Magazine article Geographical

Never Forget: For Many, Elephants Are an Integral Part of the African Landscape, a Grand Symbol of the Natural Wonders That Make the Continent Such a Favourite Destination for the Wildlife Photographer

Magazine article Geographical

Never Forget: For Many, Elephants Are an Integral Part of the African Landscape, a Grand Symbol of the Natural Wonders That Make the Continent Such a Favourite Destination for the Wildlife Photographer

Article excerpt

Along with lions, rhinos, buffaloes and leopards, the elephant is one of the safari photographer's 'Big Five' subjects and, up to now, one of the most visible, in some places gathering in their hundreds at water holes and rivers to drink and bathe. Sadly, such spectacles are becoming rarer as elephants are extirpated from much of their range by gangs of well-armed ivory poachers. Although elephants have been killed for their tusks for centuries, much of that time legally, the level of poaching today is unsustainable as more elephants now are being killed than are being born. The rate of decline is stark: In 1979, an estimated 1.3 million roamed much of the African savannah and forests. This year, after conducting the most intensive survey of elephant populations across 15 countries, the Great Elephant Census reported a figure of just over 352,000 savannah elephants--a decline of 73 per cent in less than 40 years.


For Africa's forest elephants (now considered a separate species to the savannah elephant), the situation is also dire, with an estimated 65 per cent fall in numbers in just 20 years. Forest elephants are about half the size of their better known savannah cousins and frequent the dense jungles of the Congo Basin, from Gabon in the west to the Democratic Republic of Congo in the east. Unsurprisingly, these elephants are harder to find, both for the photographer and the conservationist.

Fortunately, the more widespread savannah elephant is easier to encounter for users of more typical digital cameras and lenses when on safari. Their impressive size and distinctive appearance means elephants are the easiest of the 'Big Five' game to spot. They usually travel in family herds, sometimes numbering more than 20 individuals. At times of drought or during the dry season, numbers will swell further, even numbering a hundred or more, as several families congregate around a water source, or a procession of herds follow one after the other along a well-travelled route to water. Such a sight against the vast expanse of Africa's plains is a wondrous experience in its own right, but with a herd of elephants calmly going about their business of drinking, bathing or eating, there are a variety of photographic possibilities for the camera: from the wider view depicting many animals dotted around a water hole, to a closer shot isolating one elephant from the rest of the herd. Once a family feels at ease with its surroundings and senses no threat, it can stay in one place for an extended period, allowing you to attempt a wide variety of photographs without changing position. Your guide will choose a position that gives you the best and safest proximity--elephants may move slowly, but when angered or threatened they can gather speed quickly and charge with frightening effect.


As with so much wildlife photography, the location and time of day plays an important factor in determining the type of image you attempt. Game drives are nearly always in the morning at sunrise, or late afternoon up to sunset. The yellow orb of the African sun against a tangerine-coloured sky always provokes a burst of exposures, but even better is when that sunset provides the background for a silhouette of an elephant (or elephants) in the foreground. Perhaps even more than the elongated form of the giraffe, elephants make the ultimate silhouetted subject against the setting sun.

Being herbivores, elephants pose little threat to other wildlife, so the chance of encountering other well-known species in proximity to these giants is very likely. Antelope, zebra, giraffe, warthog and impala will comfortably share a water hole with elephants, but the 'king of beasts', the lion, is a different proposition. It is not unknown for a pride of lions to isolate an elephant from the herd, but such attacks are rare and usually only when other prey is scarce. Both animals do sometimes drink together but they nearly always keep a respectful distance, so the chances of a photograph showing both in the same frame are slim. …

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