Clement Kiragu: "There's a huge danger to the Maasai Mara."

The Kenyan photographer on big cats, African photography and how climate change is changing the Maasai Mara
By Graeme Green
Clement Kiragu, also known as Clement Wild, is a wildlife photographer whose work has appeared in publications around the world, including Nat Geo Wild. In 2017, he was named Africa’s Photographer of the Year. His work focuses particularly on big cats. He also leads photo safaris in Kenya, and has a regular front row seat at the famous Great Migration.

What first got you into wildlife photography?

My training is in fine art. I majored in graphic design and worked in Kenya’s biggest advertising agencies. I got to interact with a lot of photographers and film-makers, which got me interested in photography. I bought my first camera in 2014. Since then, I’ve never put it down. If I had some free time on a weekend, I always found myself going to nature, photographing landscapes, photographing animals.

I love nature so much. It’s a passion that was in me that I didn’t even know existed until I started.

What is it that you like so much about photographing big cats?

I just love their behaviour. It never gets boring. I can sit with a leopard all day, observing its behaviour, seeing how many times it will try to hunt for its cubs. I love seeing how big cats raise their cubs and how delicate their life is. I love capturing that.

Photo by Clement Kiragu

Growing up in Kenya, you had access to some of the world’s best wildlife. Did you grow up close to animals?

I actually grew up up-country of Kenya, very near Mount Kenya, in a small town called Kagumo. But my access to wildlife and photography came much later in life. That’s when I really started appreciating what we have. I actually educate my friends and tell them “You don’t know how lucky we are. We have a country where you can be lying on the beach in the morning and two hours later, you’re enjoying the Great Migration in the Maasai Mara like.” That’s how beautiful our country is. But I find people don’t appreciate the things from where they’re born until they start engaging with them. 

On your website, you’ve written about struggling to get started as a wildlife photographer. Why was it so hard? 

It was so hard because, when I started out, I didn’t know any Kenyan wildlife photographers at all. I tried looking for mentors in the country who could teach me how to do this. How do you handle your settings? How do you access these animals? I didn’t have access to knowledge. I wanted to document these animals in special ways and tell their stories. But I had trouble finding my route. I had to build relationships, get the best camera, get the best guide, people who knew how to position me and who understood my style of photography. I had to go through all those steps, step by step.

Photo by Clement Kiragu

I interviewed the young South African photographer Neville Ngomane recently, who won Young Environmental Photographer of the Year. He talked about a lack of black role models in wildlife photography. Was that an issue for you when you were growing up?

It’s a very big issue. I actually don’t know any right up until now. I’m now six years into the wildlife category and I haven’t seen any black photographers out there.

I don’t know if they don’t have any interest in it or it could be because, in Africa, wildlife is not very marketable. Not many people in Africa will buy wildlife prints or landscape prints, so many photographers shy away from wildlife photography as a genre. They go to commercial and fashion, because that’s marketable in countries like Kenya.

Photo by Clement Kiragu

Would you like to see the situation change?

I would love that to change because we really are the ones who live here. We know these animals better than anyone. I know every park there is in Kenya and what to find there.

I would like to see a space where more African photographers get global recognition because I believe there’s a lot of talent in Africa and in Kenya. I’ve seen brilliant photographers, but they shy away from this genre.

I’d also like to see platforms where people can showcase their work. More genuine wildlife competitions would help very much because there are not so many in Africa that are that genuine.

Photo by Clement Kiragu

Do you find yourself acting as a role model or mentor now? Do a lot of young photographers get in touch? 

Yes, they do. I have a couple of them that I’m working with and actually helped them to buy their first camera. They started shooting wildlife. It’s so satisfying to see that because it’s changing the perceptions of the photographers that are coming up. They see “Clement is doing so well, so I can also do it.” I love seeing that. 

You take clients out on safari. Travellers are known to sometimes ask stupid questions. What’s the stupidest question you’ve been asked?

