Photographing wild meerkats

Where can you find wild meerkats?

It has been a while that we wanted to see wild meerkats, but that is not so easy… They’re small, you can only find them in some areas of Africa and they blend in very well with their surroundings. Finding them by yourself is difficult if you don’t know where they are. Look at the photo below and see how well they blend in with the environment! And this photo was taken from close by. Imagine if you’re in a car and they’re 10 or 20 meters from the road…

There are several places in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana where you can certainly find wild meerkats, like near the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park or in the Klein Karoo, but most people see them in sanctuaries, rescue centres or in research projects. From Cape Town the easiest way is to go to the Klein Karoo. Around Oudtshoorn you can go on a ‘Meerkat Adventure’! Meerkat Adventures organizes early morning visits to two families of meerkats.

Meerkat behind a shrub in the Klein Karoo south africa brown vegetation
Meerkats are difficult to spot if you don’t know where they are. (Canon 6D MkI with EF 70-200 mm USM IS II plus 2x Extender at ISO 400 – 330 mm – f/11 – 1/640 s)

Are these meerkats really wild?

There are known to be quite a few family groups living around Oudtshoorn, and Meerkat Adventures takes people to see two of them. What we loved about these visits is that there is little to no interaction between the humans and the meerkats. These two families are used to see people when they wake up, but they completely ignored us. Meerkat Adventures has slowly habituated the families to the presence of talking human beings. They have spend hours with these families just being there and talking, so they could get used to human presence and voice. This allows the guides to explain about the meerkats while we the tourists, sitting in their chairs, enjoy the show the meerkats put up for them. So these meerkats are not being fed or touched or interfered with. The only thing they have to go through, and they don’t seem to be bothered, is that a small group of people watching them when they wake up and one of the guides that has been looking at them when they went under ground for the night.

These meerkats hardly sleep two nights in a row in the same burrow and use several burrow in the area. Only when there are new-borns they will stay put for a few weeks. Even though it can be very hot and dry in the Klein Karoo, meerkats search for their food during the day. Before it gets dark they go underground in one of the burrows.

How does the meerkat adventure unfold?

When arriving at the burrow where the family slept for the night, you get a folding chair and everyone sits down in an arc at about five to ten meters from the burrow. You have to sit down and keep down and then just wait. Like you can see in the photo below, you could even make photos with your phone.

people sitting in chairs while meerkats get closer and curious
Now who is watching who? (Canon 6D with EF 70-200 mm USM IS II plus 2x Extender at ISO 800 – 170 mm – f/11 – 1/1250 s)

After a while the first meerkat comes out and looks around if everything is ok. A little later the others start to come out and join the first on top of the burrow. Like me, they are not immediately fully awake. They sit in the sun warming up. It seems they need to charge their batteries with a solar panel… their bellies.

Still sleepy (Canon 6D with EF 70-200 mm USM IS II plus 2x Extender at ISO 100 – 400 mm – f/6.3 – 1/400 s)

The kids obviously play and run around, roll over each other, and try to imitate the adults, but after warming up of course. The adults clean out the entrance of the burrow a little. And of course they sit on their tail. This is what they are famous for. In Dutch they are called ‘stokstaartjes’, literally little stick tails. Their tail works as a third leg and keeps them in balance.

Surricate on the lookout standing on his tail
Surricate on the lookout standing on his tail (Canon 6D with EF 70-200 mm USM IS II plus 2x Extender at ISO 800 – 400 mm – f/7.1 – 1/1000 s)

The guide of Meerkats Adventures explains you many curiosities about meerkats. What they eat, what they do,where they sleep, about their group structure,  how they started these ‘adventures’, many interesting facts they have discovered in the years following these little creatures around. When everybody is ready for breakfast the group moves off, disappearing quickly between the low shrubs of the Little Karoo. We wait until they’re out of view and slowly get up, heading for breakfast ourselves.

Taking photographs of the meerkats

Photographing these little animals is easy on one hand, because you’re close by. With a 400 mm lens on a full-frame camera you can fill the frame with a meerkat. On the other hand, once you’re seated you can’t move around or stand up.  The meerkats obviously do not pose for you, so they sit or stand wherever they feel like. This might also be just behind a branch or they turn their backs towards you.  But being a group, in our case around 13 members,  there will most probably some that face you and sit in unobstructed view from where you sit.

What you should remember is to pay attention to the composition of your photos. This is important for landscape photography, but just as important for wildlife photography. If the meerkat is looking sideways, leave space in the photo in the direction of his/her look. This makes you wonder what the animal saw.

And as with all wildlife photography you need a bit of luck. But that is the beauty of wildlife photography, the unknown!

meerkat digging for food
Searching for food (Canon 6D with EF 70-200 mm USM IS II plus 2x Extender at ISO 800 – 400 mm – f/11 – 1/1250 s)

Are you ready for your next photo adventure?

What a great experience this is! Not only because you can see these beautiful creatures going their own natural way, but also because you can enjoy the sunrise, be out in Nature and follow Nature’s rhythm. The Klein Karoo is really a beautiful area of the Western Cape and offers more than meerkats alone, but we can tell you about that another time.

This experience can be part of a tailor made photography tour in the Western Cape – South Africa. If you want more information, please send us a message with your wishes. We can fit in both landscape and wildlife photography in your trip to South Africa.

One thought on “Photographing wild meerkats

  1. ปั้มไลค์ says:

    Like!! I blog quite often and I genuinely thank you for your information. The article has truly peaked my interest.

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