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Locals' safari photography is on display at The Photo Shop

Locals’ safari photography is on display at The Photo Shop

Africa is one of the fastest growing tourist destinations in the world, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, and one of its essential tourist experiences is taking a safari through a wildlife reserve. But as the popularity of this offering skyrockets, so do the number of vehicles roaming around these conservation spots.

Local photographers Cheryl and Richard Strahl had always dreamed of traveling to Africa for a chance to capture the wildlife—specifically the large, iconic felines that the continent is known for—on camera. But the couple knew that they wouldn’t be able to snap the perfect photo with swarms of fellow tourists around.

“In Kruger [National Park] or the Serengeti [National Park], if there’s a lion, then 30 jeeps will come in,” Richard, a retired Cal Poly professor, said of some of the most popular wildlife destinations.

He and Cheryl knew they needed a different experience for what would “probably be the only trip that we make to Africa.”

Cheryl, the professional photographer of the pair, wanted a chance to capture these creatures with as minimal disturbance to their natural habitats and behaviors as possible. She and Richard eventually settled on the Timbavati Game Reserve as their prime destination. The remarkably up-close photos that resulted from the trip are on display at The Photo Shop in San Luis Obispo until March 14.

The Strahls chose Timbavati Game Reserve for a few key reasons. This reserve—unlike others in the region—only allows three vehicles at a time. This limit creates less disruption to the animals, and in turn, better photographic results. The reserve is also careful to condition the animals so that they are used to seeing vehicles occasionally, Cheryl said. This puts less stress on the animals, and makes it much easier to photograph them behaving just as they would if there were no humans around.

“It’s totally different to see so many animals in such a small area and watch their behavior, and they’re oblivious to us. You’re like a rock to them,” Cheryl said of Timbavati’s unique safari experience.

Additionally, she emphasized that the animals are free to roam between the park and the reserve—there are no barriers or fences.

click to enlarge Photo Courtesy Of Richard Strahl A RARE COMPARISON In Richard Strahl’s White Lion with Siblings, the unusual coloring of the white lion pops in comparison to its normally colored siblings.

But perhaps most exciting about the Timbavati Game Reserve is that this region is home to an extraordinarily uncommon animal: the white lion. At the time that Cheryl and Richard made their travels to South Africa and Botswana, July 2019, their guides informed them that there were only three white lions currently living freely in the wild. The Strahls were fortunate enough to see and capture photos of two of these white lions on their safari: a nine-month-old male and a three-month-old female.

“The white lions are not albino, but are leucistic, which is caused by a recessive gene that results in a loss of pigmentation of color in their hair,” Richard wrote of these rare sightings. “Other parts, like the eyes, paw pads, nose, and lips are the normal color of a tawny lion.”

Those distinct features of the white lion are captured stunningly in Richard and Cheryl’s exhibit, titled The White Lions and Other Cats of Southern Africa.

In White Lion with Siblings, one of Richard‘s photos, one of the white lions sits with two other lions that have non-mutated coloring. The juxtaposition in this photo is phenomenal. Just as Richard described, it’s the white fur that solely differentiates the leucistic lion. The piercing golden eyes and pink nose remain the same between it and its siblings. Though, contrasted against the white fur, these features are all the more striking in the white lion.

In Cheryl’s Looking Back at Sunset, the white lion is this time captured on its own. The white fur and golden eyes are illuminated by the setting sun. Majestically perched on a fallen tree, the rare lion is a natural model.

Richard said he hopes that local science teachers and enthusiasts might use the exhibit as an opportunity to teach about the interesting genetics at play in the white lion. Cheryl agreed that the exhibit presents a teaching opportunity—not just about the unusual beauty of the white lion, but also the importance of conservation. The history of human interaction with these creatures, after all, is not one of passive observation but of captivity and hunting. Cheryl hopes to change that.

“I think [viewers will] learn something from the exhibit,” Cheryl said. “They’ll walk away with an appreciation of the very precious wildlife that we have left in this world.” Δ

Arts Writer Malea Martin is learning about the rare white lion. Send arts story tips to mmartin@newtimesslo.com.