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My favorite elephant in the world.

 

The world’s appetite for ivory has, for years now, been the driving force behind the catastrophic decline in Africa’s elephant population. This problem is well documented and the struggle to stop it has been very public. What has been much less obvious is the accelerated rate at which the battle is being lost. A recently completed census revealed that Africa’s elephant numbers have declined by a full 30% over the past seven years. It seems that conservationists and wildlife lovers are overwhelmed with bad news on an almost daily basis, but this statistic is particularly unsettling. It confirms the possibility that the extinction of the species is, mathematically, not far distant. There are many angles to this tragedy, all of them ugly. There is the unfathomable but pervasive belief in parts of Asia that ivory trinkets are more valuable than elephant lives. There are the corrupt government officials who look the other way, turning a blind eye to the incessant slaughter and reaping enormous financial benefit in so doing. And there is the grinding poverty that forces people to illegal poaching to ensure the survival of their families. The challenges are huge, and there are no simple answers.

 
A couple of months back, there was another elephant story in the news that reflected the plight of the species in microcosm. Big Tim, the great patriarch of the Amboseli game reserve, was struck on the head with a large rock and pierced through the ear with a spear, the tip of which was embedded in his shoulder. Tim worked his way to the headquarters of the Big Life Foundation, a non-profit outfit dedicated to the preservation of elephants in southern Kenya. By all indications he had deliberately sought out humans who could assist him. He was sedated, treated, and up and on his way back to the Amboseli marsh in fairly short order.

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Big Tim in company with an elephant family en route to the marsh. Notice how he towers over everyone else.

Big Tim happens to be my favorite elephant in the world. I’ve been fortunate to spend many hours in his company over the years. He is huge. He is majestic. He is approaching 50 years of age, and his prodigious right tusk almost scrapes the ground with every step. It’s well documented that elephant families are matriarchal and males are expelled from the group when they reach sexual maturity. But Tim is always welcome to travel in company with the ladies and their families. He is unassuming, unpretentious and laid back. A scientist friend recently described him to me as “one cool cat.” Based on personal observation, I’d say that description is impeccable. The only time I’ve seen him even remotely perturbed was for the purpose of disciplining a younger bull who was stirring up a bit of a ruckus. He is the benevolent, slow-moving preserver of the peace at Amboseli. He is known and loved throughout Kenya. His portrait even adorns an entire wall in the baggage collection area at Jomo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi.

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Note the elevated area high on the right flank. This was where Tim was wounded with a poisoned spear.

Prior to this past February, I’d seen Tim most recently in November of 2014. At that time he was moving even more slowly than usual as he recovered from a poisoned spear wound high on his right side. After seeing news articles on this year’s attempt on his life, it occurred to me that the assaults and injuries he’s endured are in many ways emblematic of the attacks on the elephant species writ large. Some examples, like the random list below, are obvious.

 
• There have been multiple attempts on Tim’s life. Like the rest of his kind, his existence is at risk at all times and his enemies are relentless.
• The danger to the Tim and all elephants is exclusively from Homo sapiens. No other species poses a threat to him.
• The risks are particularly egregious where traditional wildlife territories conflict with human settlements. This has been the cause of Tim’s two most serious wounds.
• Elephants are poached for their ivory, and Tim’s tusks are among the biggest in all of Africa. This potentially makes him one of the most valuable targets.

But the most important parallel between Tim and all African elephants is illustrated with precision by his visit to Big Life headquarters just a couple of months ago. Tim had, not for the first time, been severely wounded by human beings. As a sentient creature, he was sufficiently cognizant to seek help from those who could best deliver it.

 

The salient point is this: As humans represent the primary threat to the existence of the species, so do they also represent the only hope for its salvation. It’s that simple. It’s a matter of will and commitment. In light of the disturbing numbers published in the recent census and for the sake of Big Tim and all of Africa’s elephants, I sincerely hope we are up to this most difficult task.

Big Tim of Amboseli ….

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Bull elephant surviving without the business end of his trunk

Bull elephant surviving without the business end of his trunk

My favorite character in the 1997 movie Jurassic Park is the quirky Dr. Ian Malcolm, ably played by the talented Jeff Goldblum.  Dr. Malcolm is a bit of an eccentric, a devoted proponent of some mystical concept he refers to as “chaos theory.”  The good Dr. Malcolm also has the annoying habit of being right just about all the time.  In one of the movie’s most pivotal scenes he is egregiously and presciently accurate.  He rejects Jurassic Park management’s insistent assertion that the dinosaurs they’ve generated are incapable of reproduction.  After a rousing debate on the issue, he solemnly and thoughtfully declares … “life finds a way.”  Discussion ended.

