Recording lions and chimps in Spain

Spain isn’t precisely the first country that would jump to mind when thinking of big cats and great apes, but nevertheless I recently went there to get some high quality, close up recordings of lions and chimpanzees. I was given permission to spend a day at the most excellent wildlife refuge centre Primadomus, the Spanish headquarters of the Dutch foundation Stichting AAP. AAP/Primadomus rescue animals, in particular primates and big cats, rehabilitate them and either find them a new home or let them live out their days at AAP/Primadomus’s generous facilities.

I normally try to record animals in their natural environment, in the wild so to speak. I think there are a lot of unique calls and interactions that can only be observed and recorded that way. But the flip side of recording in the wild is that unpredictability is huge, so you need a lot of time and a healthy dose of calculated luck. Being granted permission to spend a day in close proximity to species as vocal as chimpanzees and lions was a great way for me to get some recordings I would otherwise struggle to get.

One of the two generously sized chimp enclosures. There are also separate areas for other primates, and the big cats.

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SONIC MMABOLELA – a report for fellow sound designers/recordists

When I first read about Sonic Mmabolela, I knew immediately that this was something I wanted to partake in. A two week sound recording workshop/residency held at a private game reserve in South Africa, rented out in its entirety for the sole purpose of recording and thus promising minimal outside interference – it’s a field recordist’s dream come true. And further reading of its description, plus the fact that it is organised by renowned sound artists Francisco Lopez and Barbara Ellison, promised that this was going to be thematically quite different from other recording workshops out there, which tend to focus a lot on the technical side of things.

Pictures from a previous year of Sonic Mmabolela

I had many reasons to join up, but chief among them were a longing to go back to the African continent for more sound recording, and a growing interest in sound art. I was curious to learn from people who work as independent sonic artists and perhaps find a new outlet for my love of recording sounds of the natural environment and its wildlife.

All that being said, the biggest draw was simply to go out and spend two weeks of non-stop recording in the bush. If nothing else, perhaps I could gather enough material to release another African wildlife themed library. And so it happened that I found myself at the end of November of 2016 as one of the participants in that year’s Sonic Mmabolela.

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Sound recording & camping in the African wilderness – Part 2: Namibia & South Africa

Read part I about recording & camping in Botswana here

Namibia is a land of extremes: huge empty deserts with glowing red sand dunes and rock formations shaped as if placed by giants, a wild coastline littered with shipwrecks, whale carcasses and immense seal colonies, lakes and salt pans attracting all the wildlife that you’d expect from an African country, and lush green tree and shrub savanna in the Caprivi strip bordering Botswana, Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Its natural extremities not withstanding, this is a country easily traversed by car, boasting endless straight-lined gravel roads through its vast expanses of nothingness and national parks. Unlike Botswana, a 4×4 vehicle is for many areas not even a necessity, though having one opens up parts of the country that would otherwise be inaccessible. As for our trip specifically, we only needed the 4-wheel drive engaged on a couple of trails in Namib-Naukluft national park.

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Sound recording & camping in the African wilderness – Part I: Botswana

Take a look at this image, a screenshot of worldwide flight traffic taken from a random visit to the Flightradar website.
What do you see?

Likely, your eye will be drawn to the insane clusters of air traffic that obscure those parts of the map where the United States, Asia and Western Europe lie; the latter being where I generally call home. But go down from Europe to Africa, and we are greeted by space, emptiness, a lovely void of air traffic.

While a few airplanes dot the skies over southern and eastern Africa, seeing this image late 2014 reinforced my will to visit the southern part of the continent, and bring my microphones with me. The never-ending cacaphony of anthropophonic noise in Western Europe, caused by continuous overflying air planes, highway drones and general overpopulation is without a doubt one of my main annoyances – not just as a sound recordist, but as a human being. I crave for a degree of quiet and solitude, for a place that is wilder and more real than the perfectly cut grassy fields and micromanaged spaces that we call ‘natural parks’ in Europe and the UK.

