Craig Rix speaks to photographer Nick Dyer for a behind-the-scenes insight to the production of a remarkable new book on painted wolves.
As a Zimbabwean whose favourite animal to see on safari is a wild dog (painted wolf), I took a particularly close interest in the feature on painted wolves which was published as part of our wildlife themed special issue (issue #84).
The scene-setting narrative by Brian Jackman was followed by a personal and engaging text by Nick Dyer, talking about what he had learned about painted wolves over the six years he photographed them in Mana Pools National Park.
His images illustrated the feature, giving a hint of the scale and quality of his new book, Painted Wolves: A Wild Dog’s Life, which is released this month (email email@example.com to pre-order).
I am fascinated by what inspires people to dedicate so much of their lives to a project of this scale and which can have such an impact on our understanding of the natural world.
So I set out to find out more about Nick Dyer, the photographer and conservationist, and his new book.
What made you decide to create this book?
I have always wanted to create a coffee table book and publish my photos. Initially it was an ego thing I guess. But then I realised that I get to see things every day that few others are privileged to see, and it became more about giving and sharing.
Also, I have long felt I needed to give something back. I didn’t know how I might do that, but I was waiting for it to find me. My previous careers in the UK had been reasonably successful, so I could afford to take time out in this pursuit.
And then I met Peter Blinston, the head of Painted Dog Conservation. When he saw my photographs and I found out what he did to conserve the painted wolves, we decided to do a book together to raise awareness of the animal. The project grew exponentially from there.
How is your book directly supporting conservation?
Peter and I agreed that all of the profits from the book will go to painted wolf conservation. My background is in marketing, and I have always felt that the biggest problem the painted wolves have is that hardly anyone knows they exist.
So I set up the Painted Wolf Foundation with Peter and Diane Skinner (a leading conservationist) to receive all the profits from the book and the Kickstarter campaign. The objective is to raise awareness of the species globally and any spare cash raised will be donated to projects run by organisations on the ground.
Why Mana Pools, as opposed to Hwange or other parks?
Having driven down from Kenya, I set off to explore all the parks of southern Africa. I started by crossing the Central Kalahari Game Reserve by myself. After that everything got easier until I got to Mana Pools. There you are allowed to walk alone, and that is a totally different ball game and a big learning curve.
The opportunities this gave me were incredible. Not only could I get fantastic angles but I could truly be among the animals. To me my photography is about feeling a connection with the animals I photograph; I find that hard to do from a car.
At Mana Pools, the painted wolves live far from the more destructive elements of man. So the risk of snaring or rabies is pretty limited. There are perhaps 200 painted wolves in the greater Mana Pools area, but I have focussed on three packs that live on the floodplain. They are led by three amazing alpha females: Tait, the mother and leader of the Vundu Pack, and her two incredible daughters, Blacktip (Nyakasanga Pack) and Tammy (Nyamatusi Pack). I have got to know them all well and recognise most of the individuals by name.
It’s the culmination of six years of work. Why did it need so long?
There are pictures in the book taken over six years, but the focus on the book started in 2014. One answer would be pure indulgence. I love being with the painted wolves and photographing them. Remember, I’ve been imprisoned behind a desk for most of my life, so I had a lot of catching up to do.
I also wanted to capture a wide range of behaviours so that people could really get to see and understand them. And I had to get to know them well in order to achieve this. I learnt something new about them nearly every day.
And lastly we were self-publishing. I had great help from some very creative people like Farai Wallace and Daniella Reytchev, but all the artwork, processing and the like was done by me. Years of sitting behind designers in my old company helped a lot, but nearly every aspect has been a huge learning curve and not always easy.
What did you want to achieve with the book?
Most serious coffee table books on a species are crammed full of text which may be interesting but, let’s face it, few read. We tend to skip to the pictures which, while they may be stunning, rarely join up with the copy. This limits our ability to fully engage with the subject.
So I wanted to do something very different. Peter and I agreed from the outset we wanted to limit the text to a few paragraphs per page and for the pictures to tell the story. We also wanted it to be very honest. So, if I say ‘this is Tait doing ABC or that is Tris doing XYZ’, then it really must be. If we want people to love them, then we need people to really get to know them.
And that’s how the book ended up becoming so big: it’s 312 pages long and has over 225 of my photos. Which is another reason why it took so long in production.
