March 14, 2012 -
Wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas prefers to take close, wide-angle shots of animals from the ground. Usually he'd quietly crawl up to them, but that would be too dangerous when shooting lions in the wild. So he started building a prototype for a mobile camera called "BeetleCam" because it resembles a large beetle as it moves and offers a beetle-like perspective. Photo: A lion biting a 'beetlecam'
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With help from his brother Matt (right), Burrard-Lucas mounted a Canon EOS 400D on top of an off-the-shelf robot chassis. The "buggy" was stuffed with large batteries and rigged so that the camera connected to the steering controls. The first BeetleCam was sealed, camouflaged, and its center of gravity moved lower for better stability. Burrard-Lucas was ready to test it in Tanzania's Ruaha and Katavi National Parks.
On the morning of their first day out, the brothers took advantage of the warm light to capture elephants with the BeetleCam prototype. "We used it first on elephants and it worked really well," Burrard-Lucas said. The next day they decided to try it with lions.
What happened next was obvious in retrospect, Burrard-Lucas said. Curious about the mobile camera, a lioness picked it up and dragged it away. Fortunately the brothers were able to see where she dropped the mangled device. "Because there was no protection on it in those days, her teeth went straight through the camera and broke it," Burrard-Lucas said. They patched up the device, popped in another camera, and for the rest of the trip concentrated on elephants and buffalo instead.
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Back in London, Will Burrard-Lucas set to work developing a new BeetleCam, this time custom-building much of it from scratch. "It took two years but eventually I found time to build what I hoped would be a lion-proof version," he said. This latest version (right), equipped with a Canon 550D camera, had better armor than the original. He also constructed a second, larger mobile camera (left) with a live video feed, HD movie recording, and a Canon 1Ds MK III digital camera that he dubbed "BeetleCam Mark II."
When the brothers returned to Africa in 2011, they traveled to the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. This time the new BeetleCam had a carapace built out of fiberglass that was reinforced with aluminum struts. "I hoped it would be lion-proof and it did prove to be able to withstand the odd bite here and there," Burrard-Lucas said.
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The brothers drove around the Masai Mara looking for lions. When they found some they deployed the BeetleCams. Lowering them out the vehicle's far window, away from where the lions were, usually worked quite well, Burrard-Lucas said. They frequently used the smaller armored camera to test the conditions. When the lion was distracted or not interested in the camera, then they risked rolling in the more expensive BeetleCam for higher quality photographs.
To control the BeetleCam remotely, Burrard-Lucas used a model airplane controller that has forward, back and steering capabilities. The airplane throttle was repurposed to tilt the camera lens up and down. A switch usually intended to raise and lower landing gear became the camera trigger. "I used the different channels to control different parts of the BeetleCam," he said.
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The adult lions were predictably unpredictable, choosing to ignore the BeetleCam completely and then all of a sudden they would get up and bite it. Lion cubs, on the other hand, were usually playful and curious with the camera, Burrard-Lucas said. "They could tell which side the front was, and would try to get round behind to flip it over."
Although he uses the video camera, Burrard-Lucas said he considers himself more of a photographer than a videographer. "It's the art form and it's just what I enjoy doing," he said. "This approach allows me to get my images in front of a lot of people." In this photo, he used BeetleCam to capture a close-up of a male lion eating a wildebeest.
Burrard-Lucas continues to look for unique perspectives. The way wildlife photography is going, professionals need to come up with innovative ideas in order to take photos that haven't been seen before, he said. "In wildlife photography, once a few thousand photos of lions have been taken, you have to really try quite hard to get something fresh."
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Using the dual BeetleCam approach has improved Burrard-Lucas' ability to compose shots instead of just crossing his fingers. Especially now that he's figured out how to transmit live, HD video from the BeetleCam's GoPro camera. "I can improve my success rate and make sure I can get the composition better rather than using a hit and miss approach," he said.
The wildlife photographer said he tends to think of a project or an animal he'd like to photograph and then goes about trying to build the tools that will enable him to get those shots. Next, we could be seeing a flying BeetleCam. "I might be doing something along the lines of a mini-helicopter version for aerial shots," he said.
Currently Burrard-Lucas is busy building BeetleCams for other wildlife photographers. He says a couple of them are planning to use the mobile camera to approach bears. "I'm giving them the same armor that lions had," he said. "We'll see if lions or bears turn out to be more destructive." To see video footage and additional photos from the BeetleCam project, visit Burrard-lucas.com/beetlecam.
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The Copenhagen Zoo recently killed four members of a lion family because the cats didn’t meet the needs of the zoo’s captive breeding program. The same zoo killed Marius the giraffe last month for similar reasons.
The lions weren’t useful for reproduction anymore because the 16-year-old adults had passed their peak breeding years, reported the AP. Their final offspring, two 10-month-old cubs would have been killed by a 3-year-old lion destined to rule the Copenhagen Zoo’s pride. The zoo recently acquired the young male as a stud for two 18-month-old females.
Although animal advocates question the zoo’s ethics, the Copenhagen Zoo mimicked nature by killing the old and young. In the wild, young lions attack and sometimes kill dominant older males. The marauders seek to displace old kings and conquer their harems of lionesses.
At the Copenhagen Zoo, the new king of the pride wouldn’t have tolerated the presence of cubs he hadn’t sired. When young male lions take over a new pride, the cats kill cubs younger than approximately nine-months-old, despite the fierce protection of their mothers.
Once the cubs die, a biological signal sends the females back into fertility. Infanticide allows the newcomer to focus his energy on fathering his own cubs before he too becomes sick, wounded or old, then loses control of the pride to yet another interloper.
However, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and others have questioned the ethics of culling cubs.
“Like domesticated cats, big cats breed, unless you make sure that they are sterilized, and that is exactly what the zoo had an ethical obligation to do, rather than bringing cubs into the world simply to bump them off,” a PETA spokesperson said in the Daily Mail.
Last month, the Copenhagen Zoo attracted similar criticism for killing Marius the giraffe, dissecting him in public and feeding him to lions. The zoo killed Marius because he had a common pedigree. The zoo couldn’t use him as a stud because he as too related to other giraffes in captivity, nor did the zoo want to pay for the upkeep of a genetically-useless giraffe.
A zoo spokesman stated that the zoo doesn’t use contraceptive techniques to prevent unwanted giraffe births because it interferes with natural breeding cycles and biological rhythms.
Besides contraception or killing, other potential options for the lions included donation to another zoo or even rehabilitation for reintroduction into African conservation areas, like captive-bred Christian the Lion or orphaned Elsa the Lioness.
A Copenhagen Zoo spokesman told CNN that efforts to place the lion cubs with other institutions had failed. The European Association of Zoos and Aquaria told CNN that the Copenhagen Zoo met high standards of animal welfare and culled the lions in accordance with established policies.
Photo: An image of a lion. Credit: Flickr: elPadawan