BeetleCam vs the Lions of the Masai Mara is a blog post from the BeetleCam category.

BeetleCam vs the Lions of the Masai Mara

Posted by Will on

In 2009 we embarked on a project to take close-up, wide-angle photographs of African animals. To accomplish this we created BeetleCam, a small remote control buggy with a DSLR camera mounted on top. Filled with trepidation, we boarded a plane bound for Tanzania. We had little idea what to expect… would BeetleCam survive?

It was a trip of mixed fortunes; BeetleCam took some fantastic photographs of elephants and buffalo but early on it was mauled and our camera destroyed by a lion. BeetleCam limped on with a replacement camera but we steered well clear of lions thereafter.

On returning home our BeetleCam images were a big hit; they were splashed all over the Internet, appeared in print around the world and BeetleCam even made some TV appearances. However, we didn’t feel entirely satisfied… just imagine what we could get with a lion-proof BeetleCam!

Well, last summer we returned to Africa. Our targets? The legendary lions of Kenya’s Masai Mara!

We had with us two BeetleCams. The first was an armoured version of the original BeetleCam, equipped with a Canon 550D. The second was a more advanced model, boasting a live video feed, HD movie recording and a Canon 1Ds MK III. We imaginatively named the more advanced buggy “BeetleCam Mark II”.

BeetleCam Armoured Edition (left) and BeetleCam Mark II (right)

On the morning of our first day in Kenya, we were understandably nervous as we tentatively deployed BeetleCam and trundled it towards one of the largest male lions I have ever seen. The buggy looked tiny and insignificant as it approached the ferocious-looking beast. We had visions of the lion’s huge paw shattering the diminutive vehicle with a single swipe.

We edged the buggy forward and the lion considered it sedately. We inched closer and closer until it was within touching distance. Our nervousness turned to elation as we snapped away. Perhaps these cats weren’t so bad after all! Maybe we had just been unlucky in Tanzania? We retrieved the camera and gawked in awe at the incredible lion portraits that we had captured.

An impressive male lion ignores BeetleCam.
A male lion looks sedately at BeetleCam.

Day two continued much the same way as day one, with BeetleCam tentatively edging around huge docile lions, taking photographs that we never dreamed would be possible. It was going so well we that forgot the lessons of 2009 and took a risk; we deployed BeetleCam Mark II. Equipped with the considerably more expensive Canon 1Ds MK III, this BeetleCam was bound to get better images. However, there was a catch… this BeetleCam didn’t have any armour!

BeetleCam snuck up to this sleeping lion and then got a bit of a shock when his eyes flew wide open!

We drove our new BeetleCam Mark II out and it started to get mouth-wateringly good photos of a lovely male lion. Then, out of the bushes a young lioness appeared. She looked just like the one that had been BeetleCam’s nemesis back in Tanzania. She stared at the camera and once again our hearts were in our mouths. “Just leave it completely still,” Matthew hissed, as my fingers hovered over the controls. She sauntered up to it and lowered her head. Time seemed to slow as she opened her jaws and slid them over our $6,000 camera. She lifted BeetleCam up by the material that covered the camera. I desperately spun the wheels and fortunately the noise surprised her and she dropped it. BeetleCam beat a hasty retreat! We nervously inspected the camera and to our relief it was undamaged. It had been a close shave and a reminder that lions can never be trusted!

It looks like this lioness is roaring, but she’s actually just yawning!
A powerful lioness approaches BeetleCam.

We were eager to try BeetleCam out with cubs as we hoped their inquisitive, playful nature would lead to some fantastic shots. It was not long before we got our chance. Once more, BeetleCam was sent out into the unknown.

Inquisitive cubs closing in on BeetleCam.

The pride had four cubs and it wasn’t long before they were all circling BeetleCam suspiciously. They grew bolder and more inquisitive by the second and soon they were approaching to within inches of buggy as they probed for weaknesses.

A cub sitting in front of BeetleCam.
Lion cubs playing with BeetleCam.

They intuitively recognised the front of BeetleCam and would try to circle around to attack it from behind. They also grew bolder whenever BeetleCam retreated, swiping at it with their oversized paws. We were just getting the hang of this new game when disaster struck; BeetleCam’s front left wheel hadn’t been tightened properly and it worked its way off! The cubs instantly seemed to recognise that the buggy was in distress and they closed in.

A naughty lion cub about to run off with BeetleCam’s wheel!

One made a lunge for the wheel and BeetleCam took the photo above a split second before the tire was grabbed! The cubs ran off with it and proceeded to have a highly raucous game as they tried to steal it off each other.

We had to wait for over an hour and a half before we were finally able to retrieve the saliva-sodden tire! To our amazement, it had a few punctures but was otherwise undamaged. We slotted it back onto BeetleCam and we were ready to go again!

On the morning of day four, a once in a lifetime opportunity presented itself… our dream BeetleCam scenario… a male lion, eating a freshly killed wildebeest, in the sunrise light. Our hands were shaking with excitement as we deployed BeetleCam and sent it through the long grass towards the kill. How would the lion react to this cheeky little impostor?

A male lion eating a wildebeest at sunrise.

It was a thrill to discover that the lion was so distracted with his kill that he completely ignored the buggy. We couldn’t believe our luck! We even risked a foray with BeetleCam Mark II and got some amazing photographs with the larger camera. The photos that we took that morning will always be some of our most cherished.

A male lion with his kill.
BeetleCam photographing a lion with his kill.

