by in the klotok

This is your first chance to see a semi-wild orangutan

When an orangutan approaches keep an eye on your possessions because their philosophy is “your possessions are for the taking”

As the sun sets you get your chance to see the flying foxes (huge bats) and even get a firefly show

Click here to see more details of life aboard a klotok and wildlife along the Sekonyer

Camp Leakey

In 1991 I spent all of my time at Camp Leakey and did not go to the Care Center. Much has changed since then, and even though research is ongoing, it is geared more towards ecotourism. It is quite popular for tourists to watch a feeding put on by the park service at the feeding stations. Put this on your bucket list because it will give you a firsthand look at what is going on in the rainforest, and some of the proceeds help the orangutans. This trip is ideal for children, and will educate the upcoming generation as to the value of the rainforest and all of its inhabitants.

That bridge in the distance is the current entrance to Camp Leakey

Camp Leakey is popular, and if you do not get there early you might end up in a klotok jam!

The welcoming committee on the dock at Camp Leakey in 1991

This time we were welcomed with a big smile

Keep an eye on those guys in the hairy red outfits- they are sneaky!  Oh sure, they look innocent hanging on to a tree and pretending not to notice you

They wait patiently, and when you are distracted they put their plan in motion

How cute you think, and you look for your camera to take a picture. That’s the break they are looking for! While you are looking for your camera they make their move….

…..and scope out where the pineapples are stashed

They are career thieves, and the getaway only takes a few seconds

Another group of of sucker tourists robbed by the “pineapple connection”

After all the planning, anticipating, flying, and a few klotok rides, we made it to Camp Leakey!

Click here to see lots more of Camp Leakey and the orangutans that are there

Doyak and Tom

Over the course of 2 klotok rides I encountered the 3 dominant (and rival) males in the area; Yani, Tom, and Doyak. We spent the most time with Doyak at a feeding station, although we had an encounter with Tom who decided he did not want us in his territory. We saw Yani as we walked past him while he shook a branch at us in defiance. Our guides are familiar with all of the orangutans and creatures, and give you a family-safe firsthand encounter with them in the rainforest at all the feeding stations.

This is Doyak.  Click on his photo below to see him in action at the feeding station

Tom is below, click on his picture for more pictures, and also a video of him escorting us out of Camp Leakey

Orangutan Care Centre and Quarantine

The orangutans at the care center range from young to old, and are here for a multitude of reasons. Some have chronic disease and will not survive in the wild. Others are orphans and need a place to call home in the deforested rainforest. Many are only a few years of age. Their mothers were killed because they wandered into the wrong area (usually a palm oil plantation), or their mothers were killed because some citizen wanted a baby orangutan in their house (which is illegal). When this baby is discovered (usually a neighbor rats them out) it is confiscated by the authorities and brought to the care center. The Care Center is not open to the general public.

Some of the babies here are so young they are still in diapers.

The dedicated workers know each one by name and individual personality

They are taken into the forest often to practice their orangutan skills and hopefully be released back into the rainforest

Getting them into the forest is the fun part (Its fun til you have to pick them up and move this load)

They play for hours, socializing with each other and gaining important skills in the trees

When they are not playing they come right up to you and see where you are hiding the peanuts

This is also where they hone their robbery skills for when they graduate to stealing pineapples. At this stage in their career they start with water bottles. A water bottle is never safe around them, no matter how secure it is in your backpack. They consider any of your possessions to be theirs-you have been warned!

They don’t want to drink the water, they want the pleasure of bursting it open in front of you

The goal of this game is to tease you into thinking you can get the bottle back

You better be good a good tree climber if you want your bottle back

They have strong clinging instincts and are quite powerful for their size when they don’t want to let go. This one was just bottle fed and decided she was not going to let me get away.

Its an understatement to say that working with these babies is an unbelievable experience

The above picture reminds me of one from my first trip

If you are ready for lots more baby pictures, including videos of them in full baby modeclick here and hang on to your possessions.

