Haunted by a photograph


756 - blog


I came across a photograph recently that, every time I see it, causes an involuntary intake of breath, followed by a silent ‘wow!’. The first time it happened was twenty five years ago when I came across Peter Beard’s extraordinary ‘756’, a photograph of a huge number of elephants on the move – a ‘super-herd’. For me, it is one of those iconic images that after you have seen it, life never seems quite the same again – like Nick Ut’s photograph in Vietnam of Kim Phúk running naked down the road, to escape from burning napalm.

What drew me to ‘756’ was the ‘big picture’ it depicted – East Africa at its wildest and finest. A glimpse back into the Pleistocene … when huge herds of mammals roamed the land. I loved that I couldn’t see where the herd ended – how that is left to the viewer’s imagination. I wondered if I was alone in my reaction, perhaps my ‘over’-reaction to ‘756’, but whenever I’ve shown it to others, the response has always been the same – the acronym OMG, followed by, “that’s amazing!”

The experience was bittersweet though – for at the same time ‘756’  illustrated what had, so recently, been lost. We’d arrived in East Africa little more than a decade after the photograph was taken. In the time that elephants have existed, a decade is merely an eye-blink – but I knew we would never see elephants in those numbers. It made me feel very sad.


On seeing the image again recently, there was something about it that slightly disturbed me. I couldn’t tell what it was. Possibly, my perspective had changed. We now live in Tsavo. We are much more sensitized to elephants. We fly over the same waterholes and shake the same red dust from our sandals, as Beard did in the 70’s.

When we fly over Tsavo, we see nothing like ‘756’. Over the last few years, we have flown over tens of thousands of elephants, sometimes in large herds, but they’ve never had that ‘feel’ about them.

At first glance, ‘756’ was just as I remembered – hundreds of huge animals on a grand African canvas. Beautiful, epic and historic.

The closer I looked though, the more intrigued I became.

I’ve always assumed ‘756’ is an aerial photograph, but the elephants in it don’t appear to be reacting to a plane. Normally, if you fly above elephants like that, at least a few will turn around to see what the noise is. If none are reacting, it suggests that something else is more important.

We’ve seen herds of up to five hundred from the air, but they have always been much more spread out, with less sense of direction – less feeling of intent. There is something deliberate about the elephants’ movement in Beard’s remarkable image. It almost feels as if they are migrating. Swap elephant for wildebeest, and it could be Serengeti’s ‘Great Migration’.

Migrating elephants though, tend to follow traditional routes, along well-worn paths, ‘elephant paths’ – some of which are more like highways – parallel lanes, centuries old and worn deep into the soil. There are none in the photograph.

Whenever we’ve seen elephants congregate, it’s always been in the wet season, when food is abundant and the habitat can support a higher density of animals. It is when female herds come together into clans, and bulls join them – searching for any cows that might be in oestrus.

The herd in ‘756’ has none of the feel of those aggregations, when elephants tend to meander, on a broad front, feeding as they go. When a mating occurs, elephants nearby rush around in excitement. From the air it looks like little pockets of chaos, that form one moment, and disappear the next. In the photograph, there is none of this. There is no interaction – just a feeling of intent.


When I looked closely, many of the elephants seem to have rounded foreheads, characteristic of bulls. It would be tempting to think it is a bull herd – but extraordinary if it was. Bull herds rarely number more than fifty in Tsavo. In the time we’ve been here, we have never seen more than thirty bulls together.

I started looking for females. The easiest way to tell a cow from the air, is if she is trailed by a calf. They almost always are, especially if they are on the move.

Most cows we see, have at least one calf in tow, sometimes two. It struck me then, just how few calves there are in ‘756’.

These days, the threat of poaching is never far from our minds. Many large mammals tend to bunch up if they feel threatened. We’ve seen huge pods of hundreds of hippos, huddled together in the middle of a lake – for protection against poachers. Within the structure of a family, elephants will do the same. Cows form a protective cluster around their calves – a circle of protection, like a Boer ‘laager’, facing out towards danger. I wondered if this enormous herd had been fleeing from poachers, bunched together for protection – it would be horrifying if it had.

Poaching wouldn’t explain the lack of calves though, for poachers prefer to target bulls – they carry the largest and most valuable tusks. If poaching was the cause there should be fewer bulls.

What possible reason could there be for so few calves? It seemed that the lack of calves held the clue to the mystery.  Today, calves make up to a quarter of the individuals in every herd we see.

Perhaps the lack of them explained my sense of unease that the image provoked.