Over the course of the next few days, we were able to gain new understanding and respect for the lions we were photographing. We were always mindful that we didn’t want to harass them or intrude on their lives. However, we came to appreciate that lions are incredibly curious cats and full of the bravado that comes from being the Masai Mara’s top predator. This resulted in plenty more raucous games with the youngsters and some wonderful encounters with older individuals, who treated BeetleCam with nonchalant disdain, deliberately ignoring it as it manoeuvred around them. However, we also found that lions can be very unpredictable; every now and then one would deliver a powerful bite that bent metal and left us wincing. As a result, we never knew if the next encounter might be BeetleCam’s last.

A lioness pokes her nose into the frame as we were trying to photograph a young male… a sort of lion photobomb! :)
Older cubs, closing in on BeetleCam.

After two weeks of constant action, BeetleCam was scarred and battered. However, we could breathe a sigh of relief because we had reached the end of our trip and we hadn’t suffered any major losses. We returned home with a set of images that exceeded all our expectations and plenty of ideas for BeetleCam’s next adventure!

This male lion didn't mind BeetleCam getting very close!

We have built a dedicated BeetleCam site where you can find many, MANY more BeetleCam images and some entertaining video footage of the BeetleCam in action. We have also started producing bespoke BeetleCams for photographers around the world. If you are interested in buying one, please visit this page: Buy a BeetleCam.

It won’t be long before BeetleCam returns to Africa. If you would like to be notified when new BeetleCam images and videos are released, please subscribe to our free email newsletter. You can also subscribe via RSS or follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

52 Comments

  1. Sean said: February 29, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    Great! I love the perspective and lighting ratios!

  2. martun durrant said: February 29, 2012 at 8:27 pm

    Love the photos, there are amazing! ……I’m interested to know if you can see what you are taking I.e a remote screen or do you shot with a wide angle lens and the crop the photo to the desired size/look.

  3. Joseph Kariuki said: March 1, 2012 at 10:04 am

    Fantastic capture of the lions at Mara,been there but never seen them this close. Am a fan of the BeetleCam

  4. Pete said: March 1, 2012 at 10:07 am

    I really enjoy all of your work and this has lifted the bar. Especially the lion kill images, wow!
    I only have one concern that this encourage others to do similar close up photograhy which will alter the natural behavior of the animals when it comes to their interactions with humans. Just wondering what your thoughts are regarding this.
    Thanks
    Pete

  5. Ingrid Vekemans said: March 1, 2012 at 10:52 am

    I read your article and admired your photos with great emotion. I can empathize with the overwhelming excitement you must have felt at the time. What a great and promising tool! I look forward to seeing more results from the BeetleCams…well done guys, go and win lots of competitions with this…best of luck!
    Ingrid.

  6. Klaus said: March 1, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    Very very good photos, they’re absolutely gorgeous!

  7. cloud rodriguez said: March 1, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    it is really cool and amazing

  8. Will said: March 1, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    Thanks guys!
    Pete, good point… It is something I am very aware off. No photograph is worth risking the wellbeing of the animal. We are very careful to use tools such as BeetleCam responsibly… if animals appear disturbed or uncomfortable with the buggy, we immediately back off or leave it stationary. I hope that anyone who might be inspired by our work will also be inspired to treat wildlife with respect.

  9. John Doyle said: March 1, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    Well done again, an amazing set of images as usual. especially the close up of the male lion

  10. Judy H. said: March 1, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    Amazing photos! Glad you are so respectful of the animals as you are visiting their habitats.

  11. Clifford said: March 1, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    Great photos! By any means necessary, these are some truly great photos.

  12. Nicole said: March 1, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    Leave it to you two to come up with such a crazy and AWESOME idea! The perspectives on these pictures are so unique. I find they stir up quite a bit of emotion in me. You two are really doing something special.

  13. Sérgio Pontes said: March 1, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    The photos are really awesome, good work!

  14. David Collupy said: March 1, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    Wow! Just amazing! I’m a cinematographer and photographer, so of course I absolutely love this kind of stuff! Cheers, guys!

    I’ve also been to the Masai Mara, in southwestern Kenya (near the border of Tanzania). I was shooting a documentary with Richard Branson, which you can see (a short overview) here:

    http://vimeo.com/27895144

    I would jump at the chance to go back again someday…

  15. Kelvin Misire Mokeira said: March 1, 2012 at 8:54 pm

    wonderful. our masaai mara is beautiful welcome again and u will find me in masaai mara kichakani camp

  16. Robert Lewis said: March 2, 2012 at 4:52 am

    Excellent work guys.
    Have an idea from nature to protect Bettlecam. But it may be controversial as it is along the lines of a porcupine!!!
    If not acceptable, then a self leveling camera within a steel ball cage.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_85crNNl1Q&feature=related
    Regards, Robert

  17. Julian Pascoe said: March 2, 2012 at 9:36 am

    Being a wildlife fan, and spending all my holidays in game parks. I realy apeciate the idea of getting in close. The pictures are great.

  18. Cathy Gauthier said: March 2, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    You guys are so friggin’ amazing! Love you both and love your work in the field…..and your photography ain’t bad either ;-) All I can say is Wow, Wow, Wow! You two are amazing, these photos are fantabulous!

  19. Simon said: March 5, 2012 at 10:45 am

    Wildlife Photography Of The Year grade stuff here!

    This is such a novel approach to a particularly difficult photography problem. I love the combination of technology and art.

    Not to mention the perspective gives a rather interesting prey’s eye view!

  20. Rufus Pearce said: March 5, 2012 at 11:49 am

    Amazing photos!

    However, flash is becoming obsolete. Maybe you should have fitted your camera with dual HTML5′s ;-)

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