National Geographic Photographer Michael Nichols Shares Conservation Stories

Michael Nichols presented his wildlife photography from his various National Geographic expeditions. Just outside the image and above the red curtains was a screen covering an entire wall.

Michael Nichols presented his wildlife photography from his various National Geographic expeditions. Just outside the image and above the red curtains was a screen covering an entire wall.

California’s giant redwoods. Congo’s mysterious forest elephants. Serengeti’s lions and elephants. National Geographic’s editor-at-large for photography, Michael Nichols, is notably a daring conservationist.

Why? A single redwood tree cannot be photographed in one shot from the ground, air or a neighboring tree in a dense forest. It must be scaled with ropes, harnesses and pulleys. In the middle of winter. Wildlife are hard to track down and require weeks to familiarize with individuals to the point you can get a worthy photo.

Nichols shared his photography mingled with a teammate’s videography as part of a distinguished lecturer series at my university.

Hundreds of images made a redwood. In a gradual succession of piling pictures, the original image of a man hanging from a rope somewhere on a conifer shrunk. Levels of boughs stacked like the stories of a skyscraper. At the end was an individual tree and another man at its snow-bound base holding a loose rope and looking up.

“Trees can be printed life-sized,” Nichols said. The composite he showed had the resolution to be blown hundreds of feet tall. I lost track where the first man in the picture was.

Nichols primary passion is for elephants. He visits them in the wild and in rescue sanctuaries. I remember several of the experiences he mentioned.

  • Elephant clans take the ivory trade seriously. Many clans to never cross roads in the daylight in areas known to have poachers.
  • In the wet season some rivers are too rough for calves to cross. Adult clan members would stand upstream of the young to divert flow to the point the young could ford safely.
  • Most rescued orphan elephants die. Even if they bond with a caretaker in place of a mother, if the caretaker leaves the calves often starve themselves. Sometimes the milk formula is wrong and so the animal dies even if it does drink.
  • One elephant survived a wound to its head. Much later, it found a spear and wrapped its trunk around the blade. Then touched its trunk to the hole in its head.

    A university auditorium was filled to capacity to listen to Nichols's experiences in wildlife photography and see slideshows and video clips that illustrate his stories.

    A university auditorium was filled to capacity to listen to Nichols’s experiences in wildlife photography and see slideshows and video clips that illustrate his stories.

When you travel on a National Geographic photography expedition, you do not leave for Africa on week and return the next.

After the helicopter comes and drops your luggage in the middle your camp, you stay many weeks.

“Don’t let the lust for the picture disturb the system,” Nichols said. Wildlife photography requires a monk-caliber level of patience.

To get the level of interaction he has in his photos, Nichols said he would visit a particular family of lions everyday, at the same time of day, in the same clothes, in the same vehicle, and park that same vehicle in the same spot. Everyday for weeks. That was how he got photos of the mother lioness openly caring for her cubs and the cubs playing. The animals no longer considered Nichols a threat or anything unusual and they went about their normal business.

“I’ve got the worlds largest collection of lion porn,” Nichols joked. He showed a lot of it too. There was no R rating in the lecture’s advertising. No matter, much of the audience laughed during those clips.

No doubt barging in on intimate events is as daring as climbing a redwood everyday for 19 days.

The expedition also had what Nichols called, “$600 of product and $50,000 of engineering.” It was a crawling robot he could hide his camera in and drive for closer photos. At first the lions did not appreciate the intrusion and chased it. The robot had to be driven under the vehicle until the lion lost interest. It was a long wait.

Remind you of any domestic feline?

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