“I love their eyes,” said Gavin Lautenbach, Natural Habitat Adventures guide. “To capture a photograph of any cat in the wild, it’s about their eyes. I love their power and their strength. I love their relationships with their cubs and with other cats. I love their speed, power, precision and playfulness.”
Gavin has been guiding for NHA since 2011, leading safaris in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania, Borneo and, most frequently, South Africa. South Africa is home to his favorite big cats: lions, cheetahs and leopards.
“In Kruger National Park, you can get up close and personal with cats,” Gavin shared. “I like to get up early and try to find cheetahs, lions and leopards. If you’re lucky, you can have some incredible interactions.”
Gavin first learned to track big cats at the Phinda Private Reserve in South Africa. “Learning to track and find animals is important for your guests,” he explained, recalling his first experience tracking a leopard. In his early days as a guide, Gavin worked closely with an experienced tracker. “We found tracks and drag marks and went very slowly into a thicket. The tracker looked down into the thicket and quickly stood up. ‘The leopard’s there!’ he said, pointing into the thicket,” Gavin recounted. “I looked straight into the eyes of the leopard and fear ripped through my body.”
Gavin learned early on to respect Africa’s wildlife after a harrowing encounter: an elephant charged at his safari truck, putting him and his guests in danger. (You can read his full account of the event here.) “The biggest thing I learned is, with time and experience, you make better decisions in the wild,” Gavin shared. “It keeps you safe. People have bad experiences when guides don’t correctly interpret animal behavior. Experience counts in wild places.” Now an experienced guide of 16 years, Gavin trains new guides and imparts the lessons he’s learned.
Gavin loves leading passionate travelers. “NHA sends people who are so incredibly passionate about wildlife, people who plan and dream about their safaris for years,” Gavin said. “A woman on one of my safaris had newspaper cuttings from the last 20 years before taking her first safari.” These guests help Gavin remember how life-changing a safari can be. “As guides, we can underestimate the impact a first sighting can have, because we’ve had so many. It’s new and exciting for our guests,” he said.
These travelers also help conserve the wild places they have waited so long to see. “Tourism is huge for conservation. They work hand in hand,” Gavin explained. He pointed to WWF’s work at Kruger National Park; WWF is working with South African wildlife authorities in Kruger to protect rhinos. Black rhinos were once extinct in Kruger National Park; thanks to WWF’s reintroduction efforts, there are 300 black rhinos in the park. WWF also works with TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, to combat the poaching of rhinos in the park. More wildlife means more income from tourism, providing more funding for the South African authorities’ conservation efforts. “Without WWF’s involvement in Kruger, you wouldn’t have this land for people to appreciate the wildlife.”