On the last two games drives we went on while staying at Elephant Plains as part of our belated honeymoon, we were treated twice to the sight of a full pride of lions. One male, two lionesses, and eight adorable cubs whose ages were split equally between about three- and eight-months. I instinctively eeowwed at one of the younger cubs, who perked up at the sound and who I half thought would come bouncing into our truck (so we could, of course, take it home with us). Not sure which pride they were, Kim turned to me and said, “I’m calling them the Honeymoon Pride!”
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It is my opinion that these males are the most beautiful cats in the world. With this beauty comes complex stories of pride, love, deceit, anger, tension, control, peace and every other conceivable emotion – they wear these emotions on their faces in the forms of cuts and bruises.
Had Adam Bannister been in the truck with us that day leading the drive, he would’ve told us that the male belonged to one of four lions that make up the mighty Majingilane Coalition, and that the two females and eight cubs belonged to his favorite group of lions in Sabi Sands, the Tsalala Pride. Adam is revered in various lion circles, not only for his passion, ability, and affable personality while a Ranger at Londolozi Game Reserve, but also for his photographic and writing skills. Londolozi’s must-read blog wouldn’t be what it is without his contributions and dedication to sharing the stories of the lions and leopards, elephants and alligators, and cheetahs and other wild characters that call the Sabi Sands home. The culmination of his time as ranger, photographer, and writer is superbly captured in The Lions of Londolozi, an iBook (iPad only) that focuses on his ardent love affair with the aforementioned Tsalala Pride.
Always an adventurer and never content to sit still in one place for too long, earlier this year Adam left Londolozi to travel halfway around the world to Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands – the world’s largest – joining Projeto Onçafari to study the wild jaguar population there and help habituate them to safari vehicles as part of a conservation effort to grow an ecotourism industry similar to what’s been done in the Sabi Sands. “We are, in essence, adding ‘value’ to the cat,” he tells me. “It is hoped that this will encourage the ranch owners to look after the jaguar and not shoot to kill.” I was able to catch up with Adam as he hopped back and forth between Africa and South America, and, for more reasons than I dare list, feel both fortunate and proud in being able to share a little of his story.
Please tell us a little about yourself.
Adam Bannister: I am a twenty-eight year old conservationist who specializes in the big cats of the world. I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, but was very fortunate in that my parents used to take my brother and me into the wilderness all the time. Weekends used to be spent on birding trips, going for hikes, mud fighting and discovering.
I completed my high schooling in Johannesburg and decided that I had to take a gap-year before I grew up and went to university. I split my gap-year between the United States of America and South America. In America I taught golf and soccer at a fantastic sport and outdoor summer camp in the mountains of Pennsylvania. In South America I spent the majority of my time in Ecuador where I joined up with a group of British scientists and ventured into the Amazon rainforest for a few months. It was pristine untouched jungle! Our aim was to collect enough information on the biodiversity of the area to help encourage the Ecuadorian government to provide formal protection to the land.
Upon realizing that my heart lay in conservation, I returned back to South Africa where I enrolled at Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape. I spent four years at this prestigious university, completing my B.Sc. Honours in Conservation Ecology. I thrived in academia and spent a long time considering if I should continue in doing a Masters. I eventually decided not to as I wanted to get out of the library and the laboratories and to get my hands dirty. I wanted to get experience on real conservation issues in South Africa and the world!
What are your first memories of lions and Africa’s other iconic wildlife? Can you describe your first encounter with them?
Adam: When I was five years old my older brother Simon was chosen to be a part of a television series that was to be filmed at Londolozi Game Reserve. He was eight at the time and my parents were obviously delighted. Of course, they were not sending an eight year old into the African bush alone for a few months so they accompanied him and I went along for the ride.
Whilst on set the first day I could not understand how five kids were being filmed and were the center of attention and no one cared about me. I did not like this and threw a fit. Apparently, whenever they shouted “action” I would storm in front of the camera and pull faces. The director, John Varty, decided that the only option was if they allowed me to be a part of the action – and so began a complete love affair with the bush, Londolozi, and the camera!
