Roger & Pat de La Harpe
Wiithin this article is a copy of the actual interview that I conducted with Roger and Pat de la Harpe in the Northern Tuli Game Reserve, a game reserve in Botswana, fully involved with the conservation of the African wild dog.The interview with Roger and Pat occurred a few years ago, and the discussion is even more pertinent now than it was then. Indeed, it is a great pity to note that while the reserve had a functioning pack of wild dogs at the time (2009), it unfortunately no longer does. It is reported that sightings of wild dogs on Mashatu, part of the Northern Tuli Game Reserve and home to a vibrant den next to the Limpopo River at the time of the book, are very rare at present. They are occasionally seen every 3 to 4 months, but because of the high predator population and the fact that the reserve is unfenced, they tend to move into Zimbabwe or north into the rest of Botswana.
To keep it relevant, I contacted Mark Gerrard, who is the director of Community Conservation; Wildlife ACT, a non-profit trust dedicated to saving the planets wildlife and wild places. In a separate article, we have included an update from Mark on the ongoing effort to preserve the endangered animal species from extinction, including the African wild dog.
Roger is a consummate professional, and I know that you will enjoy his photography and retrace their steps with us and once again to hear from them. Having been with Roger and Pat, I fully grasp the massive amount of energy sacrifice and time that went into achieving ‘In search of the African Wild Dog’ and enjoy the outstanding photographs that Roger used to illustrate this book. I thank them for allowing me to share this with you again as in my opinion there are no others quite like these ever taken of the wild dog and sadly to state that this magnificent book is no longer in print.
Professor Henk Bertschinger of De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Trust commented:
Wild dogs are fascinating predators, their entire social behaviour is geared towards maximising their chances of survival and there is no other carnivore with a reproductive drive that comes close to theirs. The greatest threats to their survival are humans, the diseases rabies and distemper, and large predators such as lions and spotted hyenas. Wild dogs need space, with reserves of less than 35000 hectares being too small to permanently contain a pack.
They breed up very quickly, which leads to break-outs into neighbouring properties where they are likely to be persecuted. This means that, particularly on smaller properties, population numbers have to be contained. Reserves that carry high densities of other large predators are also unsuitable, The metabolic rate of wild dogs is exceptionally high (greater than that of a border collie),
which means that for the most part they have to eat on a daily basis. Kleptoparasitism (theft of their kills by other predators) forces them to leave an area – if not, they will die of starvation. In areas where rabies and distemper are a problem, the diseases can be controlled by vaccinations using drop-out darts. The bottom line is, given sufficient suitable habitat, the wild dog will survive.
From their base in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, freelance photographers and writers, Roger and Pat de la Harpe, have over the years made frequent excursions into various regions of the African continent. They share a passion for natural history, wild places and different cultures and their work on these subjects has featured in numerous publications around the world, most notably Africa Geographic, Getaway, BBC Wildlife,Terra Savage and German Geo. Previously employed in the fields of conservation and local government, Roger and Pat decided in 1997 ‘to go it alone’ and have never looked back. They have published numerous coffee table books, including The Big Cats of Mala Mala, Zulu, Top Touring Spots of South Africa and Tuli – Land of Giants. In Search of the African Wild Dog, their 19th book, has proved to be their most difficult assignment to date, due largely to the elusive nature of the wild dogs and their limited population numbers. In spite of (or perhaps because of) these hurdles, Roger and Pat have produced their best book yet. Their images and stories can be viewed on www.africaimagery.com
In search of the African Wild Dog
It is sadly ironic that, perhaps the most successful hunter in Africa, the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) now finds itself on the brink of extinction. Part of the Canidae family, and sharing general characteristics with the various dog species worldwide, the African wild dog differs fundamentally from other Canids: it belongs to the genus Lycaon, which formed a new branch on the family tree some three million years ago and subsequently evolved independently. Today it is the only survivor of this unique line and, because of its genetic difference, is unable to interbreed with any of its Canid relatives, including the domestic dog (Canis familiarus). Previously found in diverse habitats across the continent, it has tragically disappeared from much of its former range. Today there are only an estimated 3 000 to 5 500 wild dogs left in the whole of Africa, a mere 500 of which occur in South Africa.