The eminent Dr. Malcolm was referring to life writ large, of course.  But life on the grandest scale cannot “find a way” without isolated incidents of improbable survival.  Life persists and, in fact, thrives in some of the earth’s most inhospitable regions.  In the seething, sulfurous thermals along the ocean floor faults, 700 degree Fahrenheit gas vents into sea water with temperatures barely above freezing.  In that boiling, methane-laced cauldron that never sees even a trace of sunlight, a variety of microbes have adapted and found a way to subsist.  In the most implausible of spots, life has found a way.  Our own remarkable species, much more physiologically complex, has existed for centuries in the icy world of the arctic and in the arid deserts on four separate continents.  We too, have “found a way” in some unlikely places.

From time to time I’m reminded of life’s resilience when I’m in the field taking photographs.  In 2010 I’d just finished a long and productive day in Ngorongoro Crater and was en route back to my lodge when I drove past a bull elephant on a steep hillside on the south rim.    This big guy caught my attention for a couple of reasons.  For starters, elephants don’t much like slopes.  Their great bulk and flat-bottomed feet cause almost insurmountable balance issues on precipitous terrain.  But the young bull seemed very much at his ease on the incline.  The second anomaly was the animal’s trunk, which was visibly and curiously abbreviated.  We stopped the vehicle near him to watch and learn for a bit.   After just a few minutes in the elephant’s presence his predicament became clear. He’d lost the end of his trunk at some point in the distant past.  He was most likely the victim of hyenas at a young age, maybe lions, or perhaps even an unfortunately placed snare.  Regardless, the primary vehicle for delivering food to his mouth was completely inoperable. But the elephant had “found a way.”  By braving the steep slopes he was able to use the elevation differential to his advantage.  With the grass on the hillside at mouth level he could access the bushes and tall grass that would keep him alive.  He was nearly full grown, and judging by his body mass, he was completely healthy.  I think the photo above offers compelling testimony to his will to live.

There was another time.  A couple of years earlier I’d been riding with my friend Chris McBride on the Kafue River in Zambia.  On three successive mornings we’d seen a young male lion stretched out on the riverbank about a mile above Chris’ camp.  He related the story of the animal as we cruised past on the third morning.  The lion was apparently a creature of habit, a daily fixture on that stretch of the Kafue.  Some time ago, – certainly not recently, he’d lost the better part of a back leg to a poacher’s snare.  As the lion hobbled into the forest, Chris’ wife Charlotte told us how she’d come to admire and respect this disadvantaged animal.  She’d reverently named him Triton after the trident wielding messenger of the sea.  Triton’s case was particularly sad.  His maiming was the direct result of human malice.  By some miracle, he was physically healthy, probably having adapted to a life as a scavenger.  On three legs he would never be a hunter.  And although he was magnificent by most any standard, he would never become the patriarch of a pride and live the social existence that seems to be so central to the lives of lions.  But he was alive… and that in and of itself was impressive.

Wildlife photography is, in many ways, the study of life.  Above and beyond the desire to capture images, it is this disproportionate fascination with the creatures of the earth that keeps people like yours truly in a perpetual state of planning and preparation for the next trip.  So I’ll end this with a note of respect for the bizarre character of Dr. Ian Malcolm.   Life does indeed find a way, and the struggles of our fellow creatures must be acknowledged, understood and appreciated.  And yes …. photographed as well.

Male lion on the Kafue

Male lion on the Kafue

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Amboseli bull ... smaller than the one described here

Amboseli bull ... smaller than the one described here

On November 12th, 1955 a “rogue” male elephant in Angola committed a very grievous offense, and for that offense he lost his life. From the tip of his trunk to the extended tip of his tail, he measured 33 feet 2 inches. The circumference of his front feet was 5 feet, 7 inches … his rear feet were 5 feet, two inches. He was estimated to weigh 16,000 pounds. And that was his offense. He was the largest elephant in the world, which meant, of course, that he could not be allowed to live.

His outsized footprints had been discovered by a Hungarian businessman and big game hunter named Jose Fenykovi in 1954. After obsessing over the enormity of the animal for a year, Fenykovi launched an expensive hunting expedition for the sole purpose of finding the great animal. His efforts were completely and painfully successful. He wrote a very proud article about the glorious hunt, which was published in the June 4, 1956, edition of Sports Illustrated magazine. A summation of the key events of that auspicious day is offered below. Warning … they are not for the squeamish or faint of heart.