And so I flew down in March 2015, to first spend a couple of months in Zimbabwe, learning about the environment and recording as much wildlife and nature sound as I could, about which I have already quite extensively written & shared recordings of on this site.

After my time there, I flew to Johannesburg in May to meet up with my girlfriend and pick up a rented Toyota Hilux, equipped with all the tools and toys for a few weeks of camping, self-drive game drives and sound recording in the nature of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.

  • The car, as we picked it up

    Still nice and clean and with everything intact.

  • Camp fires were made every night

    Sometimes to cook, and always to keep the wildlife at bay.

  • My mics were placed on top of the car

    For overnight recording, as long as there were no baboons roosting nearby.

  • Another shot of the mics on top of the car

    The recorder was normally inside the tent, allowing for monitoring overnight.

  • A typical camp site

    This was taken in Moremi, Okavango Delta, Botswana

 A few images to show the car, camping and recording setup

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Equipment safety in the African bush

As I set off two months ago for this sound recording & learning-about-African-nature-and-wildlife endeavour, I had essentially no idea how to tackle the problem of protecting my equipment from the environment here. Since then, I’ve amassed close to 600GB of sound recordings and learnt a few tricks regarding the safekeeping of my stuff while its left outdoors for sessions as long as 24 to 30 hours. The bottom line conclusion of keeping your gear from being torn to pieces by big & curious African wildlife: it’s not easy, but it’s certainly possible, especially if you’re lucky enough to get some help from people who know better than you.

To recap briefly, the reason why I set off to Zimbabwe for two months was to follow a FGASA course, which was going to train me at lightning speed how to be a safari guide. That course is now done and dusted, I’ve passed, and I can conduct a guided safari/field experience from a vehicle now. But the point here is that as soon as I mentioned my sound recording plans to the course instructor, he immediately and strongly discouraged me to leave my equipment out there in the naive way that I had imagined it was going to work.

My brilliantly thought out plan was: I’ve got a bunch of long and strong cable ties, I will just tie my mics to a tree and job’s a gooden. His immediate answer to that was that baboons will come and check this strange shiny new thing out, and absolutely destroy it within minutes. And if the baboons won’t get to it, then the elephants might. And if not the elephants, then count on the hyenas to run off with your expensive toys. Want to set up and record by the water? A hippo will come and shit all over your mic before it crushes it to bits. So his suggestion was to use a cage, and a strong one at that – a cage to trap leopards with would do the job nicely, and it just so happened that this reserve here owned one of those.

Behold, the leopard cage
 

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Baboons, the gangsters of the bush

I love baboons, but most locals here would disagree with this sentiment. Baboons are so ubiquitous that they are met with a sense of resentment, not least because they roam the streets of towns and villages, raiding every house and building that has left its doors or windows open. A baboon troop visiting your home or kitchen would certainly not be an event that causes warm feelings to bubble up within you for this species, as they will thank you for your unintended hospitality by absolutely thrashing your place.

But I have no house here and watching them in the wild is always a guaranteed moment of entertainment. People get excited about the big cats, but all I have seen them do is lie flat on their bellies – the baboons however are jumping around, playing, arguing, posing, barking, pretending and everything else that you would expect from a bunch of monkeys.

 

And for a sound recordist, they are delightfully vocal. I had set up my mics for a few nights underneath and nearby a group of ana trees, favourited by the baboons to roost in at night for the shape of their branches. Their defensive strategy at night consists of the small and young ones to stay on the far sides of the tree branches, the bigger ones more central. If their arch enemy the leopard decides to climb up the tree to try and have a snack, it will first have to pass the big boys guarding the centre. Baboons have vicious canines the size of a lion’s, and have been known to kill a leopard in a mobbing attack.

The hyena is no natural predator of the baboon for it climbs no trees, but the above recording could be interpreted as the baboons taking a respectful silence as soon as the lonely hyena to the left of the channel starts whooping in search for its family members.