In Search of the African Wild Dog is a beautifully photographed and well-documented tribute to these rare and endangered animals.
My interview with Roger and Pat de la Harpe.
RS:Robert Scott Rd:Roger de la Harpe Pat:Pat de la Harpe
RS: I believe that you initially lived in Gauteng and then moved to KZN? Tell us briefly about your background?
Rd: I was initially involved in electrical engineering and then later moved into industrial engineering, which involved work study, capital improvements and property improvement programs mainly in heavy engineering on the Reef. I worked in this field for about 11 to 12 years, while Pat worked in commerce. Scrambling up the corporate ladder was not for us and besides our hearts were in conservation and natural history. In 1983 I was lucky enough to join the Natal Parks Board (now Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife) as a game ranger, later moving into their recreation and planning department where we did planning for the reserves, the infrastructure etc. One of my tasks was to draw up maps of the different game reserves and camps and the only way for me to figure this was to photograph the camps from the air and then trace them off.
RS: What actually got you interested in photography as a child?
Rd: I was in standard five when we went on a school trip to Kruger Park and my mother lent me her little instamatic camera. I never had so much fun in my life, I absolutely loved it. It was a week trip and I shot the entire roll of film in about the first 15 minutes. For me this was the best thing since sliced bread, it just made sense and it got me going. I went on to buy my first camera for R3.00 from a local swap shop in Vereeniging. It didn’t work and I had to take it back, so I invested more money into it and in the end paid about R4.00 for the camera. The first roll of film actually cost more than the camera! At some point one of the local doctors gave me my first single lens reflex camera, which was an old Exa, and I still have it. After I started doing aerial photography for the Park’s Board I gradually found myself getting more involved in other photography for them. Then, Dr George Hughes, deputy director at the time (later CEO), offered me the job of full time photographer. Clearly I was doing something right!
RS: So you have had no formal training and do you believe that formal training is necessary?
Rd: It certainly makes life easier. Whether it’s necessary or not is another story. I have read and still read extensively about photography. I buy magazines, I buy books, and I read, read, read. You can shortcut that by going to college and take photography as a subject to condense it. Is it absolutely necessary? I don’t think so. Certainly if you wanted to get into the commercial world or if you wanted to do big setups with lighting it would help a lot. But if your passion is wildlife cultural and travel photography, which is what we do, then if you want it badly enough you will do it with formal training or not.
RS: So do you believe that you should have a passion for it?
RD If you don’t have a passion for photography then perhaps tackle something else. As with everything in life, if you don’t have the passion you aren’t going to succeed.That is the bottom line.
Wild dogs are highly specialised hunters. Teamwork, speed and stamina make them formidable predators, but it is their ability to stay focused that accounts for their hunting success. Once the leader has selected a quarry, he or she locks on to it; when the rest of the pack joins in they focus on the same animal, oblivious to any other.
RS: Can you develop this passion or is it inherent with someone?
Pat: When I first met Roger, photography was not even on my radar. I learnt it through a sort of osmosis by being around him. My technical knowledge is totally abysmal, but I do like to think that I have an eye for a good picture and that is after all an important aspect of photography.
RS: Pat, do you believe that you inspire Roger?
Pat: So often Roger can be so involved with taking the shot that he might miss one that is happening behind him or alternatively he can be so involved with setting up the shot that I get it. I sometimes get a more spontaneous picture.
RS: You don’t photograph yourself do you?
Pat: I certainly do, I use similar cameras to Roger and some of the images in the book are mine.
Rd: We actually both write and both photograph but very definitely Pat is the writer and I am the photographer. Pat does some amazing work when she puts her mind to it.