Oh my. I wouldn’t call them ‘stupid’. It’s naive or a lack of knowledge. For example, they will ask “Do you think she’s going to wake up and hunt right now?” and they expect you to have an answer for them. But you have to be very patient with your guests. You always explain that this is nature, you can only observe their behaviour and wait and see. You wouldn’t know when a lion is going to wake up and hunt. 

Photo by Clement Kiragu

You’ve been at the Great Migration many times, which for most people is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Is it still exciting to see? 

It’s exciting every year. From when I started shooting wildlife in 2014, I’ve gone every year because I find it so fascinating. I can’t wait for that season.

It’s one of the most photographed subjects on the planet. How do you find an original take? 

By avoiding the cliché. Guests always want that classic image of wildebeests crossing the Mara River in their thousands. You can still get it for them, but also you start looking for things like hunts. When the wildebeests are crossing the river, there’s a lot of movement and confusion. That’s the perfect time for predators, like lions, to hunt. I’ll always pull off from where most of the cars are and hope there’ll be a hunt. That’s how you get special images, because hunts at the river have a lot of drama, a lot of dust. You can try other techniques, like panning, to give you an image with motion. 

Photo by Clement Kiragu

Climate change and other issues are having an impact on the Great Migration and the Mara River. What have you seen happening? 

That’s a huge danger to the Maasai Mara. Many people think it’s just maybe a gimmick for raising money for conservation or have very different views about it, but climate change is real. It’s making extreme changes to places like the Maasai Mara.

We’re getting very extreme weather patterns. That means you’ll find a very long period of drought and when the rain comes, it comes with extreme floods. Changes like those have a direct impact on wildlife. For example, the wildebeests, all the grazers, which form the Great Migration, follow rain patterns. When there’s less rain in Kenya, the migration shifts from the normal month it’s supposed to come. For example, in 2018 there was barely any migration in Kenya. It was so sad to watch. You’re at the river and you’re expecting that migration, and you just see like 50 wildebeest crossing.

Photo by Clement Kiragu

Climate change, coupled with human interruption of the environment, is making big changes to these patterns. For example, the Mara River originates from Mau Forest and flows through the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem. Now you find up the river, there’s a lot of deforestation, caused by people wanting to do illegal charcoal burning. People have started cutting down trees and starting to do agriculture. They do catchment of the water. The effects of people doing that is totally drying up the Mara River. In 2019, there were some sad images that were circulating on the Internet: the great Mara River was totally dry. You can imagine how that effects the migration and animals that depend on the river, like crocodiles and hippos. It’s so sad. 

Like many countries, Kenya needs to balance human needs and development with wildlife and nature. Is that happening?

I don’t think it’s happening as fast as it needs to happen. These changes are changing drastically. To see a place like the Mara without its main river, which is supposed to flow throughout the year, is totally sad. That will have a major impact on tourism.

It also affects communities that depend on livestock. If they don’t have water for their livestock that means they lose their livelihood. You find communities are starting to fight each other. That causes even death because they don’t have a livelihood.

The government isn’t working as fast as it’s supposed to. People are hungry and they don’t know what to do. That causes a lot of fights. The government needs to do something very quickly. 

Photo by Clement Kiragu

Clement Kiragu’s website:

Follow him on Instagram: @clement.wild.

Graeme Green is a photographer and journalist:

Listen to the Clement Kiragu NEW BIG 5 PODCAST here.

Please SHARE this interview.

NOTE: The best way to solve the crises facing the planet and its wildlife is by having open, honest, respectful conversations and hearing diverse voices from around the world. The New Big 5 project does not necessarily support or agree with every opinion or idea expressed by photographers, conservationists or organisations featured on the New Big 5 website. The many different wildlife charities, photographers, film-makers and conservationists we’ve collaborated with also do not necessarily support or agree with every idea or opinion expressed by other people or organisations on the website. It’s ok to disagree and debate. But we hope the opinions and ideas can inspire people, make people think, and be part of the conversation to help our planet and the animals that live on it.

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