Fenykovi notes that the elephant was discovered at about 9 am, in company with a smaller, but still enormous partner. He describes the animals as “quite calm” and “lolling under some tall trees.” And why the hell would they not be calm? The huge elephant was probably 60 years old based on the physical description, and had probably never been seriously threatened at any time in his life. Even if he had sensed the presence of the hunters, it’s doubtful that he could have imagined the wrath that was about to descend on him. Then:

“Leaning my arm on the trunk (of a tree) I aimed at the chest of the largest. The bullet from the .416 Rigby raised a dust of dry mud from the skin of the animal, proof of a hit. At once I shot a second bullet in the same place, and I heard the discharge of my other .416, fired by Mario.” — SI, 4 June 1956

The bewildered animals then apparently fled into a forest, but not before Fenykovi and his companion “put two bullets into the smaller one.” Fenykovi described the ease of tracking the elephant by following the constant gush of blood from his trunk, “a sure sign that I had got him through the lungs.” The war party trailed the wounded animals by jeep through the disproportionate Angolan heat for several hours and spotted them again in the late afternoon. At about 6 pm the majestic animal was finally destroyed in a gruesome carnage of dust and blood. According to Fenykovi, at least 16 heavy caliber rounds were pumped into the animal before his suffering ended.

And how unbearable that suffering must have been. According to the article, the first salvo was launched at about 9 am. Despite the punctured lungs and the blood filled air passage, the elephant was able to flee through the heat and dust for about nine more hours before he was again located and administered the coup de grace. No mention was made of the smaller companion elephant except that he’d earlier veered off from his partner and fled in a different direction. I suspect that after the confirmed death of the giant, the smaller, critically wounded animal was deemed unworthy of further pursuit. One can only imagine his slow and agonizing end, certainly a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time … and in company with the wrong friend.

Being the good and generous soul that he was, Fenykovi determined that his prize should be placed on display in a large museum. And indeed that’s what happened. The remains of the animal are now the centerpiece of the rotunda display in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. It is impressive. The animal alone is phenomenal, but his placement on an elevated foundation makes him all the more prominent. His posture is slightly threatening, with tail up in alarm, trunk extended and ears flared. If memory serves, there is a placard on the display that names the hunter and the country that was home to the animal.

The link to the Smithsonian page below describes the elephant as “rogue.” But what exactly does this mean?

http://www.mnh.si.edu/onehundredyears/featured_objects/Fenykovi_elephant.html

To me it implies a problem elephant … an ill-tempered marauder who damages homes and crops, or kills and injures humans. But in all my reading on the internet, I found no evidence that this enormous animal had ever fit that description or fallen into that category. Fenykovi described the location of the hunt as remote, where no man had visited before or since … so how could he have been a problem for homo sapiens? He was also apparently socially peaceful, as further evidenced by the Fenykovi article. “Problem” or “rogue” elephants aren’t the type who “loll” calmly with other large males. They are enraged, testosterone inflated fighting machines who take on any and all comers.

So what’s the point? The animal is already dead, and I think most informed people would describe the current purpose of his carcass as “educational.” I have no real problem with that. But in light of the escalation in elephant poaching in Africa and the inordinate pressure on wildlife and habitat everywhere, couldn’t we educate a little further? As part of the display maybe an additional placard or two could be mounted … one with a brief description of the current poaching problem and another with a dispassionate analysis of how the great elephant was destroyed, and what the last few hours of his life must have been like.

I’ve admired the formidable Fenykovi elephant in the Smithsonian many times over the years. He is the first object seen upon entry, an imposing welcoming committee of one to what is surely one of the world’s great museums. I’ve often wondered about the series of events that delivered him to the rotunda, and now I’m almost sorry I took the time to look into it. It is a pitiful story indeed, and my view of him will be much more somber and respectful when I visit again. In fairness to this magnificent animal, I think his story should be shared in greater detail.

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Bob Parsons, Mack Daddy of the web hosting company Go Daddy, recently generated a bit of a firestorm when he posted a video clip of himself executing a “musth bull problem elephant” in Zimbabwe. According to Parsons, the elephant was destroying crops, and the farmers were in desperate need of his assistance. Apparently, this is the second year in succession that Parsons has visited Africa to “help” the agrarian community in this way.

