Michel Zoghzoghi: “I want to show how magnificent predators are.”

The Lebanese photographer on predators, studying animal behaviour and jaguars wrestling with anacondas
By Graeme Green
Michel Zoghzoghi is a wildlife photographer, specializing in animal pictures from the world’s wilderness environments, from Alaska to the Pantanal. A lot of his work focuses on predators in Africa and South America, as featured in his book Prey.

What is it that attracts you to predators?

Their beauty, their power and their innocence. From the tiniest domestic kitten to the most massive polar bears, predators are beautiful. For me, the eyes of the cats, the ease with which a great white shark glides through the water, and the immaculate fur of a polar bear are all mesmerizing.

Part of their beauty also comes from their power and perfect coordination. They are perfectly adapted to their environment, so they dominate it. The hunting speed of the Peregrine falcon or the ease with which the leopard brings huge prey up a tree are all examples of this power.

Photo by Michel Zoghzoghi

The most controversial attribute is their innocence. To many people, predators are vicious and dangerous killing machines. From my many hours and days in the field, I can say without a doubt that they are not. They only kill to feed and protect their families or defend their territory. They spend the rest of their days grooming, playing with their cubs or siblings, sleeping or basically minding their own business.

There is no viciousness or ill intent. The dedication of a mother to raising her cubs has nothing to envy to a human mother dedication, and, to drop political correctness, I would say it is often much greater. They only kill in order to survive. 

What do you try to capture in your photos?

The beauty that the planet and the various species have to offer. I want to show how magnificent predators are. But I also want to alert people to the fact that every species is endangered and most are on the brink of extinction. I want everyone who looks at my images to feel the urge to do something about it. 

Photo by Michel Zoghzoghi

Do you like to photograph dramatic life and death moments?

I used to at the beginning of my photographic career. I now try to focus on capturing beautiful moments that will instil in the viewer a sense of urgency about doing something to protect the planet’s natural beauty.

The drama of a kill still fascinates me but I find that it unfortunately reduces the complexity of a predator to only this attribute: the killing part. The ‘killing machine’ concept is unfortunately fuelled by the large number of killing scenes that flood social media.

Does it take a lot of patience to capture animal behaviour? Do you need to become a ‘student’ of animal behaviour?

Yes, it takes a lot of time and patience to capture animal behaviour. It’s very important to know enough about the animal you’re photographing to be able to predict his behaviour, his next move. A big cat can sleep up to 20 hours a day. For example, it would be a total waste of time to try to get interesting photos of a male lion during the day in the middle of the heat. In addition to the fact that the light is bad, all you would get is a sleeping lion usually under a tree.

Photo by Michel Zoghzoghi

Cheetahs, on the other hand, will hunt during the day when all the other predators are asleep. It would be too dangerous for a cheetah to be out in the open when lions and leopards are fully awake. Once it has killed its prey, a cheetah will quickly eat it before hyenas, alerted by circling vultures, come to the scene.

Cheetahs will not attempt to hunt zebras and will usually go for impalas, unless they are three or four brothers hunting together when they can go for larger preys, as their speed will allow them to catch this smaller but very fast prey.

Why is such information useful? In the case of the cheetah, for example, you wouldn’t waste your time waiting for a hunt if you see cheetahs close to a zebra herd. The hunt will not happen. Also, if you’re hoping to see a brief confrontation between hyenas and cheetahs stick around at a kill site, though cheetahs will very quickly retreat.

Photo by Michel Zoghzoghi

Big cats and bears can sometimes be dangerous. Have you had any close calls?

Not really. The only potentially dangerous moments I’ve had were due to human mistakes or stupidity – mine and other people with me. I generally find that following the guide’s instructions ensures a safe and pleasant experience. But there have been a few situations that could have been dangerous.

I was in Alaska shooting grizzly bears a few years ago. One afternoon, we were walking back to camp. It was windy and the wind was blowing in our direction. Suddenly, a very angry mother grizzly stood up from the bushes right in front of us with her cub and started acting and sounding very menacing. We immediately stopped moving and sat down. She kept up her aggressive behaviour for a little while, then left. The reason for her aggression is that we startled her and she was with cub. Due to the wind direction, she couldn’t smell us coming and was caught off-guard when she saw us.

Another time, I was in the Masai Mara enjoying the peaceful presence of three lionesses with around 10 cubs. Lionesses are very sociable and such groups aren‘t rare. We were the only car around. After about 30 minutes of pure bliss, another car pulled up – a family with three kids. One of the kids got so excited that she climbed on the engine hood. What you need to know is that all jeeps are open but as long as you are sitting inside animals don’t perceive you as a threat or prey – you are just part of the vehicle.

Once you are out of the ‘safe space’, you are no longer part of the vehicle. All hell broke loose. The lionesses went from very peaceful to super aggressive and surrounded the other vehicle. The driver swiftly pulled the kid back inside the vehicle and we all left to allow the lionesses to calm down.

What’s the most remarkable wildlife moment you’ve ever photographed?

Photo by Michel Zoghzoghi

It was in the Pantanal, Brazil. It was in the middle of the afternoon and we were on the Cuiaba river when Regina, our guide, told us that she had just been advised that there was a female jaguar with her cub on an open sand beach on the Tres Irmaos River. We immediately decided to go and check them out, hoping they would still be there by the time we completed the 45 minute boat ride.

As we got close, we saw more than 10 boats leaving, as the pair had left the open and went into the dense vegetation. We decided to stay, hoping they would appear again, as it was much quieter with only two boats left. We suddenly heard a splash in the water and saw the mother and the cub crossing the river right in front of us. The cub was holding onto something that looked like her tail. As they started to come out of the water, we realized they were both holding onto an anaconda. There was a muffled scream on the boat as nothing had prepared us for this. They walked out of the water, side by side, holding the anaconda in their mouths. The whole scene was magical. In all this excitement, I managed to adjust my settings and took the shot.

This photo was highly commended in the People’s Choice award category of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition in 2019.

For the New Big 5 project, I’ve been talking to photographers around the world. Is there interesting wildlife in Lebanon and across the Middle East? 

Unfortunately, there’s very little wildlife left in Lebanon, where I’m from. I’m not familiar at all with wildlife in the Middle East. I’ve mostly focused on predators in Africa, Brazil and the Arctic.

Do you work with any wildlife charities or organisations?

All the revenues from my photography is donated to charities. The main charities are Animals Lebanon, who help wild and domestic animals in Lebanon, Cancer Support Fund, who help adults who have cancer, and Children’s Cancer Center of Lebanon, which helps needy children who have cancer.

Michel Zoghzoghi’s website:

Follow him on Instagram: @michel_zoghzoghi.

Graeme Green is a photographer and journalist:

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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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