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I can hardly believe that it has already been more than 3 months since we returned from this year’s “Drawing the big Cats” safari in Botswana! After three years in a row enjoying this amazing adventure, there is one thing I can tell you: it is me who is learning to draw the big cats again! As I try to transmit my experience to the participants, I feel as humbled as they do in front of the African savannah and the creatures that inhabit it, especially, but not only, the big felines.
Guests have ranged from experienced professionals to people without any artistic experience, but with plenty of curiosity and passion for the felines and the wilderness around them. All of us have felt transformed at the end of each safari, both enriched and in need of some “quality time” back home, in order to digest the intense experiences lived during the trip.
Now I have finally been able to put together a small selection of video clips that allow me to share with you some of the intensity and atmosphere of this safari. There is so much stuff left out… but there is only so much you can compress into a 3-minute edition!
Watch the video here:
More to come about this magical experience!
And remember, if you want to join our next departure, contact Elephant Trails at:
Or contact me at:
It’s been quite some time since my last post, and one reason has been the need to digest the experiences of our latest “Drawing the Big Cats” safari to Botswana. What you see in the African wilderness during just a few days can keep your mind busy for months, trying to make sense of your observations. Our friends at “Elephant Trails” have once more done an amazing job at taking us where the action is, and now it is my turn to share some bits. But before, a little flashback.
In earlier posts I discussed the way big cats use their teeth to feed, and what implications it has for the way the sabretooth cats would eat. Such apparently technical considerations are important not only for inferring behavior, but also to reconstruct the sabretooths’ life appearance. As I’ve mentioned before, some old hypotheses about the way sabretooths dealt with their food led to rather shocking reconstructions. Some experts claimed that the sabretooths would need very long mouths, in a sort of monstrous “ear to ear” smile, because if they had normal feline lips their huge upper canines would simply get in the way of food items. Watching a few wildlife documentaries made me suspect that such theories were likely wrong, then my colleagues and me went on to dissect some felines and make inferences with a more tangible biological basis. We published our results quite a few years ago, but there was still a lot to learn.
This year we have had plenty of opportunity to see the big cats gorging themselves. This may sound unremarkable but it is not. In wildlife films you see the predators hunting and eating all the time, but that is an effect of the way they “filter” hundreds of hours of observation. In real life when you drive through the savanna it is the herbivores that you see eating, munching leaves and grasses almost without pause (much as you would see if you could make a Pleistocene safari, I’m afraid!). But the predators you rarely meet, to start with, and when you come across them they are usually just resting or casually making their way from point A to point B. Hunting? Hardly ever. Eating? Only rarely so. Frustrating as this may be, it makes you appreciate even the briefest glimpse of the big cats. So, it is not every day that you see a group of adolescent lions gorging on the carcass of a hippo; or two male lions eating a young buffalo in one sitting right in front of your eyes, reducing the plump calf to little more than skin and bones; or a leopard consuming a huge catfish it just fished… as we did in this trip. It was a long and comprehensive lesson in big cat table manners, and we sat in front of the feline banquets long enough to see all the details that the wildlife documentaries consider too slow and boring to show. But we were not there just to be entertained: we intended to learn.
My preliminary conclusions: just like the tissues in their lips and mouth, the cats’ feeding behavior is flexible, more so than we imagine. Our tabby at home grabs its cat-chow rather mechanically; after all it’s just a mound of little biscuits. But dealing with the carcass of a large animal is a completely different matter.
Surprisingly, the first tool our Botswana lion used to attack his buffalo carcass was his rough tongue. The vigorous licking wets the fur and makes the skin more tender and ready for the biting. Then comes the first carnassial bite, when the cat uses its scissor-like cheek teeth to tear open the prey’s skin. Once the carcass is open, the cat bites at the different portions in different ways, as a butcher would use different knives for different cuts. Now it cuts straight with the incisors, then it applies the side of its mouth for another carnassial biting, then it just uses its whole mouth to detach and gulp a large piece of meat.
These observations enrich my previous concepts about how sabertooths would eat. Admittedly, some of the things lions do with their food the sabretooths probably could not do. Yes, their sabres would get in the way if they tried to bite in this or that particular way. But most of the biting styles deployed during the feline meals we saw were perfectly feasible even with the huge upper canines of a fully grown Smilodon. Such observations are not totally new. Blaire Van Valkenburgh made a careful field study of carcass consumption several years ago which accounted for many of these eating modalities (you can see her article here). But for me as a paleoartist, watching and recording these things first hand is like finding a treasure.