Why the painted wolf as opposed to other species?
I guess I know them and I love them. They are the most wonderful animal, and fascinating to photograph. Their social interaction, the care they show for one another, their playfulness, their goofiness… just being with them fills me with so much joy. And of course, they are incredible hunters, and the pups are simply adorable. They’re very active, unlike lions.
More importantly, I have always erred on the side of the underdog and these dogs are literally just that. So few people are aware of them. I wanted my photographs to make a difference. You could build a house out of books on elephants but there are only four or five on painted wolves.
My aim is to raise their status to put them up there with the rhino, elephant and lion. There are only 6,500 left in Africa against 450,000 elephant. Of course, conserving elephant is essential, but I believe that the painted wolves deserve a seat at the top table of conservation.
While the photos were taken over six years, how much time did you actually spend in the park?
More on than off, really. I’ve been leading quite a nomadic lifestyle and Mana Pools has been more of a home to me than anywhere else. I calculated roughly that over the last five years, 370 days have been spent in the park – so about a year in total.
And when I am there it’s for long periods: two months at a time usually. But in 2016 I was there for more than six months, from before the pups were born, until the rains. Every three or four weeks I would have to head out to resupply or make repairs (and enjoy a soft bed!)
What was life in the field like?
I camped, pitching my tent on the banks of the Zambezi. It’s a canvas tent with just enough room to stand up in, so life was completely outside. I have a table and chair and a hammock.
The hammock was essential as it gets outrageously hot. Before the rains in November the temperature reaches 50 degrees C regularly. Then, I am usually finished photographing by 8am as the light has gone, so I would spend a lot of the day reading or asleep in my hammock – a bit like the painted wolves. I would then head off to find them in the late afternoon.
Keeping myself hydrated was critical. I would drink about seven litres of water a day, plus rehydration salts. And of course a gin and tonic in the evening and a light beer or two, but rarely more than that.
For food I wouldn’t eat that much – usually a meal in the evening which was more often than not pasta and a precooked sauce, and I would snack on nuts during the day. Twice a week I would try and cook a BBQ of steak and roasted vegetables soaked in olive oil, wrapped in foil and thrown in the fire. I would usually invite a ranger or the area manager to join me on these occasions. The ZimParks staff have become like an extended family.
I would usually fall asleep by 9pm and get up at 4.30am. The opening page of each chapter in my section of the book describes a section of a typical day.
What are the challenges working in this environment?
The biggest challenge is finding them! I would set off each morning as soon as there was enough light to drive. (I had special permission from ZimParks to do so.) I knew where I left them the night before, so I would try to find their spoor (footprints or faeces) on the dusty road or look for a group of panicked impala, which often is a give-away that the dogs are hunting. It is more difficult at full moon because they can move great distances at night.
Once I’d found them, then it would be about keeping up with them on foot. I have been known to follow them for ten kilometres carrying my heavy camera and tripod. I can tell you it’s better than any gym I have been to!
I am always worried I am going to stumble into a pride of lions or, more worryingly, a lone buffalo – the latter terrifies me and I have done it a few times. If the wolves walk close to a cow elephant with a baby, then I have to make a long detour around her.
I don’t carry a gun, but I have a bear-banger which shoots a flare and makes a loud noise, hopefully to scare any toothy beast away. Thankfully, although I have come close with lions, I have never had to use it.
And then there’s the den. That is really scary, as to reach it I have to walk through thick bush (known as the ‘jesse’) and high grass. This is very thick in June and you often wouldn’t be able to see an elephant standing 10 yards away.
At the den, you are in their space and they are highly sensitive. It could take me weeks hanging around the area before they allowed me to get close. And then some days they wouldn’t want me there, which they’d signal with a series of gruff barks. If I got more than three, I would leave immediately. Like humans, they can be in a bad mood and don’t want anyone around. I am very respectful of that.
There has been ongoing research into painted wolf behaviour for some time. Spending such intense periods with them, did you discover things about them that challenged prior understanding of their behaviour?
I’ve read as much as I can about the painted wolves and I have certainly seen stuff that no one’s written down – but most people who spend time with them are aware of these behaviours. I have tried to capture a lot of them in the book. They are always doing something fascinating which needs interpretation or which contradicts previous understanding.