Sitting outside the tent that evening in the pink after-glow of a scorching day, I watched a male red-billed hornbill fly past with the last insect of the day for his family. It’s his second brood in just three months – every day he has to catch enough insects for himself, his mate and three chicks. The only other time I’ve heard of hornbills raising families back-to-back, was in the early sixties when prolonged rains followed a severe drought.




Seven letters that make a full stop of a word – a word that brought images flooding back. I remembered the drought we’d witnessed in Amboseli, in 2009, on the first shoot we’d done for our current film. Three years of very poor rains that had produced the worst drought for decades.

As one dry month followed another, a slow-motion tragedy unfolded. As the vegetation was grazed down to dust, wildebeest and zebra starved – and then died in their thousands. Elephant families stood listless; their trunks drooped on the ground; they chewed on dead wood and thorns; the calves became thinner and weaker. They were the first to die. They were terrible times.

Could drought possibly explain the make-up of the herd in ‘756’?

Without access to Peter’s book,’The End of the Game’, all I knew was that he’d had taken the picture in the mid ‘70s, in the greater Tsavo ecosystem.


I turned to elephant researcher, Barbara McKnight, who has been monitoring Tsavo’s elephants for decades. I didn’t have to look far, as her website page on the history of Tsavo (http://www.tsavoelephants.org/history) states:

In the late 1960s, there were approximately 35,000 elephants in the Tsavo region. This population has suffered two population crashes

The first was the drought in the early 1970s when an estimated 6,000 individuals died and over the next 4 years, with low rainfall and lack of vegetation, weakened females and young elephants died.”


I looked at ‘756’ again, and estimated it contained between four and five hundred elephants – of which only a handful were calves. There should have been over a hundred. The full horror of what I was looking at slowly sank in. This wasn’t a photograph of good times when food was abundant, it was a photograph of terrible times, when elephants were starving and most of their calves had died.


For years, that photograph has haunted me. I am still haunted by it, but for an entirely different reason.

I had been devastated at the thought that we’d never see that scene again.  I know now, that I would be devastated if we did.


© Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Deeble and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.





About Mark Deeble

A wildlife filmmaker in Kenya. My home is in Cornwall. My heart is in Africa. I have a tent in Tsavo. I share it all with Vicky. We are working with an amazing team, making a wildlife feature film - www.facebook.com/theelephantmovie
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25 Responses to Haunted by a photograph

  1. Oran Isin says:

    What a post!
    Peter Beard and the collection ‘The End of The Game’ itself is photographically enchanting, harrowing, unflinching and above all bound to the mind of those who glimpse the magic. Many of his images offer this ‘time travellers window’ into nature’s once expansive roots. Yet we are left wondering how the land, and all the beasts, bugs and bushes that come with it, has so quickly been prized from it’s embrace.
    ‘756’ has always remained in my mind too, yet now I realise how incredibly and also worryingly it sums this all up. And to now know how this occurrence came to be in such desperate circumstances confuses the matter further.
    Thank you for the knowledge. Hope all is well and good out there.

    • Mark Deeble says:

      Thanks Oran – we are all well, but scattered. Kenya is fine, despite what the UK press sometimes likes to report. Sadly, on Saturday, we had a bull elephant poached very close to us – it seems the poachers are becoming increasing brazen. All the best from us both.

  2. What a fantastic post. The plight of the wildlife in Africa is a cause dear to my heart, coming from Zim. Thank you for this.

  3. gill McCulloch says:

    What a magnificent photo but so heart wrenching upon reading the blog. Please God this will never happen again and so wish man had been able to do something to halt the carnage caused by the drought!
    Africa the magnificent but oh so cruel at times.
    Thank you for this. I have lived in Botswana, Swaziland, Zimbabwe,,Namibia and now South Africa and have experienced many wonderful breathtaking moments in the bush, long may it continue and we all need to fight to sustain our wonderful continent and all of its inhabitants.

  4. Pingback: Haunted by a photograph | THE NIN

  5. Pingback: Cazado por una fotografía

  6. Michele Hall says:

    Thank you for this post, Mark, and for your valuable insight.

    I thought if it again when I read the last paragraphs in Thomas Friedman’s article in the NYTimes: http://nyti.ms/1nIlnjL
    “As I’ve noted before, when we were growing up “later” meant that you could paint the same landscape, see the same animals, climb the same trees, fish the same rivers, visit the same Antarctica, enjoy the same weather or rescue the same endangered species that you did when you were a kid — but just later, whenever you got around to it. Not anymore. Later is now when you won’t be able to do any of them ever again. So whatever you’re planning to save, please save it now. Because later is when they’ll be gone. Later will be too late.

    Later — like private, local and average — is over.”

    “Later” will is certainly different… I’m grateful for having seen what I’ve seen, including yours and Vicky’s films that document “Before.”

  7. Mark Deeble says:

    Michele – what we do and what you and Howard do (so beautifully), are snap shots in time – showing it ‘how it was’ at the instant we did it. It haunts me that future generations won’t experience the same, and I despair sometimes that many people appear not to want to. One of my personal ‘wake-up’ moments was when you and Howard described how few blue sharks you now see off San Diego these days, compared to the 70’s and 80’s. We are losing what we took for granted so fast that it may well be gone before most of us care to notice. I find that frightening. Keep up the good work – it is reassuring to know that you are out there doing it!

  8. Michele Hall says:

    Thank you, Mark.
    Over the last 12 – 14 years or so, as our cameras have become capable of capturing images in increasingly higher resolutions, we’ve revisited locations and subjects in the hopes of upgrading the quality of the stock footage in our library. First we wanted to go beyond imagery captured in 16mm film with HD cameras, and of course now we’ve moved to 4K and 5K capture. Sadly, many of the subjects just are no longer around. The good news is that we’re seeing more of some animals, such as Black Sea Bass and Seven Gill Sharks off our coast (San Diego).

    Shifting Baselines: http://www.shiftingbaselines.org/

  9. Reblogged this on The wildLIFE Project and commented:
    a compelling essay based on a wonderful old photo.

  10. AfricaInside says:

    Very interesting post. And what a photo. At first I thought you were going to say that they were all moving together calmly because there was nothing to fear. Now when a plan flies over them the herds run and scatter probably from their memories of poaching. But when you added the lack of babies to the story I could not figure it out.
    Drought. Horrible to witness what it does to nature but I also know it can be one of the ways mother earth keeps things in check. We are going through it in California on a grand scale and about to enter fire season. Lori from AfricaInside.org

  11. AfricaInside says:

    I met your Tsavo neighbor, Simon Trevor, recently. Interviewing him for a book I am working on.
    Lori from AfricaInside.org

  12. Rune Erdal says:

    Thank you for sharing this remarkable story, even though disturbing. Or haunting, as you say.

  13. S.Lechonitis says:

    Dear SirsJust read the very sad Story of Satao.I cannot understand why the authorities dont provide more protection for These endagered animals?I have no words.For this tragic death of Satao.I hope he did not suffered.These Killers should be captured and put behind bars for ever.Sad day.Solon Lechonitis

  14. Calvin says:

    Mark, this photo was taken by peter when he was our long stay guest at cottars camp in Tsavo East in the early 70’s. It was taken at the time of the great drought, and in the middle of the furor over what to do with an elephant population that was essentially compressed and crashing from resource stress..this was the time that the elephants ate all the browse and directly caused the death from starvation of up to 7000 rhino and countless other browsers such as lesser kudu and giraffe… Adjascent to the park thousands of people dying from starvation also. I remember the smell of rotting elephant when flying in a plane at 500 feet. The point of peters book ‘end of the game ‘ was in fact to show that the majority of elephant deaths in Tsavo during that time was from starvation and poor range management (i.e. let nature take its course) and NOT from poaching (there was poaching of elephant but it accounted for relatively few elephant deaths at that particular time) which is what the Warden David Sheldrick’s primary explanation was for the crash at the time, and there were raging debates and arguments between David and the scientific community about what course of action should be taken to resolve the situation..Peter and scientists of the time have since been proven right and Tsavo has never come anywhere close to recovering its former elephant population because much of Tsavo remains open grassland…it all points to the fact that when areas are closed by humans or fences, megafauna within need to be managed and not be left to increase population to the point that they crash at the cost of all the best food and vegetation..Tsavo lost much biodiversity during this sad period.. I was there and it was one of the reasons we left Tsavo. .

    • Mark Deeble says:

      Calvin – thanks for the insight and first hand experience. The point I was trying to make is exactly as you suggest – the extraordinary aggregations at that time were because of drought. My point in writing the article was to take what looks like an extraordinary record of Africa’a megafauna in all its Pleistocene glory (which is what it superficially appears) but to investigate/analyse what the photo tells us and arrive at the conclusion: “The full horror of what I was looking at slowly sank in. This wasn’t a photograph of good times when food was abundant, it was a photograph of terrible times, when elephants were starving and most of their calves had died.”