In fact, many sabertooth species had an advantage for this style of biting: their proportionally longer necks would allow them to pull even farther. One of these days I need to draw Smilodon fatalis doing just that on a bison carcass at Rancho la Brea… I am sure it happened many times!
Reality can provide the answers we need, but often they come from where we least expect them, and sabretooth feeding habits are no exception. Many readers may remember Jean-Jacques Annaud’s classic film “Quest for Fire”. Those interested in the making of the film will remember that the sabretooths appearing in a key sequence were in fact trained lions (the days of creating furry creatures with digital FX were still faaaar in the future), provided with a set of prosthetic upper canines. But there is one detail less widely known: unlike the elephants that were disguised as woolly mammoths for the film, who really hated their costumes, the lions were not too uncomfortable with their prosthetics, so the animals’ trainers decided not to remove them between filming sessions, thus saving the lions and themselves some uncomfortable handling. And the lions did eat quite normally while wearing their draculesque fake fangs. Not a problem for them! It is a pity that back when that film was made there were no such things as our DVD “making-of” specials. Otherwise, we might have some valuable footage of those lions demonstrating how real life is always more flexible than some scientist’s minds…
One amazing feat that leopards do on a daily basis is to transform themselves into something more similar to a snake than a cat, then crawl away and disappear in the bush right in front of your eyes. That magic trick is something truly wonderful to behold, but really tricky to draw. The limbs of the leopard almost appear to have been reabsorbed into the body as it moves along with its belly touching the ground, and the pattern of spots makes it even harder to tell apart the different parts of the cat’s body, as the loose skin wraps around the whole thing.
In order to capture the essence of this action with our pencil and remain true to the animal´s anatomy and proportion, I find it useful to project a mental image of the cat´s skeleton inside the apparently chaotic external shape. The leopard may appear endlessly flexible, but each of its bones is a rigid unit, and they are there, inside the body, giving it shape.
We had the opportunity to see a female leopard doing that trick right in front of us a couple of years ago in Botswana during our “Drawing the Big Cats” safari, and that encounter allows me to analyze the anatomy and action of the cat with pencil and paper.
Once I have a clearer idea of the position and shape of the limbs flexing inside the wraps of skin, I proceed to draw the leopard without paying attention to the spots, just as if I were drawing a lioness or a puma.
When the cat is already taking shape in the paper I try to put in place some of the most distinctive spots, those that stand out and seem to create a pattern around which other spots arrange themselves.
I always find it fascinating to perceive the anatomical machinery at work under the wonderful skin of a big cat. Just like our tracker’s mission while on safari is to find a cat that is so damned good at not being seen, I feel that one of the missions of the artist is to rejoice in those structures that appearances would tend to hide from us.
I am looking forward to share more big cat encounters like this with fellow explorers next august, in the 2015 edition of “Drawing the Big Cats”. To have the privilege of learning first-hand from these magnificent animals in their habitat is a miracle to which I never really get used -and I can never have enough of it!
It has been months since our last “Drawing the Big Cats” trip to Botswana, but each encounter with the felines remains vivid in my mind. Today I remembered that beautiful leopard in Savuti, and the way she cocked her head at a sound coming from the treetops above her. She was so much like my house cat “Kali”, who used to look at the sparrows perching outside our window here in Madrid, with that particular mixture of curiosity, lust, and a hint of irritation at not being able to catch them…
I look back at the videos and pictures we took of the leopard, and I discover so many new details that add to my memory of that encounter, and I decide to make a quick drawing which allows me to explore some aspects of that moment.
After all, details make our drawings so lively but it is also sooo easy to get lost in them and lose the big picture!
Drawing the big cats is always exciting, but when you have the opportunity to draw what you actually saw there are so many subtle nuances that get into your artwork. And then of course there are the memories of the great times shared in the bush. Being there with a small group of like-minded people really turns the trip into so much more than just watching wildlife. It becomes a journey of discovery, and one that changes us so deeply for the better, and we return home with a deep sense of gratitude for having been able to experience such an immersion in the wild. As long as the big cats and their natural environment endure out there, our world will remain a really wonderful and mysterious place to live in!
S.O.F.A. (Society of Feline Artists) associate member Desiree Hart was one of the participants in this year’s “Drawing the Big Cats” safari, and she was kind enough to share her experience through the Society’s blog. Thank you Des, and it was wonderful to have you on board!
