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.