Sitting in the middle of the Kalahari Desert just before the sun breaks the horizon, I could hear a pin drop. Nothingness. Normally daybreak in Africa might bring with it the distant call from a Lion, or the iconic song from a bee-eater, but the only thing I could hear was the blood pulsing in my ears. This was without doubt the most desolated place I have visited to date. As this was my first morning the anticipation was intense, I had taken three flights and driven across a very dusty landscape to position myself right outside a Meerkat den, and now lay patiently waiting for their first appearance. At first two beady eyes appeared from the burrow, then very quickly the first sentinel sat proudly ontop of the mound warming up in the first rays of light. My first Meerkat sighting!
I had travelled into the Kalahari Desert in February to spend one week with a Meerkat family. During this time of year a small amount of rain sees fresh grass shoot up bringing with it a large Zebra migration, which in turn brings a few predators into the area. This however was the driest wet season in 25 years and with the lack of fresh shoots, the Zebra and wildebeest were few and far between. Luckily for me, my target species were very well adapted to the harsh desert life.
My day would start well before sunrise in order to be outside the den before the Meerkats came out to warm up. Traditionally the Meerkats would sit outside their den huddled together, but with the night temperatures staying above 30degrees and the day time temperatures touching 45degrees the Meerkats were very keen to leave the den early and forage whilst the sun was still low in the sky.
Although it would have been great to capture a group shot of the Meerkat family, from a fine art photography point of view, photographing multiple subjects in the frame can be very tricky to keep everything clean and sharp. The more subjects in the image, the less chance there is of them all looking aesthetically pleasing at the same time. This also brings the dilemma of which ones to keep in focus. Throughout my 7 day stay I purely focused on simple portraits of the Meerkats, attempting to photograph them in the most pleasing and aesthetic way possible, whether that was shooting with the light or against it.
Whenever I spend a prolonged period of time photographing one subject, I enjoy the amount that I learn about the species including their behaviour and social aspects. Following the group of Meerkats as they foraged was fascinating, especially witnessing what they could possibly find to eat in what appeared to be a barren open space. Their primary sense is their smell which they use to find various bugs, insects and lizards taking cover under the sand.
Once they detect a scent they will continue to dig rapidly until they have found the prey item, even if this means digging a hole 2foot into the sand! A Meerkat territory can be up to 35km square which seems like a lot of ground to cover when you are only about 30cm tall. They continue to forage until the temperature reaches a point where it is unbearable for them, and then they rest up until the heat has subsided slightly.
Despite the barren landscape one would think there would be little around to predate on a Meerkat, but a sentinel would remain on guard incase of a sudden threat from perhaps a snake or bird of prey. This Meerkat would remain vigilant, and incredibly, according to which predator was spotted a specific call would sound out which even indicated to the other Meerkats whether it was an immediate danger. If the threat was not iminent the feeding would continue, but if the predator was too close the Meerkats would dash into the nearest burrow, and wait until the threat had disappeared.
This Meerkat family really did stretch their foraging time at both ends of the day. Some evenings hunting continued until the sun set leaving them with a long run back to safety in the twilight. Typically, Meerkats would arrive back at the den in plenty of time before darkness, but with the intense heat, they needed to make the most of the cooler temperatures to feed.
On one particular evening the clan of Meerkats arrived back at their den just in time to watch the sun set in front of them. With no signs of a single cloud for the whole week, it was not until the dying seconds where the sun would really turn a deep reddy/orange that enabled me to shoot this next image. The Meerkats would typically congregate together ontop of the mound after their days feeding for one last check for predators before spending the night safely underground.
Spending a week in the same location ultimately gave me the best opportunity to learn the Meerkats daily movements, and to take images in optimum light conditions. Travelling to Botswana and not photographing any other subjects might seem strange, but I love focusing on one species at a time and really coming away with a thorough and hopefully varied portfolio. These little creatures are truly fascinating animals to watch, and every morning I would wake up in the middle of the desert with a feeling of excitement. A productive week spent solely in the company of Meerkats.