There are instances — more each day, sadly – when elephant and human contact results in tragedy in one direction or the other. I won’t pass judgment on the abjectly poor farmers who depend on their crops for their livelihood and survival. But I don’t mind passing a little judgment on Parsons. In the spirit of good will and friendship I offer him the following hints.

Notes to Bob:

– Don’t cast yourself as heroic. You’re precisely the opposite of that. There’s no glory whatsoever in killing an elephant. Hell, anyone who can lift a weapon could do it. You were well-armed … the elephant just wanted to eat. There may be people in this world who are ignorant enough to be impressed by what you did, but I doubt that anyone who’s reading this post would be among that number.

– Don’t claim that your motive for the destruction of the animal was in any way altruistic. You did not travel all the way to Zim at great personal expense to “help” anybody. If you actually wanted to benefit humanity there are quite literally countless ways to do this that don’t involve firearms. The fact is, nobody … I mean NOBODY … believes that your purpose and intent was to rid the farmers of a menace to their crops. The reality is … you wanted very badly to kill an elephant, so that’s what you did. To frame it any other way is a flat out lie.

– Be honest about what you shot. This is a cautionary admonition, because there’s just a little room for doubt about the gender of your “Bull” elephant. Based on the video you very generously shared with us, it’s doubtful that there’s enough physically remaining of the animal to ascertain its sex with 100% accuracy. But elephant researcher Joyce Poole has examined your video and stills, and she deems it highly likely that your “Bull” was a young female. I have considerably more faith in her best guess than I do in your integrity.

– If you want to perform an act that’s simultaneously destructive, dishonest, selfish and mindless, I recommend very strongly that you don’t videotape it and then post it for display like a badge of honor. Only a jackass would do that.

I’m always ready to help, Bob. If you’re ever again in need of my mentorship and guidance, by all means let me know.

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Male cheetah at Samburu in the last light of the day

Male cheetah at Samburu in the last light of the day

The tones of the African landscape become increasingly muted as the road stretches north from Nairobi, and the mid-day sky loses much of its deep blue color … transitioning to a featureless expanse of white with not a cloud to be seen. This desolate region is the periphery of a desert that extends from Kenya through the Sudan and beyond, eventually becoming the great Sahara as it progresses into Egypt. The land is for the most part flat, with a few rolling hills and an occasional wadi to interrupt the monotony. There are low, free standing mountains in the distance … many of them are derelict volcanoes, extinct now for many millenia.

We are headed for the Samburu game reserve in north central Kenya … a place I’ve wanted to visit for many years.  As we draw closer to our destination (my friend and fellow photographer Kevin W. has joined me for this trip), our superb guide, David Muteti, warns us that Somali outlaws have made incursions as far south as our present location. David makes no attempt to hide his animosity toward these thieves. His hard feelings are well founded. Not too many years ago he was robbed of his possessions in this area as completely as a man can be … left stranded in the desert with nothing … not even a stitch of clothes. We note his warning but don’t dwell on it … the impulse to photograph Samburu’s wildlife supersedes every other consideration.

Samburu is much as I imagined it, dry with a few hardy but leafless trees and ancient volcanic rocks strewn across the sand. There are patches of green along the banks of the single spring-fed rivulet that winds through the reserve, and a wide, shallow riverbed cuts through the heart of the landscape. Water flows in it during the wet months, but this is September – the middle of the dry season – and it is bone dry. Our lodge is situated near its banks, in a low area that seems to collect sufficient year round moisture to generate a mini-oasis. The lovely grounds attract some gorgeous birds, a variety of monkeys and a small family of Africa’s most underrated animal, the warthog. We are assigned a room with a small verandah looking out towards the very dry Samburu riverbed.

Alpha male baboon just, taken from the porch of our room at Samburu

Alpha male baboon, taken from the porch of our room at Samburu

On our first morning game drive, we find that Samburu is home to a large and exceedingly active population of baboons. It may be my imagination, but I somehow sense that these baboons are a bit more ill-tempered than most I’ve encountered. A review of my images seems to confirm the impression … their facial expressions are often downright malevolent, and their actions border on the “cheeky,” as our friends from across the great pond might say. A group of them, including an outsized alpha male, hovers near the porch of our cabin with eyes glued on the door, clearly waiting for an opportunity to enter our quarters and ransack our belongings. Another troop spends its mornings in the streambed that curls around the perimeter of the lodge grounds. On an early drive we stop to photograph them. I lock focus on a particularly bellicose looking pair when the viewfinder in my camera goes completely dark. I lift my eyes to find a young female perched on the roof of our vehicle, just inches from the business end of my lens. She grunts loudly, takes an impressive crap and raucously leaps onto the pop-top that provides our shade … and she does it all with attitude, noise and the utmost disrespect.