A few postcards from the safari:
As many of you already know, last August we celebrated the second edition of our “Drawing the Big Cats” safari in Botswana. And what a trip we had! I have seen quite a few lions in my safaris but our sightings of the Savuti pride this year must have been the most beautiful ever!
With so many amazing observations, it really takes months to digest and make sense of what you have seen. And then, with my mix of artistic and scientific approaches ( a sort of uncomfortable “Jeckill & Hyde” duality), whenever something strikes me as beautiful I need to ask myself “what makes it beautiful?”, and then I start to analyse things. This means looking time and again at the images we captured in the field, and spending one pencil after another in attempts to grab the “spirit” of the feline presence. Why should I deceive you, I know I am miles from getting even close to it, but in this case the excitement is not in getting there, but in being on one’s way there!
Now you can watch a new video where I try to get to grabs with the face of a Savuti lion using my pencils and some additional stuff from my toolbox here. I hope you enjoy!
We are back from another amazing edition of the “Drawing the Big Cats Safari” to Botswana. In fact we have been back for more than a week, and yet the process of adapting once more to everyday life feels a bit like a diver’s decompression.
The safari experience has something primeval about it, as if we were returning to the natural state of humankind in its childhood. For days on end our senses are continously soaked with the sights, sounds and smells of nature, and our brain is suddenly doing what it was designed to do -in fact it feels happy and at home, like a puppy allowed to run in the park, or like a dolphin splashing in the waves. Each night you collapse in your tent’s bed with your mind full of images to process, and yet utterly at peace.
Such a routine is in stark contrast with our daily life back in the “civilization”, and we have to come to terms with the implications, because a trip of this sort is much more than a vacation. We have fed our mind with the kind of high-quality food that will keep our creativity fuelled for months and years to come. But we know we are transiting between contrasting worlds. Each time I experience the pristine wilderness of Africa I am reminded that countries like Botswana are preserving such natural treasures at a cost. A lot of effort and sacrifice are neccesary if our shared heritage has to endure, and ecotourism is one way we can all contribute to make it sustainable in the long term. I never tire of repeating it, a safari to the African wilderness is an experience that will improve your life. Stop just dreaming about it and start planning for it. You will not repent -and you will return!
This majestic lion from Savuti pauses for a moment in front of the marsh. In the background are the hills where we first met this impressive individual a year ago. Not the only feline re-encounter we had!
I have been fascinated by Savuti and its lions ever since I first watched that masterly film by Dereck and Beverly Joubert, “Eternal Enemies”. Since then I have been privileged to visit Savuti 3 times, and in each occasion that beautiful, haunting place has shown me a totally different face.
The Savuti “Marsh” is the relic of a large inland lake, which dried long ago, and is now fed by the erratic Savuti channel. It occupies a large area in the west of the Chobe National Park, Botswana. Our first visit was in 1993, when the Savuti channel had been dry for several years. We were in the middle of the dry season and the place looked like the ideal location for a crepuscular Western film. In the bone-dry plain that once was a marsh, we came across the legendary Maome pride, which showed us its most powerful side -that of the giant killers. They had hunted a huge male giraffe and were taking turns to get inside the prey’s ribcage to eat their fill. Then they would come out and walk towards the shade of a nearby acacia, passing just a few meters from us. One of them actually was too full to continue and lay down to rest in the shadow of our vehicle! That was what I call an introduction to Savuti, to wild lions and to wild Africa!
In 1995 we returned to Savuti. It was the end of the rainy season, and the marsh, alhough waterless, was much greener than the previous time. And the lions showed us a different facet too: their family life. Lionesses and cubs relaxed and played among the greenery, in a scene that was as idillic as the previous time had been stark.
But we were as yet to meet the legendary male lions of Savuti. These warriors of the feline world spend most of their time on patrol, and checking nearby prides, moving through an enormous extension of land and occasionally leaving the protected areas -only to be shot by reckless human hunters. At least that was the case until Botswana finally took the bold step of banning trophy hunting altogether.
Then last year we finally returned to Savuti, to find the place totally unrecognizable. Subtle tectonic movements had caused the Savuti channel to flow once more, and the marsh was again true to its name, teeming with water birds and attracting herbivores from miles around in the middle of the dry season. And then, at long last, we came across the feline lords of Savuti. A wild animal does not exist in isolation, and it is impossible to separate the Savuti cats from the stark beauty of the place where they live. These lion prides have survived here through the harshest environmental changes, and now they are adapting to a wet Savuti Marsh once again. We humans go there when we can to marvel at their power, but the lions are tightly tied to that merciless patch of land.
