Red-hot Adventures in the Dark

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Posted by Sara Blackburn at 5:49 PM

This week I’ve been spending some time with cameraman Martin Dohrn, who has worked on Mara Nights and Big Cat Diary. He brought with him some pretty funky equipment – a state-of-the-art thermal camera and also a starlight camera to put through some rigorous testing for Ammonite ( These cameras allow us to witness some amazing footage of lion behaviour at night, revealing a world totally different to the one we are used to experiencing during daylight hours. The thermal camera reads the heat given off by animals (and rocks, we discovered!).
Lions are very active at night, using the cover of darkness to ambush their prey. During a full moon, lion have little advantage over the plains game, who also have generally good night vision. However, the nights after a full moon begin with a period of total darkness before the moon rises, during which lions have a significant advantage over their prey. We aimed to film during these hours to hopefully capture some cool lion action on film.
We had some fun-time with the Marsh cubs, hassling hippos and giving us the run around over luggas (dry river beds) and swamps. With only infra-red goggles to guide us, navigating the many holes and water tracks was a challenge! We spent several nights with the group, and watched the Marsh males Romeo Clawed scoffing a wildebeest kindly brought down by Lispy. This she caught just before sunset, calling in her family to share the goods. The moon was bright, and so we were able to get some excellent footage with the starlight camera, which operates in extreme low light conditions.
The following night we made our was into the Mara North Conservancy (MNC) with the hope of finding some active lions. It has been raining rather heavily, but that didn’t stop us tracking down Caesar and the three girls from Elephant Pepper in Military. As the sun went down, they slowly made their way onto the plains. We had two hours of total darkness before the moon rose and they looked pretty hungry, so we were feeling lucky.
At this point it’s worth noting how differently the animals behave at night. Wildebeest who are usually grazing or resting during the day migrate on to the hills, clustering together for protection through strength in numbers. Thompson’s Gazelles find a quiet spot and lie down silently, adopting the tactic of invisibility. Topi stumble awkwardly in the darkness, and Impala walk with their heads to the ground in the hope of picking out a cat-like silhouette. The lions on the other hand stroll out with confidence and a spring in their step, their incredible night vision obvious. It’s amazing watching a lion walk within yards of herds who are totally oblivious to their presence.
First, the lions tried their luck with an ostrich. It was a pretty casual hunt and an opportunistic one, more amusing than successful for the lions. Slowly they made their way to the panicked herds, which by now knew they were not alone and streamed across the thermal camera. The images are truly amazing – the heat of the animals shows them up like city lights in amazing clarity. For several hundred or even thousand meters you can pick out animals clear as day.
The lions repeatedly ran into the herds, scattering them as they attempted a kill. They came close, but failed to seal the deal. Caesar then peeled off from the girls, moving round the back of the herd. Spooked, they ran straight towards the awaiting lionesses, and sure enough, one of our girls chased down a sizeable youngster. The thermal camera captured the entire event in amazing clarity, and we were able to watch our lioness stretch out in full run and tumble with her kill to the ground.
After despatching the wildebeest, the girls had only a nibble before Caesar tucked in. This is usual behaviour with lions – the lionesses bring down a significant percentage of kills, but the male gets the lion’s share and first dibs. This might seem unfair, but without him there, hyenas would quickly overpower the lionesses. Indeed, we watched Caesar run full stretch at some cheeky hyenas that came a bit too close.

thermalCaesar and one of the girls with their kill, shown as a mega cool inverted image. You can see how the thermal works this way – the hot points such as the eyes show up as black areas, whilst the cool ground and Caesar’s mane show as white.

Together with a hyena kill and other incredible footage, we left the MNC to film another day. Martin will be coming back in October, and I hope to spend some more time observing the lions at night. It is fascinating observing their hunting behaviour, and witnessing just how different – and active – these cats are when then have the cover of darkness.
I might just forgive the next lion I find asleep in the middle of the day!!
More soon – I’ve just heard we have some visitors rather near our camp!