In terms of seeing something new, I suppose the main thing is that the Mana Pools painted wolves regularly hunt and eat baboon. And the other is that they are understood to hunt at night only when there is a full moon. Yet Blacktip’s pack killed an impala behind my camp at 8pm when there was no moon at all. This hasn’t previously been documented.
You got to know family relationships in each pack. Do the animals have very distinct characters and, if so, can you give us one or two examples?
Yes, each wolf is an individual with unique characteristics and behaviours, and over time you start to recognise these.
And they each take on different roles. Taku (or Pip as the BBC called her) was the chief babysitter and fussed around the pups like a maiden aunt. Tris we nicknamed Doc, because she always licked any wounded dog. I think these roles have a lot to do with temperament, but also skills. There was one male who was outrageously fast when on the chase – we named him Bolt, for obvious reasons.
Tell us about the challenges of photographing them?
From a purely photographic point of view, light is the greatest challenge. Painted wolves are diurnal, so they hunt first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Getting them active in the golden hours is often hard. So you are often battling with a low shutter speed, small depth of field and a high ISO when they are active.
And then there are the twigs and branches that seem to get in the way constantly, especially at the den. I never go anywhere near the den entrance as the last thing I want to do is to disturb them. So, for my den shots I used a Nikon D500 (crop sensor) with a 600mm prime lens and a 1.4 converter. That sounds a bit technical but effectively it’s a 1250mm lens. The rig cost over $15,000, just for shooting at dens.
To pre-order Painted Wolves: A Wild Dog’s Life through Travel Africa, email firstname.lastname@example.org
What advice would you give readers wanting to photograph painted wolves?
First, get up early and stay out until last light. It amazes me how many people languish in bed or disappear for an early sundowner and then complain they never saw the painted wolves.
Second, be sensitive to the animal. Study it, think about what it is doing or about to do, and feel part of the scene. Photography is so much more than picking up a camera and snapping away.
Then, please respect the animals. You are in their space and allowing them to get on with what they are doing is so much more important than your photograph, especially when on foot.
Lastly, enjoy the moment, enjoy being with the painted wolves. They are such wonderful creatures and they will leave a bigger imprint on your soul than any photograph can achieve.
How many shots do you think you took overall?
Lots! I suppose I have taken well over 100,000 photos of the painted wolves. Having deleted all the out of focus ones, the ones with twigs in their eyes etc, I am left with around 30,000. About ten per cent of those I really like, and I’ve used 225 in the book. And those aren’t necessarily my best ones, as a lot of the time I am trying to show a particular behaviour.
Are there any photos you are particularly pleased with?
Yes, so many. The photograph that is in the final of this year’s NHM Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award I am over the moon with. It is such a great honour. I feel that the Gods and the Dogs are on my side.
The photographs that mean the most to me are the ones that describe a beautiful moment in my life when I connected with another being. To me, it’s the emotion in the photograph that delights me, and if another person can also feel that, then I am really pleased.
How did you get into wildlife photography and why did you end up in Zimbabwe?
Since the age of eight I have been fascinated by cameras, and wildlife was imprinted on my soul when growing up in Kenya. But for most of my adult life I was stuck behind a desk in London, firstly as a fund manager and then running my own marketing and communication business. Hopefully this third career will stick. Photography makes me happy, but the others caused me stress.
And how did I end up in Zim? I sat at the Kazangula border ready to leave Botswana. There were two signs – one said Zambia, the other said Zimbabwe. I had no plan, but knew whichever route I took it would be a monumental life decision. I took the road to Zambia purely because Za came before Zi alphabetically. Three months later I was in Mana Pools. I guess you can’t escape your fate.
This project has taken up half a decade of my life, but I think it’s been my best. I used to believe that I had to plan my whole life out, with goals and ambition. But I guess I have learnt that life’s not like that; it has a way of unfolding for you. Five years ago I could never have predicted I would have done all this for the painted wolves – they seem to have taken over my life.
But the Zen monks have a saying: “You choose, and then you are chosen.” And having decided to do something for the painted wolves, they certainly seem to be in control. I hope that I am able to continue to support them, along with amazing conservationists like Peter Blinston, because they really need a lot more help. I just hope we can grow our pack.
The painted wolves of Mana Pools will feature in one of five episodes of Dynasties, the new BBC Earth documentary series narrated by Sir David Attenborough, coming to the BBC this autumn.