      I’ve heard from those who were there at the time (we weren’t) that it is likely that it was exacerbated by elephants taking refuge in the park from adjacent areas and that, in this, pressure from poaching likely played a part.
      I think there will always be a debate about whether to actively manage populations or take a more laissez-faire approach. The more that populations become fenced and migration routes obstructed, then the more important that management becomes. In my mind, it makes those areas which still have the space to allow natural cycles to take place, even more important. I think the glory of Tsavo is that it still has space – whether the same natural cycles can occur, only time will tell. The habitat has changed – the loss of the rhinos will likely never be redressed – but we have lost rhinos all over, and I suspect if they hadn’t starved, they would have been poached. We may never see again in Tsavo what it was like then – with climate change, there may never be the succession of grassland to scrub and woodland that might have formerly occurred. I think we liven a world of rapidly shifting baselines – the present elephant population is not that dissimilar from the rhino population at its peak. Only fifty years ago there might have been a rhino in every thicket. Today in Tsavo, you can spend years living there, as we have, driving out every day – and never see a rhino…

      • Calvin says:

        Yup, we are on the same page totally..so heres the catch – the old method of ‘management’ was to crop and cull the population within the confines of the park a la Zimbabwe and Kruger..i am not advocating this unless only as the very last resort; the very first and best option that did not exist in those days and is a the new frontier of conservation is the enlarging of wild habitat through the leasing of land from the communities that own the land, paying them fair val;use (opportunity cost for not doing other land uses), thereby giving value to wildlife and elephants by proxy of land.

        Our experience is that the communities are more than happy to let their land have wildlife on it and tolerate elephants even by this method, and we are increasing the areas under lease by an average of 15% per annum in the mara ecosystem (www.maraconservancies.org). There is no reason this cannot be done around Tsavo.

        The other issue is the reliance of National parks and reserves have on tourism, which informs the government how much they can cut budgets – this year alone KWS got let than 1/3 of its requested budget from the government, leaving most protected areas that dont have tourism (most of the protected areas) without resources and manpower. Keep in mind that these parks and reserves were not created for tourism at all – their sole function is to secure the biodiversity within the protected area, and in my view this should be covered entirely by taxing the wealthy and industrial manufacturing industries that are rich and can afford it ( exactly as Costa Rica does)

        Tourism developments around the country should be situated on land in the greater ecosystems and be required to lease a minimum of land per bed to expand and secure the ecosystems for elephants. I think the tourism industry should be completely reconfigured with this in mind, and that even the facilities inside parks and reserves should be required to contribute to leasing land outside the protected areas..tourism is after all all that we have left to control and influence for the greater good of wildlife; it is immediate, involves large amounts of cash, it is flexible, and can be influenced by moral conditioning and the concept of ‘doing the right thing’.

  15. Mark Deeble says:

    Calvin – I admire what you are doing with the conservancies. I think habitat fragmentation is the greatest threat to biodiversity and, in the GME, you would know better than us, the impact it is having. I think, in an ideal world, conservancies would act as a ‘buffer zone’ where most of the tourist development takes place, taking the pressure off the National Parks.
    Wildlife needs to benefit, in a material sense, those who live alongside it – I know that is what the conservancies do. I think part of the challenge, and this is where film can play a part, is to make wildlife relevant to people who have no contact with it – I think it important to encourage a national pride in wildlife, so that it is appreciated for what it is. That means making wildlife important to children, getting people into parks, having them experience it, and see why tourists pay big money to fly half way around the world to go on safari.
    The ‘elephant in the room’ is the burgeoning human population – both in a national and global sense – putting pressure on finite resources, habitat, water catchment areas, etc – if we don’t address it, we are merely putting a band-aid on something that is about to haemorrhage.

    • Calvin says:

      Hey Mark, again , i agree with what you say in regards population; that it is the elephant in the room. However, what we are finding int he mara is that the normal spread out rural population that is converting land to monocultures are in fact happy to move to villages because all the services are there – just a walk away – and their land is secure. And with their regular lease money they can buy food, housing , education and medicine, and invest in the service, financial and other non land based industries. In fact they join the modern economy instantly, and unlike the past where humans urbanized at the cost of natural biodiversity (to create more space for subsistence farming) this urbanization is from the land remaining available to wildlife. Its truly a miracle, and it needs major publicity. Its a template that can be rolled out massively – but it will require a lot of investment from all quarters; tourism, wildlife conservation philanthropy, and even sustainable consumptive use industries.