The production was called Bush School and featured for many years on television sets all over the world. It was basically a reality TV show (groundbreaking at the time) that had young children being taught in an outdoor classroom. It was the most incredible concept; we would learn about lions and then go out and find one! I have no doubt that these months shaped the rest of my life.
What made you decide to become a ranger and what training did you have to do to achieve that?
Adam: After completing my university degree I wanted to get some on-the-ground experience. I was beginning to realize that pure academia was never going to save the animals I so loved. The way to save them was to find a way that human and nature can work together. Ecotourism is a very successful example of this symbiosis and I wanted to be a part of it.
For me there was only ever one lodge to work at: Londolozi. It has been a part of my life since I was five and it just seemed so perfect that I should return there to work. Full circle if you like.
Londolozi is considered one of the leaders in the ecotourism industry and as such their training is intensive. They perform their own in-house training where they like to treat every trainee personally and develop their individual skills. Londolozi provides a very intimate, warm, and soulful experience for their guests and their ranger training reflects this.
There is a governmental legal standard that must be achieved, but we went way beyond that. Countless hours spent walking, driving, talking, researching, and doing presentations. We also spend many days at the rifle range honing our skills in that department. The training is grueling, testing you physically and mentally. In many ways it can be said that it has a military aspect to it, but in a friendlier manner. Mentors and senior rangers help you to find your way and assist in developing you into being the best ranger you can be.
As a ranger at Londolozi you had a very intimate view into the dynamics of a variety of different animal species; witnessing lions, leopards and other animals being born and growing old, watching families and prides rise and fall over successive generations, and experiencing first-hand the ongoing struggles and warfare over territory and kingdoms. What was it like being that close and so personally connected to the wildlife around you, especially with the lions who call Londolozi home? Do any specific moments stand out? What was the most difficult thing you witnessed? What was the most moving?
Adam: Something happened to me whilst working in the bush that I never expected. I began to become attached to individual animals! I suppose it seems natural now, looking back, but at the time I was confused by it. I began to ask myself why it was that I preferred one lion to another lion. Why did I like the lion more than I liked the leopard? Why did I not feel sad when a lion killed an impala? Questions like these started coming up all the time. In reality I was living in the greatest soap opera of them all: Nature.
I started asking guests questions about ideas that were popping into my mind. I would watch people’s reactions and listen to their responses as I opened up this wild world to them, telling them individual stories of animals. I painted a picture about what life in the bush entailed and then let their hearts and minds run wild and play with the ideas. I learnt a huge amount about the human mind and spirit – what makes us tick and what excites us.
This was a far cry from the very scientific academic upbringing I had had. I realized that the key to conservation lay in the storytelling of individual animals, and that people could relate more to animals when the story of that animal was told. If they could relate to something then they will understand it, and if they understand it they will protect it. In essence, the blueprint for big cat conservation.
I slowly started building the foundations for the expression of these stories. I started writing, filming, and photographing; and from there saw the birth of the Londolozi blog. Over about three years this blog has turned into a moving, emotive, informative, and passionate communication tool. Extraordinary visuals and passionate, honest writing have built it into one of the biggest wildlife blogs. This provided me with the platform to start exploring using multimedia to share animal stories. Every time I would write I would pour out my true thoughts on a subject, and nothing got me more excited than the topic of lions and lion dynamics.
You have some amazing photographs from your time at Londolozi, many of which can be found in the Lions of Londolozi iBook. Can you explain the book a little bit and how it came about?
Adam: Every person has a power animal; an animal which pulls you in and connects with you. It allows you to transcend soul levels and for short periods sets you free. The lion is my totem! During my time as a guide I was fascinated by a specific pride of lions. They are famous in the area for the fact that two of the females are missing their tails; both ripped off in ferocious fights with bloodthirsty hyenas.