All good things must come to an end

Hopefully we will all meet up again some time!

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Tom (the king)

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Tom is the orangutan that displaced Kusasi, the reigning king for many years. Kusasi has quite a story about how he overcame adversity and had the personality needed to be the dominant male. Rumor has it that Doyak is displacing Tom, which is the natural course of mature orangutan males.

We did not expect to encounter Tom the way we did. We had seen other dominant males, notably Yani and Doyak, as we spent time at the feeding platforms and they appeared for a snack. Tom appeared when I was on my second klotok ride and looking at the building I stayed at on my first visit to Borneo 21 years ago. As we were leaving to go back to our klotok a determined Tom appeared and headed right for us.

Our alert guide warned us to move rapidly away because we are in his territory and he considers strangers like us a threat. One look at Tom’s arms and shoulders and I decided our guide was giving good advice. After seeing just how strong those baby orangutans were at the Care and Rehabilitation Center it didn’t take much to realize none of us were a match for him. Couldn’t resist taking photos of him though as I rapidly walked backwards and stayed out of Tom’s way.

Our timing was perfect because he appeared just as we were leaving. I did not notice him because I was looking the wrong direction, and turned around to quickly take this photo as our guide warned us of Tom’s presence and told us to get moving.

He is not fast moving (as long as he just walks) so I was able to keep on shooting as I walked backwards

His arms are huge!

Tom finally stopped pursuing us when he smelled food from the kitchen where the park rangers eat

Our last shot of Tom when we walked past him as he settled down and made sure we left his territory

This movie shows Tom walking towards us. Focus is not good because I was concentrating more on my footing, but you will get the idea.

TomWalking

He stopped by a building to peek inside which gave me time to set the focus this time

TomKitchen

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Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine

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The orangutans at the care center range from babies to adults, and are here for a multitude of reasons. Some have chronic disease and will not survive in the wild. Others are young orphans and need a place to call home in the denuded rain forest. Their mothers were killed because they wandered into the wrong area (usually a palm oil plantation), or their mothers were killed because some citizen wanted a baby orangutan in their house (which is illegal). When this baby is discovered (usually a neighbor rats them out) it is confiscated by the authorities and brought to the Care Center.

These babies are oh so cute, and act like human children. They are so similar to us that in your mind you easily mix them up and think you are dealing with homo sapiens and not pongo pygmaeus. Looking into their eyes you get a fascinating insight into our evolution. It takes time to absorb the fact you are looking at a common ancestor that goes back millions of years. Your mind reels with the profound implications in all of this.

When you view this page you better appreciate what it is like trying to take photos with one hand, while these babies are trying to jump on you, search every part of your body for peanuts, or grabbing your camera strap and trying to drag your camera into the forest.

Do not go through this page without clicking on these pictures to see larger versions!

The local people that work at the Care Center are the unsung heroes. Here a just a few of them showing their dedication

The volunteers are just as dedicated and devote at least 6 months of their time without any pay


After a busy day we spent social time with them learning Indonesian and appreciating their warmth and dedication to their cause

The babies are taken out into the jungle around the Care Center to socialize and gain strength and coordination as they play in the jungle gym and climb trees. This time spent with them while playing could easily be the highlight of the trip, so I will show you lots of pictures and include a few short videos at the end.

There are several ways to get the babies the jungle gym and forest. Some hitch a ride on your back…..

…..while others jump on the red bus and get wheeled there. They sit peacefully knowing that soon they will get their chance to act their age!

As long as they sit still it easy to balance the wheel barrel. When they start wiggling its tough not to tip over because they are heavier than they look

If you make it this far without tipping them you are almost there

Once they arrive its a definite free-for-all at the jungle gym

Upon arrival some hang around the gym area

Others prefer to play in the trees

Some decide you are more fun than a tree so they jump into your lap or pull at your pants until you play with them

While the others played this little guy named Turbo sat by himself seeming to pout and decided to put this bag on his head. Turbo is surrounded by caretakers at all times to make sure the bag stays only on top of his head.

He just sat there sucking his hand

It took a while but eventually I was able to touch his hand

Now that we were friends he moved the bag slightly off his head and took the peanut I offered

He gently chewed it with his prehensile lips

No self respecting orangutan is going to eat just one peanut, so he asked for another

It started to rain, so with the peanut still in his mouth he decided to utilize my umbrella. I could barely take these photos I was laughing so hard!

He pulled the umbrella completely over his head….

…and looked skyward until it stopped raining.

I had to bribe him with another peanut to get my umbrella back

When the rain stopped he decided that the salty peanuts made him thirsty so he asked for a drink

Brodie’s dedication to working with Turbo every afternoon paid off, because after these photos were taken Turbo started interacting with the other babies a little more- yea Brodie!

If you want to see a few short videos that show some of this in action here is your chance to be entertained like we were with these babies.

Peanut eating time

EatingPeanut

 Wes walking with me to the jungle gym

WesWalking

Its not easy to film them with one hand while fending off attacks with the other

Babyattack

If you have any peanuts on your possession they will look everywhere (and I mean everywhere) to find them

Peanutsearch

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Feeding Stations

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 Time to eat!

When going up the Sekonyer river to Camp Leakey you pass several feeding stations where the semi-wild orangutans are fed twice daily. Once the large and dominant males like Doyak, who eat first, leave the feeding station the other orangutans, pigs, squirrels, and gibbons move in for their feast. They are not afraid of you and offer some great photographic opportunities.

The guides start calling the orangutans as the rangers bring in the food

This is Doyak showing who is the boss and taking his time while the others wait. Click on his photos to see more of him

The other orangs patiently wait in the trees until he leaves

Then its their turn!

They have various styles on how they obtain and eat their food

They stuff their mouths with bananas and eat them in the trees

Gibbons commonly make an appearance at the feeding station. Their phenomenal speed as they swing through the trees, jump on the feeding platform, and then escape back to the trees, tests the skills of any wildlife photographer.

They hang in the trees waiting for just the right time

You never know when they are going to jump from the trees onto the feeding platform, so your next shot is of them already eating on the feeding platform

Once they give you the stink eye you know they will be off any second, so now is your big chance.

Within the next 1-2 seconds they have run to the end of the platform and are landing in a nearby tree

These two short movies gives you a feel for how fast a gibbon can move through the trees. This method of locomotion is called brachiation, and the gibbon does it the best of all the primates.

In this first movie the gibbon is brachiating through the trees:

GibbonBrachiating

In this second movie it is jumping on to the feeding platform, scaring the orangutan for a second, ignoring the park ranger, and then jumping back into a tree and climbing it with one hand loaded with bananas. You can hear the guides calling the orangutans in the background.

GibbonJumping

Once the orangs are done feeding they are quite relaxed and let us approach them, including the females with young

When the coast is clear and everyone has gone the squirrels move in.

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Camp Leakey

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Much has changed in Camp Leakey since my last trip. This is not surprising due to the decades that have passed, the major changes in the rainforest, and the tremendous pressure put on the environment by the logging industry and palm oil plantations.

If you haven’t already checked out the web page on my 1991 trip now is the time to do it for comparison purposes.

A side view of where 12 of us stayed in 1991.The bathroom is in the distance at middle of the picture, the entrance is to the right of the bathroom.

When you first arrive you might find this guy “hanging around” the kitchen. Any idea what it is?

Its a gibbon, the most acrobatic primate in this rainforest

A stop at the visitors center is a must to see the rich history of the area and to understand the challenge faced in trying to save the rain forest and its creatures

Its possible to encounter an orangutan at any time when walking around Camp Leakey. Your guide knows every orangutan by name, and will be with you at all times.  The orangutans are relaxed when the guides are present and will walk right by you.

