As I was winding up the fieldwork for Land of Giants, my book about “big tusker” elephants, I shifted focus to another of Tsavo’s majestic inhabitants: the black rhino. Tsavo West is one of the most ruggedly wild and beautiful landscapes I have encountered in Africa, and a fitting bastion for these ancient mammals.
To photograph the rhinos, I partnered with ZSL (Zoological Society of London) and KWS (Kenya Wildlife Service).
Tsavo West is mountainous and much of it covered in thick bush. It is a perfect black rhino habitat but a very difficult place to actually see them. I have still yet to catch a glimpse of one in daylight! Since black rhinos are mostly active at night, and often follow the same paths through the bush, they were ideal subjects for my camera traps. During the month of August 2018, I deployed five Camtraptions camera traps — the same cameras that I would later re-deploy to photograph the black leopard.
Black rhinos are notoriously grumpy. On a couple of occasions, I have been forced to climb trees in a hurry whilst tracking some particularly cantankerous specimens in Zambia’s North Luangwa National Park. Tsavo’s rhinos were no different. One particular individual took exception to my cameras and flattened every one that I placed in his territory. Thanks to him, I now have a collection of dented camera housings and snapped-off tripod legs!
Fortunately, I found other rhinos that were more amenable subjects and I soon captured several black and white images with my infrared-converted cameras.
However, as the end of the month drew near, the shot I really wanted of a rhino under the starry night sky was still eluding me. By the end, all of my cameras were set up to try and capture this image.
Finally, two nights before I had to remove the camera traps, I captured an image in which all of the elements came together. One month of effort, for a single image…
Having made a good start in Tsavo, I was keen to continue my rhino project in other parts of Kenya. I first visited the grassy plains of Lewa and Borana. This habitat contrasted greatly with Tsavo and I was able to get close enough on foot to be able to photograph the rhinos with a 400mm lens. There is nothing quite as exhilarating as approaching black rhinos on foot and the week I spent hiking and tracking rhinos with the rangers on Borana was particularly thrilling.
I also visited Solio on the other side of Laikipia. I initially went there for the black rhinos, but it was the white rhinos that captivated me, particularly when I came across them in the beautiful fever tree forest that follows the valley through the center of the reserve.
When I first visited Solio, I only had my traditional handheld kit with me. At the time, I wondered if it might be possible to use BeetleCam with the white rhinos but my experience to date with the short-tempered black rhinos had persuaded me that it would probably not be in BeetleCam’s best interest.
A few months later, I was a guest on the BBC’s “Animal Park”. Over the course of a couple of episodes, I used BeetleCam to capture close-up photographs of some of Longleat’s residents. It was an action-packed assignment, featuring close encounters with wolves, lions, and tigers. However, it was an encounter with white rhinos that really surprised me; they turned out to be incredibly inquisitive and playful!
Seeing a gigantic, 2,000kg rhino frolicking in front of BeetleCam like a daft puppy was quite a sight (watch the behind-the-scenes video at the end of this post)! I began to think that perhaps I might be able to use BeetleCam to photograph the white rhinos in Kenya after all.
After a year of ruminating on the idea, I finally managed to organize a return visit to Solio. I was single-minded in my purpose: White Rhinos with BeetleCam.
I arrived at lunchtime and set out for my first session that afternoon. It did not go to plan…
I found the rhinos as they were heading back into the forest for the night. I immediately noticed that they seemed much more skittish than the placid animals that I remembered from my previous visit. I began to suspect that it was my Land Cruiser that was spooking them, as it looked very different from the Solio Lodge game-viewers that the rhinos were used to. Hanging far enough back so as not to spook them would be an additional challenge that I would need to overcome.
Next, I discovered that white rhinos have unbelievably good hearing. I could barely edge BeetleCam in their direction without their ears swiveling around and pinpointing the origin of the unfamiliar sounds and it wasn’t long before the gigantic beasts had trotted off into the undergrowth. I began to think I would be lucky to capture a single close-up image.
The next morning, I went out for sunrise and it was a similar story. I changed my approach and managed to capture a few photos by guessing where the rhinos were heading and leaving the buggy motionless in their path. I improved things further by swapping the camera in the BeetleCam for a Sony a9 which is capable of completely silent shooting. Nevertheless, it was a low-odds approach.
I headed back to the lodge for breakfast and to pick up Nat and the kids for a mid-morning game drive. We set off again in search of the rhinos. After a couple of hours, we emerged out onto an open hillside. It was here that the rhinos were gathered in small groups. It seemed to be some sort of social gathering and, unlike in the evening and early morning, it seemed that the rhinos were relaxed and had no agenda.
I deployed BeetleCam and the rhinos’ behavior was completely different; they were no longer skittish, but inquisitive. The youngsters were even playful. At times, BeetleCam was surrounded by curious rhinos.
Over the days that followed, the late-morning photoshoot continued to be the most productive session, and the images I had imagined started to materialize. After ten years of photographing various animals across Africa, it seemed that BeetleCam had finally found its perfect match! Back in 2009, when I built the first BeetleCam, I never would have thought that ten years on, I would still be finding new subjects and new ways to use this tool.
You can watch my behind the scenes video from Solio here:
A big thank you to Safari Collection and Solio for partnering with me on this project. Thanks also to all those who have helped with my ongoing black rhino project: Michael Dyer, Wilson and the team at Borana Conservancy, Chris Gordon from Conservation Alpha, Zeke Davidson, Albert and Moses Wekesa from ZSL, Richard Moller from Tsavo Trust and the entire KWS team in Tsavo West.
About the author: Will Burrard-Lucas is a British wildlife photographer. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Burrard-Lucas is best known for using remote-control cameras and camera traps to capture close-up images of wildlife. In 2013 he founded Camtraptions to turn his inventions for wildlife photography into products for other photographers and filmmakers. You see more photos by following @willbl on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. This blog post was originally published here.