Unique Colour Pattern
While every wild dog has its own unique colour pattern, the rounded ears and broad muzzle are almost always dark. The hair is coarse and short and the skin has numerous scent glands that are responsible for the pungent odour so characteristic of the species.
RS: One of the things that I picked up on your website is that your approach to your photography is documentary.
Rd: We do some art photography in the form of limited edition and décor prints (though it is not very big in our portfolio) but we do enjoy the documentary side of things. I think if you have to sum up our work it would be fair to say we do travel photography, because that encompasses travel, scenery, tourism, wildlife, culture etc. Those are the things that we love doing. We do a bit of commissioned work, mainly in the tourism industry and there we have some very special clients that we work with. Culture is a fascinating subject to get involved in, while wildlife is our absolute passion.
Unique as a Human Fingerprint
As unique as a human fingerprint, every wild dog has its own distinctive colour pattern. Their beautiful markings come in combinations of black, white and tan, although almost without exception they have white-tipped tails. While both males and females look alike, the male is generally larger.
RS: One of the comments that have been made about your work is that the reader/viewer has a sense of being there. You put the reader in a place that he feels part of it. Has this developed naturally or is it something that you aspire after?
Rd: We always try to bring out the spirit of the subject – place or animal. We were doing some work for a calendar company recently and the picture editor said to me ‘this is the picture that we are looking for’. It was actually a pic of some waterbuck that we had shot many years ago and I thought how odd because it was completely soulless. There was nothing to it, the light was flat, it was a front lit image of waterbuck standing in the veld. These days what I try to do is to bring out the essense of the subject and that is what I wanted to do with the dogs. Sharp lovely images are always great, but they do not tell you about the animal. What are wild dogs like? Hopefully we were able to convey their spirit in our book.
RS: We may mention it right now as you have brought it up. Why specifically the wild dog?
Pat: The character of the animal is so endearing and they are so incredibly endangered, which in some weird way makes them even more fascinating. It makes you think, am I looking at the last pack of wild dogs? Interestingly enough, since we started the book their population numbers have decreased even more. When we were in Kruger some years ago, Dr Gus Mills was doing his wild dog study and we were lucky enough to be included in a group of photographers he took to a den. One look and we were hooked. We found them to be absolutely unforgettable and have been following their progress through the years. When Sasol approached us to do their Madikwe wild dog story, I thought this was manna from heaven, we found them and they found us.
Researchers in Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park, maintain that each dog and therefore each pack has its own personality. This young male certainly seemed to be more introverted than the rest of the group, emphasised by his ‘hang-dog’ look.
RS: How long did it actually take to produce the book?
Rd: We started in January last year and by the end of the year we had all the pictures and the basic text into the publishers. At this point it was about 11 months of hard work and a lot of travel. Then the real process of the book actually started. It needed to be designed and laid out, the captions and editing done. That took us through until June of this year.
RS: When did you actually start taking the photographs for the book?
Rd: January last year.
RS: The pre-production, pre-planning?
Pat: The planning was intensive and just getting accommodation in the different reserves was quite a big thing. We started in Madikwe, where we found that the whole wild dog story was much bigger than we had thought and the book grew from there. As far as actual content went, Roger would try to link his photography to my text and I would shape my text to his photos, so we worked in tandem, which helped hugely. We had a lot to do with the Wild Dog Advisory Group and they could tell us where the dogs were and what they were doing. We obviously covered only those areas where we would find the dogs and in the end, due to their shrinking range, there were only really five or six areas that were included.
Rd: We worked with some top scientists on this book, the likes of Harriet Davies-Mostert who heads up WAG, the Wild Dog Advisory Group, part of the Endangered Wildlife Trust. We worked with Dr Markus Hofmeyr in Kruger Park, Declan Hofmeyr, the regional scientist in Madikwe and Craig Jackson here in the Northern Tuli Game Reserve. Their involvement gave us the scientific knowledge and information for this whole project.
