The Elephant I Didn't Want to Watch

“There are three things in this world that man never tires of watching: a sunset, the ocean, and elephants.”  – Swami Ramakrishna

As I sat recently with my good friend and photographer Mark Whitley watching the slideshow of elephant images in my last post, he shared the above quote with me. It’s a well known saying in India and we’re not sure who originated it, but Mark sourced it from Swami Ramakrishna, so he’s getting credit.  Regardless who said it, oh how true this rang for me! I could watch elephants endlessly! That probably explains why I assumed everyone else would sit through my slideshow of nothing but elephants. But hold on, those are not zoo postcard shots. I observed the elephants in the wild and made a point to wait – capturing moments of the unexpected: behaviors, relationships, and of course babies – so that I wouldn’t bore my viewer with countless shots of an elephant just standing there.  I understand, a slideshow takes time to watch, and if your attention span is like that of Mark’s, you can instead look at the entire gallery of elephant images on one page here. Take a look now, before you read on.

Later that morning, over coffee, Mark asked me “So what was new, what was the most unusual thing you saw or experienced on your last trip to Kenya?” He was looking for a funny story, I’m usually full of them when I return from an adventure. But this time, the thing that stuck with me, the story to tell, was not funny. Perhaps it was not that unusual either, but it was a first for me. I responded, “I saw an elephant I didn’t want to see. I  saw….a victim of poaching.”

(This story is told in more words than images. The images can be disturbing. However, if you want to see an image, simply click on the highlighted link of the descriptive text)

As we were unloading at the airstrip in Meru National Park and heading toward camp, I noticed a helicopter circling over a nearby area of the park. At first I thought, oh no, this can’t be, helicopter safari tours? No, that can’t be right. Meru is far too remote and off the beaten track. Maybe an emergency medical rescue? But then, why did it look like a long rifle pointing off the front? Were they tracking poachers? Having never been to Meru before, I couldn’t begin to second guess. I happened to be hosting a family with me that had never been even to Africa before, so I ignored the chopper, brought no attention to it, and didn’t ask any questions of our guide. Soon enough, it was gone and forgotten about. Even before we reached the camp. And once we reached camp and settled in, we were in another world, and it felt like we were the only guests in the entirety of Meru National Park. Nothing, no jeeps, no cattle, no tourists, no planes, no helicopters, nothing but wilderness and wildlife as far as the eye could see in any direction. For the entire three days we were there. (That’s why Elsa’s Kopje has won numerous awards as the best safari camp in Africa, and deservedly so). from Elsa’s Kopje, Meru

Our days and nights in Meru stretched long and were well balanced with exciting game drives and relaxing down time. Our guide George, an excellent tracker using sight sound and smell, knew where the animals were and also the best points to photograph them. We came across so many elephants, and so many older males with beautiful long tusks – these seemed to excite George more than anything else. Me too. After reading about the history of poaching problems in Meru nearly wiping out everything in the 80’s, it was so wonderful to see so many species including tusked elephants and horned rhinos populating the park today.

It was our third and final morning at Meru, and we had yet to see any lions. George was excited to get going with news of a lion sighting (by another driver/guide from Elsa’s), and couldn’t wait to take us to see it. Apparently, it was feeding.

We approached the spot and were overcome with a most horrific smell, unlike anything I have ever smelled before. Clearly, something was dead and had been dead for a few days.  As we slowly approached, I could see the lion through the brush, which appeared to be laying near a large boulder and feeding on something. As we neared, I realized it was not a boulder, but a swollen elephant carcass, and the lion was tearing away at it’s leg.

I wanted to look away, to turn away, but I couldn’t.  This is nature, after all.  One animal’s death is another animal’s sustenance, and such is the cycle of life and death in the wild.

We all watched with covered faces, but the thick stench seemed to permeate hands and scarves and blankets and it took all the strength I had not to gag.  We were parked at the rear of the elephant carcass, with a good view of the lion.  I remember pondering the unusual position of the elephant – it had simply fallen to its belly but had not fallen over on to its side. The back end of the elephant was very unpleasant and I made a point not to include it in this first shot I took of the lion feeding on an elephant leg. It was a beautiful blonde male lion, and I even tried to exclude the elephant altogether in appreciation of lion, but it’s hard to hide the fact the the lion is eating an elephant leg. After a few moments, we notice another lion slowly approaching the carcass. It was another male, and because the first male was not bothered, George said they were likely brothers.  Both lions moved to the front end of the elephant. The horrible smell seemed to linger at the rear.

When George noticed my camera in my lap and my blanket on my face, he asked if our view was okay or did we want to move to another position. My immediate reply was “Yes. Upwind.” Laughs of relief broke the solemn silence, allowing us all to catch a breath, and George started up the engine.  I could sense a reluctance on his part, there was hesitation in his eyes.  But he commented that the light would be better from the other side and moved slowly around to where the lions were.

 He was right. The morning light was perfect, casting a gentle glow on the lions and the front of the elephant carcass. Certainly, beautiful light. But not a beautiful subject. What kind of photograph would this make?  It didn’t really matter, all I cared was that I could take a deep breath and observe without needing to hold my nose and wipe my choked up eyes. It was so refreshing I even imagined I was smelling the ocean. Funny how powerful the sense of smell is, even memories get permeated.