Each day I would set out in search of this pride. I wanted to see where they were and what they were up to. Had they managed to kill? How were the cubs doing? After months and months of finding and observing this pride I started wondering about their origins, their gene-line, their past, present, and their future. I started researching, asking questions, and reading papers. I became obsessed. I wanted to know everything I could about the Tsalala Pride. I realized then that no one was recording their story; a story of survival against the greatest odds and a story that shows how difficult life can be for the apex predator of Africa. The real Lion King.
I decided that I would take it upon myself to write up their story; recording it and offering my interpretation on decisions and events. But I wanted to take it further than that. I wanted to explore what it was about lions that made them so attractive to humans; I wanted to get inside the mindset of a lion pride!
We all know the power of photographs and videos, so I started exploring using imagery to assist me in telling the story. This saw the birth of an extraordinary digital book. To my knowledge it is the first of its kind and I hope that it will raise the bar, allowing more magnificent stories of wildlife to be captured and conveyed. If you have an Apple iPad, I encourage you to download the book.
Lions of Londolozi is dedicated to Solly Mhlongo.
Explain the relationship between a ranger and his tracker, and specifically the relationship between you and Solly, your tracker at Londolozi? Why is that bond so vital?
Adam: There is nothing more rewarding in the bush then tracking down “your own animal.” The thrill of chase, the ultimate hide and seek. Even if you don’t find the animal, the excitement of searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack is the essence of raw joy. The trackers at Londolozi are superb and this “needle” is often uncovered.
At Londolozi, we were treated to spectacular sightings and it was thanks to the trackers that guests would leave with poster-size images of wildlife at its best. But there is so much more to the tracker/ranger relationship.
Solly Mhlongo and I worked together for roughly three years. I considered myself to be exceptionally lucky to be paired with a true gentleman who was dedicated to his job. I found it wonderful that a friendship developed between us; coming from completely different social backgrounds and at different phases of our lives yet somehow it worked. We spent a good eight hours a day together both on foot and in the vehicle trying to find animals and keep our guests informed and entertained. In the process we became cemented to each other. We shared each other’s highs and lows. We were a formidable team.
Those who ever drove with Solly and me will know what I mean when I say that our understanding of each other far surpassed the verbal. We had entire conversations without words. Subtle gestures, hand signals, and body language were used instead. We even had a series of different whistles so that we could communicate across the bush whilst tracking on foot. We understood that through silence the bush was able to speak to us.
The reality was that Solly made my job an absolute pleasure. He was so very willing to go the extra mile and always did so with a smile on his face. And beyond the guest realm I knew that as a person he was there for me. He was an overseeing eye, my protector, my mentor, my teacher, my confidant – but most importantly my friend.
Solly passed away earlier this year, shortly after I left Londolozi. It broke my heart. I will always be indebted to him for what he did for me. Over the years I was able to showcase incredible images and footage of animals in the wild. Whilst I may have been the one who took the photos and wrote the pieces, it was Solly who, by and large, found these animals in the first place.
For this I want to say “thank you” to a very special man.
When did you first start taking photography seriously and how did it change and improve during your time at Londolozi? What are your go-to camera bodies, lenses, filters, etcetera, and why?
Adam: I never owned a camera before I lived in the bush. To be honest I had no clue about photography. In my first year as a guide I did not even feel the need or the pull to take a picture. Looking back, I think I was so keen to witness and learn and absorb as much as possible about the bush that I did not want to miss a thing. It was only in my second year that I bought a beginner DSLR and started experimenting.
We were incredibly lucky in that we would drive some of the greatest wildlife photographers in the world. Every time I drove a photographer I would quiz him or her as to their settings, their ideas, the lighting, their angles. In between drives I would sit on the Internet and read articles and photographic blogs and books. I started seeing this as another tool that I could use to convey the story of an animal. Within half a year I was hooked. Slowly but surely I managed to upgrade my camera setup.