I can hardly wait to get back to Savuti and see those incredible felines again!
Want to see the Savuti male lions in all their glory? Follow this link and watch a clip from my upcoming film about the big cats of Botswana:
Ok, it is time for another trip back in time to the early 1990s, a time when Spain was organizing the Olympic games of Barcelona and the Universal Exposition of Seville and we tought we were a rich country…
Meanwhile, I was busy working in my largest commission (before or after) for the exhibit “Madrid Antes del Hombre”, including a collection of life-size sculptures of Tertiary mammals and a series of 5 big paintings.
One of these paintings should represent the environments of the Paracuellos fossil site in the Northeast of the Madrid province. After some rejected concepts we decided to go for an aerial view that would show more clearly the lay of the land in the late Aragonian (Middle Miocene). Back then, some 12 million years ago, the Madrid basin lacked any outlet and the waters coming from the mountain ranges around it simply accumulated in an enormous, shallow lake. During the summer rains, the arid mountainsides were intensely eroded and alluvial fans appeared at the foot of the hills.
My inspiration for this oil painting was a series of aerial photographs of the Okavango Delta published in a book called “Above Africa” (1989), by Herman Poitgeter and Clive Walker. Of course there are great differences between the Okavango and the Miocene Madrid basin, especially because the land in Northern Botswana is almost completely flat, but even so the combination of inland deltas and a generally arid environment was enough to set my imagination “to fly”.
I started with a series of detailed pencil sketches, such as the one you can see here…
And then I set to work in the large canvas, about 180 cm in length…
After finishing that huge assignment I felt satisfied but quite spent, and decided to take the trip of a lifetime. So my wife and me visited Africa for the first time, and what a better place to do that than the Okavango? We took a scenic flight over the delta and it was impossible not to make the connection between the distant past I had been painting a few months before and the spectacle unfolding below.
It is easy, and probably wrong, to think of the distant past of life on Earth as an “Eden”. But one thing is certain, the land was wild and free. Places like the Okavango are still like that, and are our last links with the kind of natural world where our species evolved, where our senses got fine-tuned to the environment, and where our minds awoke -in brief, where we belong. Even a brief visit to a place like the Okavango reminds us of what it was like to be truly free. For me, that puts things in perspective in a way that nothing else can!
Most of the time, the African predators behave according to the biologists’ expectations. For instance, leopards haul their kills up trees in order to keep them safe from competing predators, and African wild dogs eat exclusively from their own kills and don´t bother to scavenge form other predators. After all, wild dogs are among the most efficient hunters in the African bush.
But reality has a way to challenge our assumptions, and during our safari in Botswana last year we witnessed a situation where hardly anything went according to the textbooks’ predictions.
One afternoon we found again the mother leopard whose interaction with her cub had so much endeared us. She had caught an impala ewe and the two of them had a Pantagruelian feast. But the cat was unquiet for some reason that only became evident long afterwards. She had the carcass at the foot of a tree, and at one point she climbed to rest, but to our surprise she did not carry the prey.
When darkness came we finally realized what was making her nervous: the pack of wild dogs that we had been observing for the previous days appeared out of the night and claimed the impala for themselves. With her keen senses the leopard had been aware of their presence for quite a while, long before we saw them, and that made it even more surprising that she did not haul the carcass. Was her belly already too heavy to climb with the extra weight of the impala in her jaws?
But the most surprising part of this story for us was the fact that the wild dogs would steal a kill from a leopard. The dogs appeared at the scene in an orderly manner, first an adult scout, then another, and only when they felt sure that the coast was clear did the pups arrive to the kill site.
The wild dogs consumed the carcass with impressive speed (Photo by Miguel Antón)
Many factors may have influenced the unusual outcome of this story. It is possible that the failure of the wild dog pack to secure a kill the previous day made them less selective, especially since they had a lot of young mouths to feed. May be that, being a large pack, they felt assured of their superiority. Also maybe they felt that the mother leopard would not take many risks in a battle to defend her kill when she had a vulnerable cub to take care of.
At any rate, it is clear that the real potential and flexibility of the behavior of wild predators can only be discovered with lots of hours of observation in undisturbed environments. Without that luxury, we are bound to make oversimplified theories about what the animals can do and will do in a given situation. But for the impressionable brain of the leopard cub who saw the whole thing from her branch, just out of reach of the dog’s jaws, there was an important lesson to learn for the future, as summarized in a short phrase by our safari guide: “Food on the ground, food for all”.
You can watch the story in video here: