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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Time For Elephants


A Kenyan resident for nearly 30 years, Karl Ammann has enjoyed a long association with elephants combined with an unparalleled knowledge of the game parks. A wealth of images is the by-product.

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At Samburu, an 80-200mm lens acts as a wide-angle of sorts to include a vulturine guinea fowl in the same frame as a great bull elephant.
Time always has been the most overlooked or underexposed factor in wildlife photography. So much is made out of capturing the peak action or the decisive moment that little lip service is given to the all-important hours of planning, waiting and observing. Swiss photographer Karl Ammann is in the enviable position of having geography on his side. Living on the slopes of Mount Kenya for the past 20 years, he’s a half-day’s drive to Samburu in the north or a brief flight to the Mara in the south. He can make a weekend trip out of what many Americans consider a far-flung, super-expensive, all-too-short vacation of a lifetime. For two years in the early ’80s, his home was a tent in the Mara. Ultimately, he built the first luxury tent camp there and soon after sold it. In the early ’90s, he maintained a personal camp along the Ewaso Nyiro River (Samburu). By 1995, tourism was so depressed in Kenya that he could stay at a fine lodge in Samburu with full meal service for a “local’s rate” of $45 per night—making frequent visits very affordable.

Time hasn’t been kind to the elephants. Everywhere in East Africa, the competition for living space creates heightened tensions between man and elephant. The demand for their ivory has kept pace with globalization and the commensurate market for the precious commodity. More detrimental to the populations of elephants is the fact that the value of their meat surpasses the value of their tusks in Central and West Africa on a local level where it’s often sold at delicacy prices.

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In Amboseli, cattle egrets flock to insects that are disturbed by elephants feeding.
Being in-country gives Ammann the time, connections and confidence to observe elephants in ways that travelers cannot. “The old bull is actually dead now,” he told us, speaking of the photograph of an old patriarch with a broken tusk [page 3]. “I got my car stuck in Amboseli [National Park], and while walking back to the lodge, I came across a large piece of ivory. I had pictures of this same bull from an earlier time and shared them and the ivory piece with Iain Douglas-Hamilton [in Kenya working on the Discovery Channel IMAX film, Africa’s Elephant Kingdom], who compared identifying features, one which he guessed to be an impression from a bullet that had bounced off.”

Ammann surmises that the bull must have lost his tusk in a serious fight. While working as a photographer on the IMAX film, Ammann experimented with the piece of ivory by deliberately placing it on the ground where the herd was predicted to travel. “They obviously recognized it as ivory and stopped to investigate it,” he says. “It was exciting to see them show this level of interest in the artifact.” Such was a tale of incredible serendipity.

Though we’ve had several occasions to visit with Ammann in his adopted country, he was most recently in Los Angeles to receive a Genesis Award from the Humane Society of the United States for his television documentaries on wildlife issues. We talked about elephants and his new book, Elephant Reflections (University of California Press, 2009), where he provided the photography and the environmentally directed Afterword for author Dale Peterson.

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