Kenya's unforgettable elephants

Amboseli National Park, Kenya -- Elephants are such magnificent creatures. They are always fascinating to photograph. Especially since the logistics involved usually make things even more interesting.

One of my favorites is to accompany a collaring, when conservationists collar an elephant, which helps them gather data on them. They are fitted with a heavy duty collar with a tracking device inside it. The information that’s gathered has really expanded our knowledge of these animals, who in recent years have come under increasing threat, poached for their tusks that are in high demand in Asia.

Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) rangers stand guard around illegal stockpiles of burning elephant tusks, ivory figurines and rhinoceros horns at the Nairobi National Park on April 30, 2016. A stockpile of poached elephant tusks is burned in Nairobi National Park in April, 2016. (AFP / Carl De Souza)

For example, the elephants that roam the Amboseli Park in Kenya were generally assumed to have mostly stayed within the park’s confines. But data from the last collaring have shown that in fact they wander much, much further, as far as the Masai Mara, near the Serengeti, and the Tsavo National Park.

The last time I accompanied a collaring was in 2013 and it was unforgettable. I went with the same group as this year, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, better known as IFAW. At the time, among the target group of elephants they wanted to collar was a juvenile elephant.

To collar one, you go up in a helicopter to look for the animals. Once you’ve identified the one you want, you get as close as possible and tranquilize them. There’s a whole ground team waiting to collar them, take some blood samples and measurements and administer an antidote to revive them.

You have limited time -- 15 minutes -- to do this from the time the tranquilizer dart penetrates their skin. If the animal stays under the influence of the tranquilizer too long, there could be complications, including death. On operations like this, there has to be military precision and speed, there is always someone with a stopwatch, who starts the timer as soon as the dart goes in.

A Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) vet holds a tranquiliser gun as he views wild elephants from a helicopter in Amboseli national park, Kenya on March 14, 2013. (AFP / Carl De Souza)

So on that day, we found our juvenile and shot the dart. He lay down. So far so good. But then the complications started. His mother, who was with him, became agitated. Understandable -- as far as she was concerned, her child has just collapsed. So she began to try and raise him. She tried again and again. It was really heartbreaking.

Meanwhile we’re running against the clock. We had no choice but to drive her away, to give the vets a chance to collar him and, more importantly, administer the antidote in time. Usually you drive the elephant away by bringing the helicopter a bit closer -- they get spooked and leave. But this was a mother with her child. She just wouldn’t leave, she kept trying to raise him.

A wild elephant mother tries to assist her tranquilised juvenile after it was darted by a Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) vet in Amboseli national park, Kenya on March 14, 2013.The mother trying to lift her child. (AFP / Carl De Souza)

At one point we had to get so close, the helicopter was nearly level with her. If I wanted to, I could have stepped onto her back. And still she kept trying and trying. I didn’t realize this at the time, but one of the guys who was watching from the ground said later that at one point she lifted her trunk and it looked like she was going to wrap it around the helicopter skids!

Eventually we managed to drive her away and collar the offspring and revive him in time. They were reunited shortly afterwards. But it was definitely scary. That’s when you thank your stars for the pilots involved in these operations. They are usually super, super professional and what they can do with the chopper is just amazing.

A herd of elephants walk outside the Amboseli National Park on November 2, 2016. (AFP / Carl De Souza)

This time when I went along on the operation we were just looking for two young fit male elephants because IFAW wanted to plot their movements over the Kenyan/Tanzanian border. Usually when IFAW organizes these trips, they invite the photographers of the main news agencies and a few television crews, both local and international. I lucked out because on this trip, only one other agency photographer came along. So I had more free reign.

Workwise, it can be a frustrating thing to shoot. When an elephant goes down on the ground, some people can get over excited and forget the morning’s operational brief, hangers on sometimes gather around, taking selfies. Which is problematic for me, as people’s selfies and rush to post something “cool” on social media are not really of interest to the story that I’m trying to tell. Plus there are other journalists working.

From a technical point of view, you want to show the sheer scale of the elephant, which means having the space to show all the elements, the tusks, the legs, the size of the animal.

Vets collar an elephant after it was darted with a tranquilizer outside Amboseli National Park on November 2, 2016. (AFP / Carl De Souza)

But you want to try and avoid the human traffic crowding around it. I was quite happy in that this time I managed to cut out all the other elements.

An elephant wearing a fitted electronic collar begins to wake up as its tranquilizer is reversed by vets at the Amboseli National Park on November 2, 2016. (AFP / Carl De Souza)

I never tire of photographing them. Because every time is different. You’re looking at different elephants, the scenarios are different, it’s different terrain, light, circumstance.

A ground crew take data and fit a tracking collar to a wild elephant after it was darted by a Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) vet in Amboseli national park, Kenya on March 14, 2013. Collaring in Amboseli in March, 2013. (AFP / Carl De Souza)
Veterinarians and park rangers attend to a sedated elephant outside Amboseli National Park on November 2, 2016.Collaring in Amboseli in November, 2016. (AFP / Carl De Souza)

 

 

It’s fascinating, really. You can shoot it 10 times and you’ll always get different angles, different images. Plus of course being in a helicopter so close to them and flying over beautiful terrain never gets old.

A veterinarian shoots an elephant with a tranquilizer gun from a helicopter outside Amboseli National Park on November 2, 2016. (AFP / Carl De Souza)

They’re really very fascinating animals. They’re very, very smart. They are capable of teaching each other things and working together. I remember some footage that I saw of  elephants who would go to people’s farms and find ways around the electrical fences. They would rip them up so they could go over. The footage showed them working together to do it and has helped conservationists studying human/animal conflict in areas that have been newly developed and were once only the elephant’s habitat.

The thing about them never forgetting? I’ve never witnessed it firsthand. But I may be leaving Africa soon and I know that I won’t forget the moments I had photographing these emblematic creatures.

This blog was written with Yana Dlugy in Paris.

A herd of elephants walk in front of Mount Kilimanjaro in Amboseli National Park on November 3, 2016.  / AFP PHOTO / CARL DE SOUZAA herd of elephants walk in front of Mount Kilimanjaro in Amboseli National Park. (AFP / Carl De Souza)

 

Carl De Souza