I am a Canon man myself, but have been very impressed by Nikon, too. I am currently using a Canon 5D Mark II, with a 70-200mm f2.8 lens. I also have a 7D with a 15-85mm lens. I have a couple of extenders (2x and 1.4x) and have recently acquired a GoPro to help me get some more creative and daring shots. One of my more useful devices is a simple intervalometer. This little piece of equipment allows me to explore some pretty neat time-lapse photography.
Any wildlife photography advice you’d care to offer our readers?
Adam: Use a bean bag. No matter how steady you think you are, every single photograph will be better if it is simply stabilized on something.
Get low. I have found that the trick for wildlife photography is to get as low and natural an angle as possible.
It is not the end of the world if you don’t get the shot. Sometimes it is simply too dark, or too far away to get a good photograph. Put the camera away, take a deep breath, and enjoy.
You have a memorable blog entry about a holiday experience in Madagascar. As well, I know you’ve had interesting experiences in both India and Malawi. Can you share a bit of each with our readers and explain what it’s like being on the other side of the travel coin as a guest experiencing, enjoying, and sometimes complaining about an adventure, versus being a guide?
Adam: Traveling is part of my life, and it defines who I am as a person. People travel for different reasons. Some travel for the food, others for the arts and culture; I travel for wildlife and landscapes. I don’t do cities and only visit them as a necessity, and I have been very fortunate in that I have traveled extensively to some very remote areas of the world. Unlike most people, however, I like to work whilst I’m travelling. I like to stay stimulated so I travel with goals and objectives. I can’t just relax.
I did a three-week solo mission backpacking through southern Madagascar. My objective was to see as many of the lemur species as possible. It was a last minute decision to travel to there, and I made a conscious effort to always venture away from the crowds. I had no local language under my belt, no companions to confide in, and no set route. It was one of the hardest-yet-most rewarding traveling experiences I have ever had.
Another epic adventure I went on a few years ago was to Malawi. My friend and I had always wanted to see “The Lake of Stars,” but we did not want to go and join the throngs of backpackers. We decided to make it a challenge and paddle the length of this gigantic body of water. We paddled for thirty-five days, covering close on 500 kilometers in some of the most trying conditions. We took enough food to last us ten days; the rest we had to find, barter, catch or steal. We decided to paddle up the remote eastern shoreline, away from all the hotels and people. The reason: we wanted to test ourselves and to see some of the most untouched beauty in east Africa!
And then there was a trip to India. Again, I combined travel with a project. Here my goal was to film two short promotional videos for two luxury eco-loges in Rajasthan. One camp, named Sher Bagh, is on the border of the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. This meant I got to spend ample time tracking, watching, and photographing tigers. Campfire dinners would often result in fascinating discussions about the largest cat in the world and the various conservation issues facing an over-populated India.
I left academia wanting to get experience in real life conservation issues. It is through my “working” travels that I have been exposed to the various ways that countries and institutions are dealing with the human-animal space conflict.
You once wrote, “The wilderness heals the soul and gives perspective.” Could you elaborate on that?
Adam: The wilderness is a really simple place. It is about survival, life, death, and birth. It is about living in the present! Humans have created so many façades that we live behind. We have made life complicated to the point where we have lost touch of why we are here. We are so set on planning for the future, or reliving the sorrows and misfortunes of our past, that we forget to enjoy the “now.”
A journey to the wilderness will instantly melt away these false thoughts and get you centered again on what it is that makes you tick as an individual. It is my opinion that the bush brings out the true and best version of yourself. I have seen highly-strung businessmen from New York arrive in a flurry of finance, cell phones, stock markets, and laptops. All things which they think define them and are crucial in their lives. It takes a few days, but after a while they start to relax and shed that skin. Their true self starts to emerge and they undergo a renewal – a renewal to their primal self. Nature is simple. They begin to see what matters in life and they leave with tears in their eyes.
Explain how you came to be involved with Projeto Onçafari in Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands – a place that’s literally half a world away from the Sabi Sands? What are their aims? How do you fit in? Why is the work they’re doing important, both locally and globally?
