BY JULIE LARSEN MAHER
My assignment is a mammoth one: Go to Kenya and photograph African elephants – a vulnerable species currently losing ground as 35,000 elephants are killed a year.
Entire families of elephants are being slaughtered for their ivory. The global appetite to own trinkets carved from elephant tusks has dealt a crushing blow to these plant-eating pachyderms that roam the forests and savannahs of Africa.
To stop the killing of elephants, and the trafficking of (and demand for) ivory, the Wildlife Conservation Society has launched a campaign called 96 Elephants, named for the number of elephants currently gunned down every day by poachers.
I believe that people want to save what they can see. In my role as WCS staff photographer, it is my goal – and my passion – to take photos of elephants on their home land; photos that show their lives together as families; photos that inspire people to save 96 elephants every day.
During the day and a half of travel to get to Africa, the words of WCS elephant conservationist Fiona Maisels come to me again and again: “We don’t have much time before elephants are gone.”
As the WCS photo and video team arrive in Kenya, we know the time is now to save the largest land mammal on Earth. We have come to photograph and film elephants and share the results with the world through our 96 Elephants campaign.
We make our first stop near a rippling river as the dust of the dry season billows up and settles on our skin. Pointing our cameras to the top of the towering trees lining the river’s banks, we see vervet monkeys peering through the verdant branches like small sentries.
“This is paradise,” I say to myself, hoping the elephants here feel the same.
Suddenly, there he is, big and blonde, standing at the water’s edge. I watch as he cools himself in the fresh water. His light-colored lashes and tail set him apart. He is still near his mother, not yet old enough to be on his own. After a quick shower, he moves on and joins his herd made up of related females and sub-adult males like himself.
At mid-day, we move along bumpy roads to watering holes known as refuges to elephant families. Several of the holes have dried up due to the lack of rain that is normal this time of year.
We push on and spot a scattering of elephants in the bush, using their all-terrain trunks to snap off the most savory of greens. Elephant mothers keep their calves close, so when we see a female of age, we look low and often find her baby, her perfect miniature at about three feet in height, pumping its little legs to keep up.
As we drive further north to find water, we can see (and hear) groups of elephants as they emerge from different routes and converge on the same spot. Calves are kept to the center of the herds to protect them at a moment’s notice.
Lines of elephants break into a trot once they see their source of refreshment, and they enter with a significant splash. All of them thrust their trunks into the water like giant straws, sucking it in and blowing it back to their mouths for a much-needed drink.
Without warning, the same trunks go straight up and become a chorus of trumpets filling the air with greetings to the approaching familiar families as if to say “Come on in, the water’s fine.”
The elephant herds finish by rolling in mucky mud baths that sooth their sensitive skin from sun and insects. The mud will cling until they reach their next oasis (with a little dusting in between.)
I covered a news event a few months before our field trip to Africa where the United States destroyed its six-ton stock of confiscated ivory, crushing it to dust to send a message that the nation will not tolerate this crime against elephants. Other countries have done the same.
I remember the event as I look on the elephant families in front of me. I see toddlers and teenagers with the tiny tusks. I had seen tusks of this size lined up on the pallets to be pulverized at the crush. They outnumbered the larger ones – a sign that poachers are now killing the youngest of elephants. Their ivory is all that remains to be taken.
I leave Africa with over 8,000 photos of elephants and the culture and nature that surround them. Next time I come to this land with its spectacle of wildlife, I am hopeful that great gatherings of elephants will be here to greet me. The photos of those that spent time with me this trip will be part of our 96 Elephants campaign to inspire people to join the herd.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Julie Larsen Maher is the sixth staff photographer appointed by WCS since its founding in 1895. She is also the first woman to hold the position. Julie takes photos at WCS’s five New York-based wildlife parks including the Bronx Zoo, Central Park Zoo, New York Aquarium, Prospect Park Zoo, and Queens Zoo. She also journeys to remote field locations to photograph some of the world’s leading conservationists, and the culture, wildlife, and wild lands that they aim to protect in more than 60 countries. Julie also edits the WCS Wild View blog, which will soon feature assignments for submissions by the public.