Luke Massey is a young British wildlife photographer and cameraman. He’s been involved in project from the well know series Springwatch, to illegal bird hunting in Malta. Here he shares his perspective on a recent project tracking leopards in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
Name: Luke Massey
Species: African Leopard (Panthera pardus pardus)
Location: South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
Bio: For the past 20 years I’ve been pretty much obsessed with wildlife. You could say I’ve been obsessed for 23 years, I’ve always loved it, even my first word was tadpole!
My parents always encouraged me to appreciate the outdoors. I’d go on walks around the countryside, potter about my garden to see what I could find and when on holiday we’d never go anywhere too exotic but we’d never sit around a pool, instead exploring the local countryside. When my sister started doing photography at college I began stealing her camera and taking it out with me on my mini adventures. 11 years later here I am, still wildlife obsessed and having spent far too much money on camera equipment.
My passion is showing people something new or something they might not have seen before, I love being able to tell a story and make someone care more about nature.
Can you give us an overview of your most recent project in Zambia?
I was in Malta filming a series on the illegal bird hunting going on out there with Chris Packham when I got an email. It wasn’t too long but it just asked if I was interested in going out to film some leopards in Zambia. I’d never been to Africa and my diary was looking pretty empty for the next few months so I thought why not.
A few days after finishing in Malta I was landing in Zambia, my home for the next 3 months was the South Luangwa National Park. I spent over 450 hours searching for or spending time with the local leopards. I focused on one particular family, the most famous leopard in the park,’Alice’ and her 2 new cubs. The park actually holds the densest population of leopards in Africa and there were a few others that I crossed paths with including 2 more of Alice’s offspring who were actually 3 years old now.
Finding the cubs. It had been 2 weeks and I had had a few fleeting glimpses of leopards but nothing that made a great photo or that I could film. No one else had seen the cubs and there were rumours going round that they were no more, with the amount of hyenas and other leopards around this was quite a possible assumption to make.
One evening however, I came across their mother Alice lounging in front of some scrub, everything seemed normal until I turned on the spotlight and behind her there was eyeshine. It was a cub! I returned the next morning to find a kill in a nearby tree and both cubs alive and well. From that day onwards I was able to keep track of the cubs for most of the time I was there.
Another amazing experience was watching Alice’s 3 year old daughter attempt to hunt baboons. The baboons got ambushed and whilst all the adults were heading to roost, the youngsters were playing in a lone sausage tree which the leopard shot straight up. No matter how much she tried she just couldn’t get to the baboons. They were leaping out of the canopy, rather falling the 50 feet to rock hard ground than possibly being caught by the leopard.
After about 15 minutes an injured baboon appeared, I’d seen it the previous evening and said at the time that it looked like it would end up as food for something. It strode straight towards the tree, I couldn’t work out why as it was clear from the other baboons’ alarms that something wasn’t right. It continued forwards when the leopard spotted it, rapidly descended the tree, bounded across the dirt and grabbed it in her jaws. It was amazing to watch the whole event unfold in front of me. I couldn’t work out why the baboon did what it did though. Was the baboon stupid or did it just realise that it was going to die from its existing injuries and sacrifice itself for the survival of the rest of the troop.
Apart from the health challenges? I did come down with malaria late into the trip but luckily made a quick recovery after taking the right medication. Early on I was a bit worried about what I was going to be able to produce, after 2 weeks without any cubs seen and the rumours about them being no more I wasn’t sure what I was going to produce. I’m very patient and upbeat but sometimes there’s only so much morale you can keep up, I was heading out for 10 hours a day at prime leopard spotting time and was still coming up with nothing. When I did finally find the cubs though there was no looking back. Luckily!
Getting the public interested in conservation often relies on emotive story telling, and good wildlife photography is probably the most effective way of doing this. What are your views on photography as a conservation tool?
Photography I think is a massive conservation tool. Passionate people and photography for me are the two big things to get the public interested. There’s only so many words someone can read before they get bored but if you can put some good photos in front of them of a species that needs protecting then they can see what actually needs to be conserved. With the right photo you can hook them there and then.
I recently saw a tweet saying that if you didn’t aid conservation you weren’t a ‘true’ wildlife photographer. I don’t think this is true at all, because firstly, what actually makes a wildlife photographer. If you’ve got a camera and take a photo of an animal does that count?
Secondly, yes some photographers do a lot more for conservation than others, be it donations to charities, helping with promotion of a species etc. or actual hands on work. This all aids conservation but so do photos. Even if the photographer isn’t directly meaning to, by publishing their images people become more aware of the wildlife around them and in turn care more.
At the minute I’m using a Canon 1DX with a 500mm telephoto lens. It isn’t all about kit although it does help. I see a lot of snaps taken with much less expensive equipment but the photos are great. You’ve either got an eye or you haven’t, plus being in the right place at the right time helps.
I’ve just got my hands on some Panasonic gear including the GH4. This camera is a lot lighter and more portable but can still create some fantastic images and I’m looking forward to putting it to the test.
I find now with solar chargers etc. I never really struggle with kit. Batteries last a lot longer than they used to. My biggest challenge is getting the kit to the remote places in the first place, luggage restrictions are a killer!
There’s some great work being done in Zambia, however soon after I left they agreed to allow big game hunting again. Luckily big cats aren’t included on the list so are safe for now. This could be trouble for Zambia though, tourism is beginning to grow but it isn’t anywhere like Kenya etc. and with hunting allowed it is sure to put off some potential visitors. I am for hunting as a tool of conservation, if done correctly. However I think big game hunting is quite a victorian past time, there is no need for it and unfortunately I can see the allowance of it being a stepping stone to allow for the shooting of leopards & lions etc in time.
Ignoring the hunting issues in the park. There is great work being done by the South Luangwa Conservation Society and the Zambian Carnivore Project. Due to the park having no boundaries animals are able to roam out of the safety of the park and conflict does occur, poaching is a problem in the park also. Not for elephants too much, the elephant population is actually booming. The main target species are for bushmeat, warthogs etc. This means species are getting caught in snares, I actually saw a wild dog with a snare around its neck. When possible the SLCS and ZCP capture the affected animals and remove the snares and treat the animal.
I’d like to think with groups like SLCS and ZCP around as well as people willing to pay to view the animals, conservation will continue to win out in Zambia but unfortunately it seems governments across the world have other ideas and with hunting being legalised again the Zambian government might not be much different but I hope they prove me otherwise.
If I can get the funding I’d love to get back out to the park. After my brief encounter with a Temminck’s pangolin (only the 5th record for the park since 1937) I came up with an idea. The park is closed to people at 8pm each night until 6am. I’d love to put a load of DSLR camera traps around the park to see what we could capture, it’d not only create a fantastic library of high quality images it would also allow us to work out just what species are in the park and some idea of numbers. With aardvarks, pangolins and porcupines all roaming the park at night but very rarely seen it’d be interesting to have a spy in the camp so to speak. So if you’ve got £5000 spare I’d be very grateful.
1) Forget about kit. Study the animals and their habitats, actually learn about the animals instead of just taking photos. That is knowledge you can’t buy and it will pay off. Animal behaviour is hard to capture but if you can capture it it will look a whole lot better than just a normal portrait. The more you know the more likelier you’ll be able to recognise when it is going to kick off.
2) Think outside the box. I am trying too more and more, it means I’m publishing less photos but I’d rather produce something a little more original than the same stuff that we’ve been seeing for years.
3) Don’t get ahead of yourself. Everyone is still learning, every time I go out I learn something new. Listen to people more experienced than yourself and don’t be afraid to ask questions, but listen to the answer!