Adam: Projeto Onçafari is a wonderfully ambitious project to habituate a wild jaguar population. Previously, all jaguar viewing in Brazil was concentrated along the rivers, which meant you viewed the beautiful cats by boat and are only exposed to a very brief moment of their daily lives. Projeto Onçafari is different: we are concentrating on the cattle ranching lands of the southern Pantanal. We are managing to find the jaguars and then view them from vehicles. This is allowing us to follow them for periods of time and to observe them going about their daily duties.
The long term goal is to have a population of habituated jaguars, which people will travel across the globe to come see. There is already a very comfortable lodge on the land. We are, in essence, adding “value” to the cat. It is hoped that this will encourage the ranch owners to look after the jaguar and not shoot to kill. There is a huge cattle-jaguar conflict at play in the region, and we are attempting to break down the negativity and look for sustainable working solutions. We are creating a model, one which could change the future of conservation in Brazil and ultimately South America. It is a very exciting project, still in its infancy, but with incredible potential. I have no doubt that in a few years time we will have the best complete jaguar viewing in the world.
I got involved in the project after meeting various people at Londolozi. Londolozi is very keen to share knowledge and help any conservation project find its ground. My role in the project is to help find the jaguars, set up sensitive viewing procedures, and then to use social media and the web to showcase our remarkable work.
Please feel free to check the Projeto Onçafari’s blog for regular updates from the field.
Do you feel yourself bonding with the jaguars there as closely as you did with the lions and leopards you left behind in Africa? Are there any particular jaguars you’ve become enamored with?
Adam: All the species of big cat send out different energies. They open up in different ways. I loved the confidence of the lions and how ready they were to tell their story. I marveled at their power and stature. The family ties and the social dynamic excited me. They were powerful and they knew it.
Jaguars are different. They are not as ready to give up their inner personal selves. They are much more reserved and secretive. For this reason I find them much harder to associate with. In saying that, they possess a quality that I have not seen in any other cat; a quality I admire.
I will try to explain.
The jaguar is immensely powerful and ounce-for-ounce is the strongest cat in the world. When you analyze its physique you see the bulging muscles and its bountiful size, and you could easily be fooled into thinking this is a cat that relies on pure brute strength, but that isn’t the case. This is a very clever cat that uses all its senses to succeed, not just its strength. To anthropomorphize things, I can best explain it in that the jaguar is not an arrogant cat. He has amazing attributes and could very easily take on a similar persona to that of a male lion (remember this is the apex predator of the Americas), but instead prefers to remain understated and underrated, always moving under the radar. It is like watching a professional down-to-earth sportsman compared to a testosterone driven arrogant one, and it’s quite refreshing sometimes.
What advice would you offer to someone looking to follow a similar path? Where should they start? What should they know? Where should they always be looking to improve?
Adam: My advice to anyone is this: Live your dream! Don’t be afraid to do something that does not exist, either. Far too many people get a “normal” job, saying that once they have enough money saved up they will get out and live their dream. My response to that is, “Why wait?” Start living your dream today. Money is such a determining factor in countless decisions that get made, and that is understandable, but don’t let money determine whether you can live your dream. Live your dream and the money will follow.
Perhaps also, don’t be arrogant like a lion, as people may take that in the wrong way. Rather, be mystical and quietly confident like a jaguar. And the most important thing of all, and what all the big cats are naturally experts in, love yourself!
What do you miss most when you’re not out in the bush in Africa or Brazil, and what do you most look forward to when you return?
Adam: The thing I struggle with most often is isolation. My job takes me to wild and remote destinations and sometimes it gets lonely when no one can speak your language or when you are thousands of kilometers from family and friends. The one thing I miss the most is quality human time. Some people think that I do what I do to run away from humanity. That is not true. I do what I do because I love animals and I believe animals have so much to teach us. They talk and express these lessons in different ways. We just have to be patient enough to listen!
What does the future hold for you?
Adam: I live for the “now,” but watch this space!