Capturing the Moment
Wildlife photographer Theo Allofs proves patience makes a virtuoso
Jessica Snyder Sachs
BY ANY CONVENTIONAL WISDOM, it was no time for cameras. Even the spectacular landscape of South Africa's Mala Mala Game Reserve flattens in the stale light of late morning, a time when most serious photographers retire to wait for the richer tones and contrasts of late afternoon. But the ten-hour days of wildlife photographer Theo Allofs consist of 9.9 parts observation to 0.1 part shutter action.
And so, as the heat and dust rose with the sun on an October day in 1996, Allofs slowly guided his vehicle into the African bush, keeping a respectful distance from the two white rhinos he had been following since dawn. "I like to spend several weeks, and even months when possible, in one area with one species," he explains. "In this way, I learn more about an animal than I ever could by reading about it beforehand." He observes daily movement patterns, repetitive actions, the variable tolerance zone within which he can approach without disturbing his subjects. Such dogged diligence has paid off for Allofs on numerous occasions.
That Allofs' intent was preparation, not product, seems to have seduced Lady Luck that October day. The result is the startling David-and-Goliath moment between a rhino and an oxpecker displayed in this article, which is, says the photographer, one of his first successful images as a professional. "Naturally, the longer you wait, the greater the likelihood of witnessing something extraordinary," he notes. "Wildlife photography will never be for the impatient."
Educated as a geologist, the German-born Allofs discovered before he graduated college that he enjoyed photographing the landscape more than chiseling away at it. Today, he spends seven or eight months of the year globetrotting on assignments, usually of his own choosing. In between, he takes shelter in the log cabin he and his wife, Sabine, built at the doorstep of the Yukon Territory's Kluane National Park, a 5.4-million-acre reserve encompassing Canada's highest peaks and largest ice fields.
"I wouldn't stay in this business long if the focus of my work was only on taking pictures of charismatic animals," he explains. "I'm more interested in telling stories about threatened wildlife and their ecosystems." As the compelling images that follow illustrate, Allofs has the talent to accomplish both.
Photo: © THEO ALLOFS
THOUGH SEEMINGLY not intimidated by going nose to nose with a giant, this red-billed oxpecker took flight a few moments after sizing up the white rhinoceros it found dozing in South Africa's Mala Mala Game Reserve. "Perhaps it was hoping for better fare," says Allofs, who captured the fleeting image on film after following the endangered rhino and its partner to their midday shelter. The oxpecker's longstanding reputation as a beneficial species has come under scrutiny in recent years. For in addition to cleaning its hosts of ticks, the bird frequently helps itself to bits of flesh and blood, enlarging small scratches and sores into open wounds in the process. Rhinos, both black and white, are among the oxpecker's most tolerant hosts.
Photo: © THEO ALLOFS
MONTHS OF OBSERVING eastern gray kangaroos taught Allofs to look for a momentary caress or frolic between female and joey immediately after nursing. "It lasted just a minute," he says of this playful embrace in Wilsons Promontory National Park in Victoria, Australia. In anticipation of that minute, the photographer had patiently inched into the center of a herd of 60 to 70 kangaroos, positioning himself within 50 feet of the nursing pair. "I never get tired of watching eastern grays," adds Allofs, who recently returned from his tenth trip photographing the animals. "One moment, they appear human. The next, they remind us of gigantic rabbits. Yet their wide variety of behaviors is truly unique."