Michael Nichols has spent the past two years living with lions in Tanzania. An award-winning photographer and editor, Nichols ventured into Africa’s Serengeti Plain in July 2011 to document a pride of lions for a feature story in this month’s issue of National Geographic. The idea, according to the magazine, was to provide a more intimate glimpse into the daily lives of one of the world’s most fearsome predators — and to photograph them like never before.
“You don’t want to be looking down on animals. They hate it; it is demeaning to them,” the photographer said in an interview with National Geographic earlier this month. “I couldn’t bear photographing lions looking down on them; it made me sick to my stomach.”
Yet capturing the lions from an up-close, ground level posed obvious risks, both to the safety of Nichols’ team and the welfare of the Vumbi pride they were following. They could have easily photographed the lions from afar with standard telephoto lenses, but National Geographic had a more innovative solution in mind — one that involved aerial drones, robots, and infrared lights. And the results, published last week in an online gallery and interactive website, are nothing short of astounding.
After extensive trials and testing, Nichols and cinematographer Nathan Williamson sent a small, remote-controlled robot into the field to capture images from within inches of the lions. The camera-equipped “mini-tank” was manufactured by SuperDroid Robots, a North Carolina-based engineering company that specializes in bomb-defusing robotics. As the tank patrolled the ground, snapping the Vumbi pride from a bug’s-eye view, a German-made MikroKopter drone took to the skies, capturing aerial shots with an “off-the-shelf” Canon camera. Nichols and Williamson, meanwhile, were stationed in a customized Land Rover parked nearby, capturing wide shots from the floor of the car, and controlling the robot and drone remotely.
Because lions sleep during the day and hunt at night, the team was forced to do the majority of their work in darkness, illuminating the Tanzanian landscape with infrared lights mounted to the top of their Land Rover. The invisible infrared rays allowed National Geographic to capture scenes without disturbing the lions’ regular habits, though the blind conditions involved plenty of trial-and-error.
“At one point, we were high-fiving, thinking we had captured a herd of zebra by moonrise from the micro-copter, only to find out later we had been photographing a pile of rocks,” Williamson said in an email to The Verge. Nichols captured more than 240,000 shots over the course of the expedition, with Williams shooting an additional 200 hours of video footage.
There was also concern over how the lions would react to the drone and robot, but according to Nichols, they adapted rather quickly. “After only three visits they didn’t care about that tank,” he told the magazine. “At first they were cautious… But after five or six times they were all falling asleep with it.”
Drones have played an increasingly large role in wildlife preservation and filmmaking in recent years. In 2011, a team of filmmakers used a quadrotor drone to capture scenes of the Serengeti for a TV documentary in Japan. Researchers in Kenya, meanwhile, have begun using unmanned aerial drones to monitor areas susceptible to rhino poaching.
According to Nichols, the technology provided “an opportunity to photograph animals on their terms,” though it’s unclear whether similar devices could be used to capture elephants, zebras, or other species. “Lions are both confident and conservative in how they expend their energy,” the photographer told The Verge. And although they were aware that the machines belonged to the green truck that had been following them, “they never perceived the robot as a threat.”
For Nichols and National Geographic, this month’s publication marks the culmination of more than five years of research and planning. Yet as remarkable as the imagery is, the project extends well beyond the realm of the visual. With worldwide lion populations declining at alarming rates, National Geographic sought not only to provide an unfiltered glimpse into the Vumbi pride’s social hierarchy and behavior, but to prove that man and beast can peacefully coexist, as well.
“This is more than a wildlife behavior story, this is a conservation story,” says Kathy Moran, senior photo editor at National Geographic. “Our goal was to dispel myths about lions, to show how lions live and what it means for people to live with lions.”