Before my trip to Kenya, I thought rhinos were critically endangered, and photographing them in the wild would be impossible. So I didn't even ask my travel agent for it.
So when I received the proposed itinerary from Eric, my guide for the second session of my trip (10 days with Federico, 17 days with Eric), seeing locations like Samburu, Ol Pejeta, Lake Naivasha, I was confused.
“Can you just make the whole stay in the Mara?”
“Sorry no. All camps in the Mara are fully booked. It's the peak season and you are making reservation just two months away.”
“Fine. What is Ol Pejeta Conservancy? What exactly is a conservancy? Can we skip this?”
“We may see rhinos there.”
Not really believing what he said, I went with the plan anyways because I knew nothing better.
We spent the first 3 days in Samburu, which was about 6 hours from Nairobi, and 3 hours from Ol Pejeta. We didn't have much luck with leopard in Samburu compared to the Mara, missing all of the sightings including a kill, for a few seconds, only seeing the last glimpse of a leopard dragging a kill (zebra or topi, I didn't see clearly) into the tall bush before we could take a picture.
We did see an interesting animal briefly. Have you seen that before?
I didn't even know such a species existed. Was it a wild dog? Was it a zebra-dog? Drum roll…
Here's the story behind this shot: “The phantom”
What the heck is that… I asked myself as I was clicking the shutter.
We were following a pack of 30 wild dogs in Samburu, Kenya.
Instead of following these dogs like most others, we stayed at a distance and just guessed where they would be going and got ahead of them and waited.
As we were driving, Eric yelled in a low but excited voice, “look, look, striped hyena!”
I couldn't see nothing by looking around us. As he said it the second time, I finally saw him. He appeared from nowhere, and was calmly observing the distant pack of wild dogs.
His stripes reminded me of a zebra. No. A tiger. The white long fur was mesmerizing. He blended in the scene so perfectly like a painting in harmony. I was in awe.
Within a few seconds, he disappeared into the deep bush and was never seen again. I've only seen spotted hyena before, and didn't think that highly of hyena (too bad the lion king movie influence). I didn't even know of the species striped hyena before.
But once I saw it, I had to confess, I'm hooked. What a majestic species.
I can't believe I used the word beautiful to describe it. Even afterwards when I was photographing the wild dogs, I couldn't stop looking around to search for this beautiful hyena again but he was like a phantom. Gone.
Later I asked Eric. He said the species is relatively hard to see.
In his 15 years guiding, he has never photographed one, until this time!
Nikon D850, 400 2.8, f/2.8, 1/800s, ISO 640, manual and auto ISO + 1 stop. Since it's relatively low contrast in the scene so I used auto ISO. If you want to learn more about metering, definitely check out my free metering webinar on my website. I applied the method all the time in Kenya with great success. Edited with DTS.
Anyways, here are the 11 things I didn't know about rhinos.
So I was partially right.
Black rhinos are critically endangered. 3 of the black rhino subspecies have been declared extinct. 🙁
White rhinos are doing a little bit better. There are two subspecies. The Southern white rhinos are doing okay, not endangered.
But the last male northern white rhino has just died. There are only two female northern white rhinos remaining (both captive, no more wild ones).
I asked Eric. He said it seemed that some sperms of that last male northern white rhino was preserved. Not sure if it could help.
#2. Ol Pejeta
There are rhinos in the Mara but they are harder to see.
In Ol Pejeta, however, there are patrols on foot who protect them from poaching, so one has a higher chance of seeing them.
In our two days there, we saw one black rhino, and 2 mother southern white rhinos both with one baby!
#3. No off-roading
We didn't see any rhinos for the first day except one after sunset. It was quite dark and he was running away from a herd of buffalos.
No off-roading is allowed in Ol Pejeta, so if the rhinos are not close to the road, it's impossible to see or photograph them.
And since there are patrols on foot, and lions and leopards usually don't like humans on foot (which is different from common belief), it's harder to see lions and leopards there. But one usually doesn't come here for lions and leopards.
They seem to like to come out in the meadow only in bright day light. When it's near sunset time, they walk back into the deep forest far away from the roads to sleep.
#5. Challenging to photograph
Since no off-roading is allowed, we are stuck on the road, meaning if they are far away, we can't get close. And the light angle is a bit problematic, giving the rhinos side-light in day time.
The light in Africa seems to be only good for a few minutes after sunrise and before sunset, so unless it's an overcast day, it is not easy to get shots with good direct light on them. And lots of heat shimmer there once the sun is out, making most of the shots unsharp.
#6. How to photograph rhino in Ol Pejeta
We finally saw a black rhino sleeping near the road the second day. The light was quite harsh and the rhino was sleeping the whole time but it's still a thrill to photograph the first wild rhino of my life.
They were indeed majestic, as if wearing a metal armor.
While photographing the black rhino, Eric suddenly said, “Look, there's another rhino further away.”
I looked to my left, about half a mile away.
“Wait, is that a mother with a baby?”
“Yes I think so. Would you like to go?” Eric said.
“HELL YEAH. Go Go Go!”
It seemed that the mother and the baby were walking away by the time we saw them, and would soon disappear from the horizon (I will explain later what that means) so I kept my fingers crossed.
Once we got there, the sky turned overcast– perfect for rhino photography. They were quite far away by then. My 400mm was not enough.
But it's not all bad about Ol Pejeta.
The meadows on both sides of the road are elevated with a small slope, with only very few short trees here and there, so the landscape is quite open.
When the animals are further away, there is one particular distance where the background will be pure sky.
If they come closer, the background would be half grass and half sky, which is no good because there would be a line in between.
If they are further away, then their feet will not be visible.
After all these complicated description I hope you are still with me.
What I meant was, the rhino mother and baby were walking at the perfect spot where the sky was the background and the light was nice and soft.
I immediately put my 2x teleconverter on to make it 800mm, the perfect distance for them.
I never expected to see a wild rhino in my life.
My hands were shaking and my heart pounding when I saw a wild rhino baby.
They were real! And they were still alive, in the wilderness. How wonderful was that!
I really couldn't believe my eyes.
This cute little thing, full of energy, jumping and running around, digging up dust all over the place. Didn't care about this whole world.
They were so different from other wildlife babies.
I fell in love with this baby rhino immediately.
This young rhino was full of energy, jumping around, having the time of his life. I was smiling the whole time watching him. My settings were f/8, 1/1250s (to make sure to capture the action), ISO 560. Edited with DTS.
#8. Close bonding with mother
We saw the baby playing and exploring but he never stayed more than 30 feet from the mother. Thinking about their harsh life facing the poachers I prey for them.
At one point, the baby was running towards the mother rhino from behind and jumped above her “snout” between her forehead and horn.
I missed the shot. Why? Because just a moment prior to that I decided to grab my 70-200 for some wider shot.
And of course that happened. Anyways, I quickly switched back to my 400mm with 2x converter and got this shot as he just landed in front of his mother.
Nikon D850, 400 2.8, 2x teleconverter, f/8, 1/1250s, ISO 800. I added 1.7 stop to compensate for the sky for auto ISO on matrix metering. Edited with DTS.
In addition to most of the traits of a baby animal, the baby rhino is also full of attitude. Or I should say he seems to have no fear, while full of curiosity. He gave us this look after we watched him played for 30 minutes.
Standing tall. Rhino baby. Kenya. Nikon D850, 400mm 2.8, 2x teleconverter, f/8, 1/800s, ISO 400. Edited with DTS.
#10. The unexpected encounter
I heard this baby was about two months old. In the afternoon of our second day, we saw this mother and baby grazing and walking on the grass field.
Slowly they came close to another mother rhino with a bigger baby. I couldn't believe my luck. Two rhino families with babies!
When they were within 20 feet, they all stopped and looked at each other, and my heart was beating fast.
And a negative thought came to mind. I had heard of terrible things happening to mother bears with cubs when they crossed path. One year in Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, two mothers were fighting and one of the babies was torn apart. On other occasions, they would quickly run away once they saw each other.
So I had no idea what would happen to rhino mothers and babies.
The two mother rhinos still remained motionless. Each second passing felt like an eternity.
Then the two babies walked towards each other slowly… they got closer and closer, and lo and behold, they kissed each other on the nose, while their mothers were so calm the whole time. My heart melted.
I didn't get the shot because the light angle was off and one baby's face was in deep shadow. But ZZ got the video. Maybe I will ask her to post the video later.
The two babies played for a bit. Then the smaller baby got shy and hid behind the mother rhino. The whole time, the atmosphere was so peaceful.
#11. The green-tea ice-cream
Before the two families met, the smaller baby rhino (the one I was photographing the whole time) was following the mother rhino closely. The mother suddenly stopped. The baby almost bumped into the mother's behind.
Then something I never expected happened.
The mother rhino started to poop. Somehow the angle was right and we could see it clearly.
And your life wouldn't be complete if you haven't seen rhino pooping. (quoted by Tin Man)
It was like green tea ice-cream, but the size of a coconut, coming out once every second.
The baby, being so small and behind his mother, was looking up. He looked as in shock as me, watching each scoop of green tea ice-cream almost falling right onto his face. Then he looked back up again.
Thankfully they all missed hitting his face.
At least 8 scoops of ice-cream came down. We all were relieved that the baby didn't get killed or injured by these gigantic light-green colored coconut-sized ice-cream.
Just when we sighed our relieve… the baby rhino was getting too curious he decided to stick his head into the big green pile… and came up with a green “got milk” kind of face and looked at us…
The light was quite harsh when that happened with heavy heat shimmer, but I still took a shot to document it. Here you go.
He then continued to play…
Since we were too late to book, we didn't get to stay in the typical camp in Ol Pejeta. Rather, we stayed in a newer camp that's a bit further away. Usually I wouldn't like to stay further because one extra minute driving into the park is one minute wasted for the golden morning light. But turned out it's the nicest camp we've ever stayed. The camp is called Jambo Mutura and I absolutely loved it!
I hope you enjoy this post and that you are falling in love with the rhino baby too.