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Elephants are no drama queens

“What is your favourite animal?” A cliche but certainly acceptable answer would in my view be “elephants”. It is impossible to experience these animals and not at the very least be intrigued with their behaviour and endless range of emotions, characteristics and personalities. Elephants can be funny, imposing, insecure, bullying, menacing, playful, sad, terrified, benign – you could keep adding to this list, but the key thing is that they can be ‘read’ almost as easily as an open book.

There is also plenty of sad facts around elephants and the poaching of their tusks for their ivory. And while these are certainly true and worrisome, the irony is that in this part of the continent, southern Africa, the problems with elephants are essentially reversed – they thrive, and as a result there is too many of them. Though the intuitive reaction might be that you can’t ever have too many elephants, the result is that they cause damage to crops, leading to human-wildlife conflict, compounded by problems caused by the ever increasing transport networks and expanding urban zones. In Victoria Falls town for instance, elephants (and other wildlife) can be regularly seen roaming the streets, which makes walking around town at night rather hazardous.

 

But let’s focus on the good stuff, from a sound recording point of view – the vocalisations they produce, which are plentiful. While I’ve so far not have had the luck to record a lot of close up elephants, I do have amassed a large library of medium distant to distant sounds, some of which are shared on this page. The above recording was made in the middle of the night next to a big lake where I’ve let my equipment roll for multiple nights. Elephants are often present by and nearby this lake, and this night was no exception. Dramatic trumpeting and growling can be heard in the far right of the recording.

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Black Rhino quietly moving through the bush

We have all heard the dire stats around rhino, but for the sake of making a point, let me just repeat here that in the case of the black rhino there are currently roughly 4900 left in the wild, and at the current rate of poaching they will be extinct by about 2020. To complicate matters, black rhino are notoriously aggressive, in particular a mother protecting her child, and allegedly about 50% of rhino deaths are due to them fighting amongst each other. Not very helpful, everything considered!

The Zimbabwean reserve where I have been staying now for the last two months whilst following the FGASA field guide training, have a  number of black rhino within the boundaries of their fence, which exists for the sole reason of protecting the rhino. No one here likes having a fence around a natural reserve, but there is sadly no choice if you are going to have rhino as a resident species. Besides the fence, other protective measures include 24/7 patrolling of the fence by multiple anti poaching units armed to the teeth, and sawing off rhino horns to make them less attractive to poachers. Removing their horns is yet another necessary evil that no one here is pleased with, but better to have a live than dead rhino with a stump for a horn.

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A feeding herd of buffalo, and a lone old bull wallowing in the mud

One of the most pleasant sounds to fall asleep to is likely the calm, docile atmosphere of a herd of buffalo feeding on grass. They peacefully shuffle across the field, heads down in an almost non stop chewing motion, occasionally grunting and mooing at each other when visibility in the bush is too dense to keep contact by eyesight. Big, deep sniffs and exhales give a sense of the size of each individual animal, and convey the apparent pleasure that is had during the feeding bonanza. Buffalo herds tend to move around their homerange in circles, depending of the size of the habitat, feeding most of the time and stopping about twice a day to lie down for a session of ruminating and sleeping. As ruminants, buffalo burp, and not fart – for the best fart sounds in the bush, you will never be let down by the elephants.

The recording above is a compilation of a feeding herd of buffalo slowly making its way to and past the mics. As the entire duration of them approaching and passing my equipment lasted over thirty minutes, I have compiled some snippets to give a general overview of the event.

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Hippo guffawing and chomping grass

Hippo – they’re big, fat, kind of funny, and of course incredibly dangerous. A well know fact is that they are responsible for the most human deaths by a mammal within Africa. Being herbivores feeding on a diet of grass, that says a lot about how moody they are. Hippo’s have been observed chasing predators such as lion away from a fresh kill of a hapless antelope, for no apparent reason other than the hippo simply taking offense with the big pussycats chewing on the flesh of other species.

The above compilation was recorded during a single recording session lasting from dusk till dawn, with the mics set up next to a big lake within Stanley & Livingstone private game reserve (Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe). While I’ve recorded a few more nights at this location, never were the hippo’s as vocal as during this particular night.

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