      In terms of population, i dont hink numbers alone is an issue – look at the ‘developed ‘ world where populations have saturated and stabilized, and you will see that this is where the most ‘rewilding’ is taking place in the world. Why? Because space is being (sometimes inadvertently) made available for wildlife through the easement payments by government to reduce over-production of food (farming) and the fact that people just dont need or want to be spread out everywhere..the difference in Africa is that governments dont yet have a big enough tax base to pay for easements and nor do they want to stop subsistence farming, so this mechanism has to be from another source, and that is conditional lease payments by wealthy outsiders. There is no contradiction or negativy to this at all as it is a win win for all parties, and especially for wildlife itself.

      The amount it would take to lease /secure 150, 000 sq kms in kenya today to stabilize the remaining wildlife would be approximately $600 million per year which is half of Kenya’s total tourism takings, and not that far off the total that is collected by wildlife NGO’s in the name of wildlife from donors across the world, most of which is being wasted on projects that do not address the core issues but that look good to collect more donations; this is why we continue to lose 4% of our wildlife every year, and why agriculture and fencing off of former wildife habitat is increasing at 8% per year.

      We need the major media houses of the world to spread the message that leasing land at fair value is the only way to keep elephants and other iconic megafauna alive in the future as well as addressing wealth inequality in the world.

      • Mark Deeble says:

        Calvin – that is great what you are finding in the Mara and if it breaks the trend of constant subdivision, fencing, increased human-wildlife conflict, and at the same time enabling even the poorest community member to have an income, it should be publicised and encouraged.
        Even though some of the populations in more developed countries have stabilised, I think there is still the mindset that growth (in a planet of finite resources) is sustainable. Of course it is nonsense and rather than encouraging their populations to grow so there is a increased workforce to provide a larger tax-base to provide care for the elderly, countries and governments should be encouraging lifestyles and outlooks that are truly sustainable. Urbanisation might work in the short term, but ultimately more mouths to feed, means more food, farming etc and that will put increased pressure on land that is presently set-aside for wildlife.
        Re-wilding is great, but it is costly and can it take decades to achieve the reintroduction of apex predators even if the will is there, let alone reach the point where there is a balanced ecosystem. I imagine that most countries where it occurs are still net importers of food – so, in a way, other countries are paying for the privilege. In the UK, the plans to reintroduce wolves in Scotland, has been met with scare-mongering and tabloid headlines, and in many European countries, every time a wolf pack strays over a border their is a public outcry. In Europe we have forgotten what it is like to live with predators and that builds irrational fear – I’d far rather we hadn’t got to the point where re-wilding is necessary, and that is the opportunity that much of Africa still has.

        I totally agree that the leasing / purchase of large tracts of land is the way forward – to sustain biodiversity and maintain migration corridors. In that, the communities have to benefit, as they do in the conservancy model – but that ultimately for that to succeed, and be sustained, we are going to have to curb our own population growth.

      • Thanks Mark and Stephanie, dialogues like this do make a difference..and Mark I absolutely agree with you on population but its not something that can be rationally dealt with by governments or outsiders as it would be seen as xenophobic or worse..and especially so in countries where the majority of the population is in the lower two tiers of the ‘hierarchy of needs’.. which is why urbanization (or’villagization’) is the only way forward to reduce the damaging footprint of man – especially from spread out subsistence farming. Ah well, we must continue to find solutions!

  16. Mark, I posted your piece because I too was haunted by the image that I saw in Peter’s picture and have been searching not knowing who took the image for ages. I was estatic when I came across your article. Although I did not know the reason for the decline in the 70’s of the elephant herds, it still represents what was and never will be again. My post gained interest and I want to thank you and Calvin for your latest dialog in your post. It has given me more insight of what happened and what could happen if all parties can move forward. I hope that many who have commented and shared will read your comments and perhaps take note of what you have said.

  17. Mark Deeble says:

    Thank you Stephanie – and for giving new life to a post that I thought had long gone very quiet! Calvin has huge experience in this field and should be listened to – thank you for giving us the opportunity to have the conversation.

  18. Rob Guest says:

    Great post, thank you – I too was intrigued/captivated by this pic and did a bit of research. Found this article which I found very interesting and informative … https://www.facebook.com/notes/captive-wildlife-watchdog/elephant-herds-are-not-supposed-to-look-like-this-and-other-facts/2477538615802277/

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