If you encounter a dominant male like this little guy (his name is Tom) you give them wide berth. Click on his picture to get an idea of how large his shoulders and arms are.

To get to the feeding station you walk through the jungle. The ironwood boards are there to help navigate the terrain during the rainy season when you might not be able to see the ground (not a good time to go).

Along the way you encounter interesting vegetation. You need to be careful what you touch because some of the plants cause a bad rash, yet do not bother the native dayaks. The biggest danger in this jungle is not the animals, its the risk of falling tree branches hitting you.

These are pitcher plants (insect eating) just after a rain

The black sap we are pointing to is from the rengas tree and is highly irritating to our skin

The nutrients do not go deep into the soil, so the roots of the large trees establish their footing by going more lateral

The root system can be extensive and go across the path

Its a rainforest so there are fungi aplenty

Camp Leakey (and the other feeding stations) is a popular attraction, so be prepared to be around visitors from all over the world. This European family was traveling together in one klotok.

 Their mandatory guide is the dark haired man at the right

It is hot and humid, and even though you walk at an easy pace you need to stay replenished. Your guide will carry a backpack filled with bottled water.

At the feeding stations (Leakey, Tanguii, and Ambung) the semi-wild orangutans (those that were in captivity and have been released back into the wild but still hang around) are given nutrition. This is important because the forest is changing and they need help to survive.

The orangutans and various other freeloaders are fed milk, bananas, and pineapples in the morning and the afternoon. The park rangers carry this heavy load in a backpack as the orangutans start congregating. Once they see him its a free-for-all, unless the dominant male is around.

Click here to see lots of close up photos of orangutans, gibbons (and other critters), at all the feeding stations including Camp Leakey

This dominant male, named Doyak, usually arrives on the ground in contrast to all the other orangutans. When the sun hits him you can see how red he is. Click on his picture to get a better feel of how large he is.

He climbs on the feeding platform and lets it be know to all the other orangutans that are in the trees watching that he is the boss

Doyak put on quite a show of dominance. Click here to see him in action.

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Doyak

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This is Doyak in all his splendor (oops, wrong Doyak, this is a guide at the feeding platform pretending to be Doyak)

The real Doyak!

Males this size range between 250-350 pounds. They are comparable in strength to 8 large men at least, and are not intimidated by much in their jungle. They have a powerful bite they use when fighting each other.

Here are some pictures of him at one of the feeding stations as he came in to get his share of food and confirm his place in the hierarchy. His territory does not encroach on Tom, the other dominant male in the area, and the one who is the king of all the male orangutans at the moment. Rumor has it though that Doyak is taking over Tom’s role.

Doyak hangs around the feeding station until the ranger brings the milk, which he then hoards. He keeps the other orange away by an intimidating look, and for the juvenile that approached him, a motion of his long arm warning not to come any closer. Watching his face and body language as he puts on his show of intimidation is fascinating.

Light conditions were constantly changing, and you will see that reflected in the color of his haircoat. I use the Canon 1Dx and the Canon 5D Mark III for these shots, and even used flash on several occasions.

Approaching the feeding platform

He is the only orang on the platform when the ranger brings the milk

He hoards the milk with his huge arms and menacing stare

When he is done with the milk he starts on the bananas and pineapples

This juvenile in the tree had to wait his turn

Eventually the juvenile decided to test Doyak’s tolerance of his presence. Doyak chased him away with a wave of his arm and the juvenile retreated. The younger male tried again a little later and this time Doyak tolerated him.

Doyak continued his munching at his leisure with his arm still sticking out as a warning to others that get too close

Every few minutes he would give his “Doyak” stare

Sometimes he would get up and stare down the other orangutans. Intimidation is a big part of what he does, and he has the bulk to back it up.

A few final stare before he decided to leave and let the others eat


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