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Experiencing Beauty Amidst the Brutality of the Wild

I have now spent over a year in the Masai Mara. What a great feeling it is to be a part of this ecosystem, to dance to the tune of this living, breathing symphony. Being immersed in observing and documenting the tales of this ancient land and its wild inhabitants has opened up my heart to all the emotions that come with embracing the ebbs and flows of life and death, the changing seasons, and the rhythm of this land that is full of vitality and adventure.

I have experienced numerous sightings ranging from the sublime to the unthinkable, but one that will live with me forever is a story I will never tire of telling.

It all began on an overcast day while leading a photo safari in the heart of the Reserve. We encountered a hippo with a large gash on his neck by the Olare Orok River – an old male, dragging himself towards the plains, probably injured in a duel with a larger, stronger male. When hurt, hippos typically stay away from the river for extended periods to avoid fish and parasites feeding on their open wounds. We thought nothing of this, not knowing that this would be the start of one of the most astonishing sightings of my life. 

The following morning a thick blanket of mist enveloped the Mara. We decided to revisit the same area in search of the Rekero pride, hoping for a hunt, but when we found them, the lions were relatively inactive. Crackling through the radio we heard that a clan of hyenas had surrounded an injured hippo within the vicinity. Such scenes always provide intense photographic opportunities, so we made our way there without hesitation. The hyenas were timid with none being bold enough to strike first blood, and after about two hours of no change in the situation, we left.

Any great photographer knows that patience is essential to the creation of phenomenal images. With this in mind, we revisited the site that evening. In the wild, hunger and the will to survive override all else, stirring animals to take bigger risks to satiate their growing appetites as time goes by. The hyenas had by now transformed into bloodthirsty slayers, with each one taking turns biting chunks out of the still-alive hippo. The duality of nature can sometimes be cruel to witness, but light cannot exist without darkness; each has its purpose. For every inch of beauty, there is an equal measure of savagery.

Raw nature, unfolding before my very eyes; a whirlwind of emotion, almost crippling me in the process. It was a continuous back and forth, with the hippo facing one last battle against a relentless set of opponents. Outnumbered, yet determined. Exhausted and suffering, yet defiant. Even nature’s gargantuan beasts can sometimes face an unwelcome demise. I kept shooting while trying to process what was happening.

As darkness fell, we eventually decided to make our way back to camp with one quick stop to visit the Rekero pride, who were less than a kilometre away. The light had transformed into a deep-blue hue. The lions had begun to get livelier but it was time to make our journey back to camp.

Traversing the Mara in wet conditions is never straightforward, and our vehicle began losing traction, the soggy black cotton soil intensifying the challenge. Shortly after, we came to a complete standstill, caught in a deep, sticky rut—halfway between the hyenas and lions. We were all alone, surrounded by the inky, mystical night.

The hyenas’ feeding frenzy had intensified and their cackling, triumphant howls echoed through the night. The lions had by now picked up on the pandemonium and added their deep growls and vicious snarls to the nocturnal chorus as they advanced towards the kill. A part of me was celebrating the fact that we got stuck, allowing us to experience this remarkable interaction, while another ached to be witnessing this grisly scene. Our rescue team arrived, and as we drove back to camp, we approached the hippo carcass to find the lions now covered in mud, devouring what had been claimed as theirs. 

Such dramatic scenes are rare, and as photographers, we must take full advantage of them. Upon waking the next morning, the mist had returned and we rushed back to the lions. The mud had altered their appearance dramatically, creating a sharp contrast that accentuated their golden eyes. 

As humans, we are quick to label nature as barbaric and savage, but it is not heinous, only pitilessly indifferent to all suffering. It just is, existing purely on its own accord, without any regard for how we label it. Nature is something we must come to terms with before seeking to truly immerse ourselves in the majesty and wonder of the wild.

Scenes which can seem brutal serve a purpose in the grand scheme, and those who perish provide nourishment for others. Photography is all about storytelling, and capturing this unfolding narrative from start to finish was as extraordinary as it was fulfilling. There is no greater show than to observe nature in its truest form, and what a privilege it was to have front row seats to this spectacle.

Photo credits: Eric Averdung

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