Playing, Resting or Hunting
Playing, resting or hunting, wild dogs interact continually with other members of their pack.
RS: After all things said and done you have been able to bring out the most amazing book. I believe that you are going to be auctioning prints etc.
Rd: Having done the book on the wild dogs we wanted to give something back. There are inevitably financial constraints in scientific research, so raising funds for wild dog projects seemed like a good place to start. We came up with the idea of an auction to do just that. A friend of ours, Andre de la Rosa, an artist in Howick, painted a similar image to the one on the cover of our book and she has now donated this painting to us to auction. We have a few pieces of ceramic art from Ardmore Ceramics and I am going to put up several of my prints. We have had wines donated as well as copies of the limited edition leather bound version of our book. Stephen Welz & Co (Pty) Ltd in Rosebank have agreed to be the auctioneers at our main Johannesburg launch on the 20th October. In this way we hope to raise money to plough back into wild dog research, particularly into the reasons for the reduction in their numbers in the Kruger National Park.
RS: Have you any idea as to what is being done about poaching and trapping. The dogs are highly endangered and often are caught in these snares and traps. Who is doing this and why?
Rd: The problem quite often is one of poverty, with subsistence poachers setting snares for antelope to feed their families. They either snare the animals to eat them or snare the animals to sell to buy food. Unfortunately wild dogs are very susceptible to snares. There are dedicated anti-poaching teams in the various areas covered in the book that routinely go out and remove snares, but of course there is always more that needs to be done.
RS: When working in terrain such as this there must be thoughts that come in to your mind you are working in the bush with wildlife? What really comes to your mind?
Location Of The Den
The den is usually located in an old aardvark hole and some packs return to the same area or even the same den year after year. An average litter usually numbers about 10 and the adults have to work hard to keep them fed. After the reintroduction of wild dogs to the Northern Tull Game Reserve in April 2008, these pups, born in a thicket next to the Limpopo River, were the first litter in the area after
decades of local extinction.
Pat: We are hugely privileged to be able to see and experience the bush and wildlife. To look out over the plains, feel the heat and marvel at it. I remind myself often of just how lucky we are, because over time one can become quite complacent.
Rd: Things can get very pressured, we are after all not here on holiday. We are here to produce a book, to get the pictures. So stress can build up hugely. When you spend day after day in the heat and dust here in the Northern Tuli Game Reserve you do sometimes wonder what on earth are you trying to achieve. But as evening approaches it cools down, the elephants come to the waterhole to drink, the light changes and you have a sundowner to enjoy, then you truly realize what you are doing and how special this place is.
Wild dogs are often mistaken for spotted hyenas (right) and at a quick glance there is a similarity between them. The early pioneers spoke of ‘hyena dogs’ and it was thought at one time that the wild dog was the evolutionary link between the wolf and the hyena.
As a pack of wild dogs stirs for the early morning hunt, dawn brings tension to these impala. They usually rest up during the night in the most open area available, providing any predator with the least possible cover.
RS Just for the reader’s interest, how can I become like Pat and Roger de la Harpe? Roger I know that you have an incredible track record with your many books? Did this all come about by chance? Did you create your chance or was it luck?
Rd: I was very fortunate that in the late 80s Dr.George Hughes of Natal Parks Board said to me ‘Would you like to become our photographer’ and that was the one really big break that I received. I am eternally grateful to George for that break.
Pat: I don’t think Roger realized at the time just how big that break was. Ever so suddenly, he was there.
Rd: It is all very well to get the break but you have got to do something with it . Somebody once said ‘The more I practice the better I get’. With me it was the luckier I became. We worked very hard to make things happen.You have got to identify what it is you want to do and then go and get it.
RS: What for you constitutes a good photograph?
