How to Watch Elephants

elephant watchingDerek Joubert, who with his wife Beverly filmed “Whispers: An Elephant’s Tale for Disney in Botswana, advises “Buy a good elephant book like Cynthia Moss’s Elephant Memories make up a list of behavioral signals in a tiny notebook, i.e. When the whole herd suddenly stops, it may be an example of their infrasonic communication at work. Also watch for the order from the leader to move on, it’s usually silent (to us).

This way you get involved in the elephants’ lives and have a better sense of being a part of that world. You know how when you go to Spain or France it’s impossible, but if you know a few words of their language, their world opens up? Well it’s the same with the elephant world.”

Joubert also recommends, “Go to the Wilderness camps or some private concession where there are not hordes of tourists. There is a problem in Chobe when tourists get in the way of elephants that need to get down to drink, preferably during the heat of the day, but have to wait until dark. It’s not the best for the environment, the elephants or the wildlife viewing experience. Go private. The elephants will be a little wilder and harder to approach, but it’s a better experience, and probably not a more expensive one at that. But stay in the vehicle! Along the Chobe the elephants seem so tame that it is tempting to get out and go closer. “

The same is true of the elephants of Amboseli, where I once spent Christmas at Cynthia Moss’ research camp. We were sitting around opening our presents when a herd approached, and Cynthia advised us to slowly move to our tents.

The elephants came into our sitting area, and behind the safari chairs one of them found a carpet of grass that had been rolled up and tied with a bow as a present for Cynthia. Perhaps because it was organic, the elephant unfurled it and gave the open carpet close inspection with its trunk.

I didn’t capture a photo of this because I was still shaking after being charged by a young bull. It is said not to run, to stand your ground until the last minute, and then jump to one side or the other. I pivoted into a tent, which would not have protected me had the elephant been an adult, or determined. He was young and just showing off with a mock charge, but I trembled because the threat should never be underestimated.

My friend Lee Lyon was killed in Rwanda by a baby elephant that simply put its knee into her chest when she fell to the ground. A baby elephant can weigh a ton.

Lee Lyon had the courage to go to Africa before I did, and the misfortune to keep shooting film instead of focusing on her own safety. Ironically, Lee was the photography assistant to Dieter Plage for the filming of Oria & Iain Douglas Hamilton’s research on the elephant herds in Manyara. Working as a still photographer Lee captured a charging, ears out portrait of the magnificent adult known as Boadecia, plus an equally stunning photo of Oria, holding Saba within feet of an adult elephant. Lee Lyon, also a pilot, and a beautiful woman, was 29 when she died.

african elephantIn Namibia last year I stayed at the incredible Damaraland tented camp, surrounded by spectacular terrain for photography and hikes, within driving distance of the sand river where desert elephant find green things to eat. To see the world’s largest land mammal thriving in this arid terrain is remarkable, especially considering the individual elephant’s need for huge amounts of vegetation, and water. They actually dig wells in the sand. This lone bull flapped his ears to cool off as he stood in the shade of a camel thorn acacia.

There are at least two safari camps in Africa where you can ride elephant back, Almalinda, with its own spa, in the Matapos Hills, and Abu Camp in Botswana, established by the redoubtable Randy Moore. These are of course trained elephant, some, like the famous Abu, retired actors. The most astonishing performance I’ve seen is a herd swimming, which occurs at Lake Karibu in Zimbabwe, where the man-made lake flooded their ancient migration path. Elephant swim elsewhere; it comes to them quite naturally; after all they’ve got a snorkel.

While there are no elephant herds at Lake Naivasha, a stay at Olerai House is the perfect prelude to an elephant watching safari, partly because guests are often invited for cocktails at the main Sirocco House where the Douglas-Hamiltons make their home. The guest cottages are exclusive, with only seven luxury double bedrooms each with their own bathroom. Olerai House is a two-hour drive from Nairobi, but there is a private airstrip for charter planes from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport, or for that matter, swift transfers on to the Maasai Mara, Samburu, or Amboseli for elephant watching.