Simon Stafford: the darker side of migration

28 October 2016 posted by: Zoe - WPY Comms Officer

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Simon Stafford has a passion and fascination for natural history. During the past thirty-five years he has accrued a wealth of experience in both film and digital photography, and he recently won the Mammals category in #WPY52 with his compelling image The Aftermath. Simon's winning submission depicts the darker side of one of wildlife's greatest spectacles; the wildebeest migration of Kenya's Masai Mara. As part of a new guest blog series, Simon reveals what it was like to observe and photograph this natural phenomenon.


The great annual migration of millions of wildebeest, zebra and other antelope across the Serengeti plains in Tanzania and Kenya's Masai Mara is one of the greatest wildlife spectacles in the world. Probably the most common perception of this phenomenon, made popular by a plethora of wildlife documentaries, is of enormous herds of wildebeest crossing the Mara River.


Mention of the migration conjures images of animals teeming down a riverbank, as those already in the water swim frantically toward the far side, desperate to evade the ever-present threat from predators, in particular Nile crocodiles.


During August 2015 I was privileged to visit the Maasai Mara National Reserve while the migration was in full flow, and witnessed several river crossings by herds of wildebeest varying in size between a few hundred to many thousands.


On one particular day I sat in the stifling heat of the afternoon observing a large herd as it gathered near a section of the Mara River known locally as Pontoon, approximately four kilometres down river from the Oloololo Gate. Over the course of several hours seemingly endless streams of wildebeest continued to arrive; the air was thick with clouds of red dust pervaded by the pungent smell and incessant noise of the massed creatures.

Part of the herd crossing the Mara River; the gully to the right is already blocked with fallen animals, as others panic and try to find an alternative route up the riverbank. © Simon Stafford (2016)


Around five o'clock a small group of animals made their way to the water's edge; the sense of anticipation among the few people present was almost tangible, but it was a false start because no sooner had they reached the water than they retreated, clearly unsettled by the crocodiles in close proximity. A short while later the same group returned to the river, but on this occasion there was no stopping them; one animal after another began to leap in to the water; within seconds the scene was one of utter chaos as more and more poured forward down the river bank pressing those ahead of them in to the dangerous waters.


The crocodiles had already begun to hunt, gliding through the now turbulent water they began to pick off the slow and the weak, dragging them beneath the surface. By now the leading members of the herd had reach the far bank; after struggling to haul themselves out of the water they where confronted with several very steep, narrow gullies through which they had to pass to reach the relative safety of the plain beyond.

Nile crocodiles predate the wildebeest, but far many more die as a result of stampedes, or drowning. © Simon Stafford (2016)


The momentum of the herd was unstoppable and as an increasing number of wildebeest piled into these gullies inevitably some stumbled: the consequences were catastrophic. Within minutes tens of wildebeest lay trampled either dead, or mortally injured. It was a harrowing scene; a confused mass of fallen animals, thrashing heads and flaying limbs accompanied by piercing cries of distress. In little more than 15-minutes of frenetic activity I estimated that at least three thousand wildebeest had crossed, leaving several hundred dead or stricken on the far bank. I had been taking pictures throughout, but almost immediately felt a sense of déjà vu.

As I returned to camp that evening I reflected on what I had witnessed; it occurred to me that the fate of those unfortunate creatures, a darker side of the migration, was one that I had not seen depicted widely, so I arranged with my guide to return at first light the following morning, with the expectation that there would be scavengers present to add a further twist to the story.

A hippo takes exception to some scavenging hyenas, who appear oblivious to its presence. © Simon Stafford (2016)


The contrast between the eerie silence of the scene that confronted me when I arrived just after sunrise could not have been greater compared with the thunder of hooves, billowing dust, raging water and cries of the stricken animals I had experienced the previous afternoon. A rancid stench already hung in the cool, damp air, as a number of hyenas picked their way silently among the carcasses gorging themselves on a feast of flesh and bone.


The grisly scene matched my preconceived idea for a photograph precisely; however, I had to work quickly to record the image I wanted as the conditions were already changing.


Whenever I prepare to take a photograph my first consideration is the light: its colour (temperature), its direction and its quality. In the open shade of the riverbank the colour temperature of the light was high, and as always when shooting in daylight I had the white balance of my camera set to 5500 Kelvin, which I knew would impart a cold colour cast to the picture befitting the scene. The sun had risen almost directly opposite my position, and the sky above the far bank was very bright; since the eye is always drawn to the brightest part of an image first I had to make sure it was excluded from the composition, but the potential for backlighting looked promising. Finally, the light in the gully containing the carcasses was still diffuse, so thankfully the vexatious issue of excessive contrast was absent; however, with the sun's rays already beginning to penetrate down the gully I realised this quality of light would not last for long.

The Aftermath by Simon Stafford, Winner 2016, Mammals, WPY52. © Simon Stafford (2016)


I was seated in a 4x4 vehicle around 60 m away on the opposite side of the river, which required a very long focal length lens (800mm) to achieve the tight composition of a group of dead wildebeest I sought. The lens was supported on a beanbag placed on the vehicle’s seat frame, and I used its canvas canopy to help shade the front of the lens from direct sunlight to eliminate the risk of lens flare.  


With the lens aperture at its widest (f/5.6), and ISO set to 400. I selected a shutter speed of 1/500-second to avoid the effect of camera shake and 'freeze' the movement of the hyenas. Finally, to ensure the dark tones of the scene were rendered accurately I underexposed deliberately from the level suggested by the camera's light metering system.


After watching the hyenas for a short while, a lone animal moved to a ledge on the riverbank and for no more than a few seconds looked straight toward my camera; it was the perfect moment.


You can see Simon’s winning image on display in the #WPY52 exhibition at the Natural History Museum until September 2017. Find out more and buy tickets here.





Simon has 35 years experience as a photographer; his pictures have been published widely in newspapers, books and magazines. He is a regular contributor to the UK photographic press, including Practical Photography, Digital SLR Photography, Professional Photographer and Nikon Pro. Simon also presents a wide range of photography seminars and workshops, regularly leading landscape, travel and wildlife photography tours in the UK, Europe, Africa and Asia.


To find out more about Simon visit his website.


Soumitra Banerjee


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