Rd I was one of the judges in the Fuji/Getaway awards some time back and I was asked exactly that same question. There were about three or four thousand photographs submitted, so how do you go about choosing the winner? You know when you have a good photograph – when it talks to you. It’s all very well having a technically perfect picture but does it talk to you? I have seen some spectacular images that don’t say a word. The picture has to have passion. I was hugely privileged to have worked with Chris Johns who is the editor of National Geographic magazine. Pat and I worked with him for about 6 weeks in the mid 90’s and I learned more in those six weeks than I have done in the rest of my life. You look at Chris Johns and you look at his work, it is the same.
Pat: I would say that one should also try to keep up to date with photographic trends,to see and understand what is fashionable and current.
Rd: The discipline has moved away from what is the subject to what is the message, what is the concept that you are trying to get across? Is it passion, is it anger, laughter, what message are you trying to convey? You can utilize your photographic skills to help you impart those messages.
With its tail low and its ears back, this dog assumes a characteristic stalking pose as it emerges from long grass in the Madikwe Game Reserve. While they adopt this position when first approaching potential prey, it is also often used during play activity between pack members, usually prior to one dog sneaking up and pouncing on another.
There are strong social bonds between members of a pack, every dog instinctively responsible for the other. This is most evident when the pack has denned and the pups emerge from time to time during the day. The adults rush forward in a frenzy of delight, intent on having some contact with them.
It is usually only the alpha female that breeds, but occasionally a second female will also produce a litter. Suckling takes place close to the den. The mother has six to eight pairs of teats, the largest number of any African predator.
RS: What inspired you, did you have a mentor. Did you look at other photographer’s work and say? I would like to be like him or do like this and then fashioned yourself. How did you develop the style that identifies you as Roger de la Harpe?
Rd: I look at a lot of photographers’ work; I look at a lot of magazines, books and websites. I look at pictures extensively. I try to figure out what it is about those images that appeals to me and then I try to utilize those emotions in my own photography. I haven’t tried to model myself on anybody. I do admire work by Chris Johns, Michael Nick Nichols and Anthony Bannister was one of my early heroes.
RS: Are you attracted to entering competitions?
Rd: I am not a great competition enterer. I entered Agfa for a few years as did Pat, but I haven’t entered competitions for a long time.
A wild dog has a substantial lower jaw with well developed muscles, which give it its hugely powerful bite. The cheek teeth are serrated and are used for tearing meat off its prey.
RS: Lets just talk briefly about your photographic equipment of choice. What is it about equipment that seems to set photographers off?
There is something very appealing about a good camera and lens and I suspect that we are all gadget freaks to a degree. But I think that many people pay far too much attention to the equipment side of things and not enough to the creative. Sure Pat and I use good camera gear and it makes sense to get the best you can, especially lenses. Bodies come and go but the lens defines the image and if you do get fine lenses they will last through a number of bodies. Having said that, you really don’t have to have the top of the range, pro quality cameras and lenses. The reason that so many professional photographers use them is that they can stand up to the rigours of shooting hundreds, sometimes, thousands of photographs a day, every day. We often use mid range cameras and, used correctly, they are capable of creating beautiful images. My advice? Get the camera gear and then go and shoot some pictures!
Displays of submission, begging and nuzzling are learnt by pups at the den and are carried into adult life. This behaviour is an essential part of a pack’s cohesion and is used before a hunt or after its members have become separated. Competition for food also involves begging rather than open aggression.
RS: What can we do to assist you with the wild dog project.
Rd: The Wild Dog Advisory Group (WAG) has put a management plan in place, the main objective of which is to establish several small populations of wild dogs in different locations around the country and to manage them as a metapopulation. WAG has had several successes over the past few years and I think support of this project would certainly assist in the survival of the wild dog in South Africa, and perhaps even extend to similar initiatives elsewhere in Africa.
RS: Thank you.
The wild dog belongs to the genus Lycaon, which formed a new branch on the canid family tree some three million years ago. It is the sole survivor of this evolutionary branch and, because of its genetic difference, is unable to interbreed with any of its canid relatives, including the domestic dog.