Free World - September 14, 2021

Photo by @thomaspeschak | What does it take to photograph a wild pangolin bathe…

Photo by @thomaspeschak | What does it take to photograph a wild pangolin bathed in moonlight? The answer is time, sweat, and lots of help! For more than two months, I worked with pangolin scientist @wendz222, roaming the vast, vegetated dunes of the Tswalu Kalahari Reserve in pursuit of this photograph.

When I started following Hercules, this large pangolin noted for its ability to rip open termite mounds with great ease, I stayed 50 feet away (15m) and used a long 500mm lens. Two weeks later, I was able to comfortably get within 30 feet (10m), and use shorter 70-200 mm lenses. The first real breakthrough came when one afternoon Hercules made a beeline for me and sniffed my feet. After a full month, I was photographing from just ten feet (3m) away using a 24-70 mm lens—but the image I had in mind required me to be closer. During this critical time, I walked away from countless opportunities, as any wrong move could erase all the trust I had painstakingly gained.

As the seasons shifted from winter to spring, Hercules changed routines, from being active during the day to feeding exclusively at night. The time had come for me to make the photograph I had dreamed of for months. Lying on my stomach, careful not to enrage horned adders or impale myself on acacia thorns, I was just a few feet away from Hercules—and finally able to make this intimate and evocative image of her foraging for ants with the light of a full moon illuminating the surrounding desert.

Fortunately this reserve is remote, far from human habitation and incredibly well managed, including a formidable anti-poaching force. These ideal conditions make it possible for @wendz222 and the @tswalufoundation to safely habituate pangolins for science without putting them at risk from the illegal wildlife trade.


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