The Big Cats in Kenya - Africa Part I

By Kamal Varma
October 27, 2012


Part I – The Big Cats

Having watched several documentary’s on Kenya and the Great Migration, I finally had the chance to witness this marvel of nature first hand last month.  As breathtaking as it was watching thousands of Wildebeest and Zebra’s crossing the river, surprisingly, it was not the highlight of my trip.  Rather, waking up every morning and seeing Lions, Cheetahs, Elephants, Giraffes, Hippos and several other beautiful animals was what made this trip the greatest photographic adventure that I’ve ever taken.   

Because of the diversity of the wildlife and the limited space available for this article, for now, I will focus solely on the Big Cats of the Masai Mara.  Future articles will include the Hippo’s, Giraffes, Elephants, and of course, shots of the migration itself.

In preparing for this trip I did extensive research and conducted several phone interviews with a variety of tour operators before finally deciding on Gamewatchers Safaris.  And, I could not have been happier with my choice and the results.  Gamewatchers exceeded my expectations in every conceivable way (thanks Julie)

Getting to Kenya is a bit of a hike.  Generally speaking, the quickest way to get there is to fly to either London or Amsterdam and take a direct flight from one of these two European hubs to Nairobi.  Once in Nairobi, your tour operator will (should) arrange for you to be picked up from the airport and driven to one of Kenya’s several Game Camps.   This article will feature photographs taken at two different Porini Game Camps in the Masai Mara.



Of all the big cats in Kenya, the Cheetah was probably my favourite.  These majestic and agile creatures are certainly not camera shy; providing for outstanding photo ops.




You will be amazed at just how close you can get to these animals (in a jeep, of course and with an experienced guide and driver).  And as a result, you probably won’t need anything longer than a 300mm lens.  If possible, I would highly recommend taking two camera bodies. This is especially true if you use prime lenses.  Taking two cameras will also minimize the risk of getting dust on your sensor and will maximize your chances of getting your shot. 


By being patient and spending time with the animals, you’ll maximize your chance of capturing “keepers”. You’ll also be more likely to “experience” what you’re witnessing rather than merely capturing it.  

I spent several hours watching this Mother training her two sons how to hunt.  Successfully…





Like the Cheetahs, the Lions and Lionesses of the Masai Mara are not camera shy.  So much so that several of the shots I took of them were with my 5D Mkii and my 24-105. A combination that I would normally use for portrait shots.



While at rest, these animals appear rather docile.  However, as you can see from the wound above this Lions eye, they are wild animals and need to be respected.  Always listen to your driver and tracker and never taunt or bate the animals.  





Perhaps the most allusive of the big Cats is the Leopard.  These incredible animals are hard to spot and unlike the other big cats, tend to be very shy.  I was fortunate enough to spend the day with this particular Leopard.  She spent quite some time staking out her area before settling in for a full day of sleep (like all Big Cats the Leopard is nocturnal).  I ended of falling asleep in the back of an open jeep for a few hours as this beautiful cat slept a few meters away (remember “experience” what you are seeing).






Shooting in Africa is truly an incredible and at times overwhelming experience. In order to prepare for this type of trip I suggest (1) research the various tour operators and speak to them on the telephone to ensure they offer what you are looking for – Tripadvisor is a good source for reviews (2) take lots of memory cards and if possible try and upload your cards to a laptop every night (3) take two camera bodies and a few lenses such as a 24-105 and a 70-300. For those that choose to make the trip, be prepared to be spoilt for choice.



Kamal Varma photo by R. Berdan


Bio: Kamal is an avid photographer living in Calgary, AB his photography passion includes travel, wildlife and landscape. Kamal also likes to play guitar when he can't get out to shoot.


This is Kamal's third article for the Canadian Nature Photographer.


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