Photography on the Masai Mara Reserve

By Kamal Varma
February 13, 2018

Bee eater, Cheetah and Antelope by Kamal Varma ©

The Masai Mara is a wildlife photographer’s paradise.  Whether it’s the big cats (lions, leopards, cheetah’s) or the seemingly endless number of other animals, the Mara is unrivalled when it comes to the sheer number of animals to photograph.  Birders will also be happy as the Mara has over 450 species of birds.

Reserve vs Conservancy – Masai Mara:
A conservancy is private land that is owned by the Masai people (Masai).  Historically, this land has been used for grazing.  Because there was often human animal conflict, large outfitters (game watching companies) joined together to lease the land from the Masai.  In return, the Masai are given a daily per diem per guest and are employed within the camps.  Additionally, the outfitters have provided schools, health clinics and other such institutions for the Masai.  Conservancies are therefore private and only guests that are staying within one of the camps on the conservancy are allowed to view game on the conservancy.  The Masai Mara has several different conservancies.

The reserve, or national park as it is sometimes called, is public land owned by the government.  It is accessible to everyone.  The entry fee to the Masai Mara reserve is $70 US/day per person.

It is often assumed that the conservancies are better for game viewing because they are less crowded and because vehicles are allowed to drive off road.  There is some truth to this.  The conservancies are definitely less crowded, however, recent changes allow people to buy an off road permit for the Mara reserve for $300/week per vehicle.   This means vehicles can go off the beaten path. 

My experience on the reserve:
I just returned from my sixth trip to the Masai Mara and my second in the last six months.  This time, I did things a bit differently.  In the past, I had always stayed on a Conservancy with one of the big international outfitters.  This time, I was delighted to learn that my guide/tracker from previous trips, Big John Siololo, in collaboration with award winning Norwegian photographer Arnfinn Johansen and local Masai guide Johnmark Kiss-may, had opened their own small camp ( At a fraction of the cost of the bigger camps located on the conservancy, this camp is ideal for photographers.  With all the amenities of the bigger camp, you also get the personalized service from an owner operator and the expertise of a local guide.

Since I knew I would be on the reserve every day, I purchased an off road permit.

The Big Cats:
Although I have been several times, I was surprised to learn that the Mara is home to more Leopards than cheetahs.  Because the leopards are much more elusive and are nocturnal, they are much more difficult to find and photograph. On this trip, I was fortunate enough to see 4 different leopards.   This leopard is aptly named “Blue Eyes”

Leopards by Kamal Varma ©

Cheetah by Kamal Varma ©

Blue eyes

Blue eyes had two baby siblings.  This is one of them.  She had recently learned how to climb which meant she was relatively safe from predators.  Although you can not tell from the picture, this cub is on the very top of the tree laying on the tree canopy.

Young leapard in tree canopy by Kamal Varma ©

This is the mother of Blue Eyes and the cub above, her name is “Pretty Girl”

Leopard called Blue eyes by Kamal Varma ©

In addition to spending time with the Leopards, I was fortunate enough to see three different Cheetah hunts, two of which were successful.  The first hunt involved a group of male cheetahs known as the 5 brothers.

Cheetahs hunting by Kamal Varma ©

Surprisingly, this hunt was unsuccessful.


Chasing Cheetah by Kamal Varama ©

After a successful viewing of a third cheetah hunt, a large group of hyenas chased the cheetah that had made the kill up into a tree.  This was the first time I had witnessed this behaviour.

Cheetah in a tree by Kamal Varma ©

Closer view of the tree on the right shows one of the big cats in the tree.


One of the great joys of photographing the big cats is watching lion cubs interact with one another.

Lion cubs by Kamal Varma ©

Lion cubs by Kamal Varma ©

Lion cubs Kamal Varma ©

Lion cubs by Kamal Varma ©

Young lion cubs by Kamal Varma ©

The postcard shot:

If you go on safari, it is definitely worth waking up for the morning sunrise.  You are almost guaranteed shots like this.

sunset Africa by Kamal Varma ©

Final thought:
The most challenging subject I have ever attempted to photograph is a cheetah chase.  Tracking the cheetah as it runs full out is all but impossible.  To make this endeavour easier I would highly recommend using a pro body (1D series from Canon and the D5 from Nikon).  The extra few frames per second and the enhanced autofocus algorithms in these cameras will greatly improve your chances of “getting the shot”.  I would also recommend a fast zoom lens (F4 or faster). 


Authors Biography & Contact Information

Kamal Varma portrait Bio: Kamal is an avid photographer living in Calgary, AB his photography passion includes travel, wildlife and landscape. Kamal also likes to play guitar when he can't get out to shoot.

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Previous Articles by Kamal Varma on the Canadian Nature photographer web site

The Great Migration (and leaping Leopards)
India is a Photographers Paradise
Grizzlies of the Campbell River
The Big Cats in Kenya - Africa

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