Painted wolf pups
By Steve Darling
Steve Darling, a British wildlife photographer, has travelled all over the world to watch and capture wild dogs and other canids. In this exclusive article he tells the stories behind some of his best photographs and talks about how hard life is becoming for the world’s undomesticated dogs.
You just know that you are being watched. Scared to take a breath…
Slowly you scan the forest undergrowth for any movement. You check your camera settings for the hundredth time, never moving from your eyepiece. You slow down your breathing and wait. A movement catches your eye, and slowly, very slowly, a beautiful Grey wolf, moves out from the treeline. He stands there, so purposefully viewing his surroundings, taking in every aspect and then he stealthily walks towards you before diving back into the thick undergrowth disappearing without trace.
Did I get the photo, no? However, more about this very special grey wolf later.
I have always loved wildlife, particularly Canids, especially Wolves of all types. It is amazing to see African Wild dogs (aka Painted Wolves), Coyotes, Jackals you name them, I love them. They could teach humankind a lesson in the way they rear their young, their playfulness and caring within their family group and their amazing tenacity and cunning in their hunting and lifeskills.
Painted Wolf alpha
My love of photography came later. Judith, my wife, and I have always enjoyed hiking in remote parts of North America and Canada in the hope, often forlorn, of seeing wolves. I always carried the camera gear for my wife – ‘she’s the real photographer’ – in my backpack. This meant that she could quickly grab a camera if we saw anything and take the shots. North American wolves, unfortunately, are by far the most elusive and difficult animal to find and photograph. They are still slaughtered annually in both Canada and the USA for the most pathetic reasons, but the hunting lobby in both countries is very powerful. We have been lucky enough to see Wolves in the wild in both countries, but the sightings have been fleeting, and the photos hardly earth shattering.
One fateful day in 2007, Judith said: ‘Here take my spare camera and see how you like taking photos.’ I found myself hooked. That day, and for 72 hours afterwards, we were photographing Polar bears and their cubs as we drifted alongside them in the Arctic ice flow, but that’s for another time.
The very first, purely photographic trip that we took, was in 2014. We were looking for African Wild dogs, or Painted Wolves as they now seem to be called. These wonderful creatures are on the endangered list with less than 7,000 left in Africa, due to many reasons including human encroachment of their areas.
Every day from a tented camp in Laikipia, Northern Kenya, we set out with our guide and tracker, Joseph. Just like the Wolves of North America, we knew that they were out there, we knew that they were watching us but no sightings. Then, it all changed. The Wild Dogs seemed to sense that we were not a threat and a pack of over twenty dogs came from nowhere and wandered past our truck. As they went by, they marked the sides of the truck in typical doggy style and gazed up into our lenses as if they were our pets at home. They made high pitched squeaking noises and milled around us with their 13 pups playing tag and ruff pulling, it was really amazing. Then, as quickly as it started the alpha signalled that a prey had been sighted and like ghosts they disappeared into the undergrowth. We followed the birds of prey and vultures that accompany these hunts and caught up with the dogs who were taking it in turns to eat from the kill and to feed the youngsters by regurgitating the chewed meat for them. We stayed with the Wild Dogs over the next few days and they seemed very relaxed with us. They even left their cubs next to our vehicle while the adults went off to hunt, safe in the knowledge that no predators would approach the vehicle, with us in it, so the pups would be safe.
Painted Wolf play
Ethiopian Wolf alpha pair
We returned to Laikipia the following year, in the hope of some more time with the Wild Dogs, only this time we were disappointed with only a brief episode with them after seven days of dawn to dusk searching – wildlife photography is like that.
We now divide our trips between, Africa mainly Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe and Canada, in British Columbia and the Yukon.
Wolf pup sideways glance
Meet and greet
In 2019 however, we decided to go in search of the world’s rarest canid, the Ethiopian Wolf. Less than 500 of these magnificent animals exist in the world, mainly in the Ethiopian Highlands with the majority found in the Bale Mountains of southern Ethiopia. These wonderful animals are like a cross between a grey wolf and a jackal. They live mainly on rodents, grass rats and giant mole rats and share the same meet and greet characteristics as the African Wild Dogs. Like all canids they patrol their borders as a pack. We flew to the Bale Mountains and camped at altitude – temperatures varied between -16 at night and +24 during the day – not good for camera gear! This time we found two packs with youngsters neither of which was the slightest bit concerned that we were parked in their front garden. In fact, we became the object of much inquisitive behaviour from the pups, who again were left behind while the adults hunted. The pups watched with interest as we peeled off our layers of winter clothing as the sun climbed from behind the mountains and then got back into our fleeces and down jackets as it fell in the evening. The Ethiopian wolves loved to pose on the top of the banks where they had their dens, this made our lives as photographers much easier than usual.
Grey Wolf Bosch
In the UK, we are lucky enough to have several Wolf Sanctuaries. I regularly visit and photograph at Wolf Watch UK, in Shropshire and have recently finished a book about ‘Bosch’, their young, very special grey wolf. He is now happily living with his friend Anja in a beautiful, large, naturally wooded enclosure. Bosch and Anja, unlike their wild counterparts, are always pleased to see us, they do expect that we will have some sardine treats for them.
Anya and Bosch
So, after years of searching, I have my ideal subjects, just down the road.
We are very proud to have been feeding Steve and Judith Darling’s dogs for many years and we are very grateful to him for this wonderful article. You can see more of Steve’s work here: www.stevedarling.photography. We would also urge you to visit www.wolfwatch.uk