So, now we could see the head of the elephant carcass, which George had said was a male. The ears had been nibbled almost completely off – this was the work of hyenas last night.  The trunk was already gone. The first lion was standing in front of the elephant’s face and pulling at the leg, but when he moved, I saw the gaping hole where the trunk had been eaten away. As for the tusks….there weren’t any. Two chiseled craters remained in the flesh below the eyes. But the tusks were gone.

“How did this elephant die?” I asked. George paused a moment before responding. “Old age.”
Nobody questioned it, and nobody questioned the absence of the tusks. Except for me. I was trying desperately to put 2 and 2 together and not come up with 4.  But still, I had to ask.  I didn’t want to embarrass George, but I also wanted him to know that while we might be polite and likely ignorant on the way elephants live and die,  we weren’t completely naive. It was obvious the tusks had been removed.

“So where are the tusks?” I asked.  George explained that they were removed by the Kenya Wildlife Service after the elephant died.  I had a thousand more questions, but this was a satisfactory answer, which also likely explained the helicopter activity I had noticed several days before.  

We observed a while longer, watching the two male lions feed on a dead elephant.  I couldn’t help but think how disgusting that rotting meat must be after days in the hot sun, and this lion’s expression certainly reflected that distaste.

Then, just when we thought this lion had enough, he got up and tore open a huge chunk of skin above the elephant’s back leg. WHAM. The stench flew at us like a ton of bricks.  Cameras dropped, blankets up, and we all had seen, and smelled, enough.  There was no reason to hang around,  neither the light nor the subject matter were going to get any better.  Every direction was downwind, so we agreed unanimously to move on.  I don’t remember how many minutes or miles it was before we spotted something cute and cuddly to redirect our thoughts, but the image of the elephant stayed with me.  Along with a thousand unasked questions.

Next stop, Amboseli, and a morning at the Cynthia Moss Research Station. Bad news in big waves. The human-elephant conflict in the area has worsened. An elephant had just been killed by the local Masai in retaliation against the Kenya Wildlife Service and something that was said, or inferred, or misunderstood, between tribal leaders and the KWS. The background on the continued conflict is explained in this recent National Geographic article: Amboseli’s People & Wildlife.  But the tension in the air, and the obvious devastation of the once-forested Amboseli into it’s current dry barren state ridden with dust devils (partly the result of more elephants than food in the very park meant to protect them), made trying to enjoy and appreciate the newborns in Amboseli a bittersweet experience. Still, I could have lingered for days watching them, despite the chattering of Chinese tourists packed in jeeps also watching them.  I just hope that with the Chinese traveling more, and seeing the (tusked) elephants in the wild, it will leave as much an impression on their psyche as it does my own. But the ivory finger points in all directions, including west.  

Less than a week after the Meru elephant sighting, we were two flights and a world away in the Maasai Mara, or more accurately, the Olderikesi Wildlife Conservancy, an exclusive concession and the location of Cottar’s 1920’s Safari Camp.  Enter our host and guide Calvin Cottar, a fourth generation Kenyan, a silver level guide, and an Honorary Warden for the Kenya Wildlife Service.  Not to mention a straightforward and articulate voice of the realities of life in Kenya, the human-elephant conflict, poaching, working with the Masai, and many other issues. If anyone might be able to shed some insight on the elephant at Meru, he would.

He studied the few photos I had taken.  He agreed that the position of the elephant was odd, and that it was not a usual way that elephants come to fall when they die naturally (or by illness/starvation).  Then he spotted something, and said, “There it is. A clean shot to the head.”  He went on to tell me whom he suspected of taking the shot, and why.  Indeed, the elephant was a victim of poaching.

As with conservation issues in any country, nothing is black and white. Political issues come in to play, and everything is far more complex and complicated than we hear about from outside Kenya. But one thing is undeniable: regardless of the different laws in different countries, poaching is at an all-time high in Africa, and is motivated and driven by money alone.
As long as elephant ivory and rhino horns are valued by wealthier non-African countries, the whole of Africa suffers. When this article came out in the New York Times this week, Elephants Dying in Epic Frenzy,  it prompted me to get writing.  Enough time has passed to digest and objectify this eye-opening experience, and while I don’t have the answers or a solution, I have come to realize what I can do to contribute positively.

*I will continue to promote and encourage wildlife safari travel to African countries. Tourism is a vital and important industry and many African countries depend heavily upon the contribution it makes to their struggling economies.

*I will continue to travel to Africa, to escort small groups on safaris, to observe and respect the wildlife, and to respect and engage with the locals. 

*I will continue to shoot with my camera, capturing and sharing images of elephants and rhinos living in the wild.  And I will continue publishing and sharing them.

Thank you for reading my words.  As always, they come from the heart.  And a special thank you to Mark for sharing the perfect quote, and for asking the right question.


One thought on “The Elephant I Didn't Want to Watch

  1. Kymri, thank you for asking the awkward questions. Travellers have a responsibility to learn from their travel. Too many people are fobbed off with the stories your guide gave you.As for Ivory I wish it was seen as part of a dead animal, not as something worth ten times the annual wage of a Kenyan. What is happening with elephants scares me like crazy. As a species becomes endangered they become an even bigger monetary commodity. Is this is what will happen with sturgeon or even the fish in our oceans?

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