Samburu baboons just prior to visiting our vehicle

Samburu baboons just prior to visiting our vehicle

The larger animals at Samburu are less entertaining but perhaps a bit more peaceful. The elephants are numerous, many more than one might expect given the scarcity of vegetation. They routinely make late day visits to the dry Samburu riverbed and dig into the sand with their tusks to extract residual water from the earth. Their families are much smaller here than the vast herds at Amboseli or in the Maasai Mara. Large groups require abundant and concentrated food sources, which do not exist here. Reduced family size is a necessity at Samburu, and elephants here have done what elephants do well anywhere … adapt.

Solitary elephant reaching for acacia branches

Solitary elephant reaching for acacia branches

Many of the “hoofers” found at Samburu are common in east Africa. These include the ubiquitous impala, the waterbuck and the elegant and graceful Grant’s gazelle. But there are other, less ordinary antelope here at the desert’s edge. The oddly shaped beisa oryx is a routine sight … thick bodied with spindly legs that appear too frail to support the animal’s girth. But somehow, magically, the oryx not only remains upright, it is actually nimble and fairly adept at evading lions. The oddest of Samburu’s hoofers, however, is the gerenuk. This antelope is very similar in appearance to an impala. The body colors and shape are a close match, but the gerenuk’s elongated head makes it distinctive. It is also unique among antelopes in its behavior … it stands on its rear legs and stretches high into the acacias to feed on the leaves and branches.

Typical gerenuk behavior, standing upright to reach dinner

Typical gerenuk behavior, standing upright to reach dinner

Grant's gazelle ... one of my favorite antelopes

Grant's gazelle ... one of my favorite antelopes

The glorious reticulated giraffe, the most beautiful of all sub-species and completely unique to this region, actually seems to thrive here. On several occasions we see adult males “necking,” a term that assumes an entirely different meaning for giraffes than for humans. Necking males are in competition for mating rights … they stand hoof to hoof for hours, pounding at each other with their upper bodies. It is a violent and dangerous business that occasionally inflicts serious or even fatal damage. One of the goals of this trip is to capture quality giraffe images, particularly of young ones. In this effort we can declare success within the first two days of the trip. We photograph an adolescent with two necking males in the background, and we’re very fortunate to see a young one sitting under a tree near its mother, posing for us with great patience and tolerance.

Young giraffe ... adult males "necking" in the background

Young giraffe ... adult males "necking" in the background

Baby reticulated giraffe ... note the tile-like design as opposed to the patches seen on the more common species

Baby reticulated giraffe ... note the tile-like design as opposed to the patches seen on the more common species

Young reticulated giraffe hiding behind Mom's flanks

Young reticulated giraffe hiding behind Mom's flanks

There are rumors of leopard, but we never see them. Shy and mostly nocturnal, a good leopard sighting is always the safari holy grail. We will see them later on this trip in the Mara but not here. We do find a pair of male cheetahs late in the day in the warm evening light … one sits quietly under a bush staring towards the dying sun, allowing an impeccable opportunity to put the new 600mm lens to the test. As always in Kenya, the lions are plentiful. We find them here resting in the shade, crouching in the grass and on one bright morning, pursuing a large female buffalo. By the time we arrive on the scene the conflict is winding down. The buffalo has successfully fended off four lions … a lioness and three sub-adults, obviously her offspring. The lions eventually give up the fight, but long claw marks have left bloody streaks on the buffalo’s flanks. As the sun rises and the morning wears on, the hunters and hunted cease staring hatefully at each other and drift apart.

Samburu cheetah .... obviously a male

Samburu cheetah .... obviously a male

Young female Cape Buffalo ... a formidable opponent, she survived this lion attack

Young female Cape Buffalo ... a formidable opponent, she survived this lion attack

The most prominent impression of Samburu is simple astonishment that such a large number and wide variety of animals can survive in the harsh, dry environment. With the exception of the rowdy baboon troops, they do seem to move more listlessly here than in other reserves. I suspect that they are generally in the energy conservation mode and will only exert themselves in pursuit of food or evading a predator. That aside, they are healthy, beautiful and thriving, and seem to have adapted successfully to a hot and arid existence. I’m reminded of Jeff Goldblum’s comment in the first Jurassic Park … “life finds a way.”

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