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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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The tender relationship between mother and calf isn’t easy to document with still photography. In this 300mm sequence, a mother gently uses a hind foot to wake her calf and communicate that it’s time to move on.
On The State Of Elephants In Kenya
Karl Ammann: Kenya and Southern Africa are doing well in the sense that governments are interested in tourism, so the elephants receive a lot of protection. The population is increasing in Kenya and in Southern Africa to the point that there’s now talk about culling, but that’s in stark contrast to what’s happening in all of Central Africa. Anywhere west of Uganda and Tanzania is bushmeat country, and the elephant populations are declining very rapidly. A lot of the ivory trade that you read about is coming from forest elephants in that region up to Gabon and Cameroon.

The elephants are hammered day in and day out, not so much for the ivory, but for the meat. Most people don’t realize that the meat is more valuable than the ivory. In Kenya, there’s some discussion about fertility controls. In the Laikipia District [northern Kenya], almost every week someone gets killed by elephants in conflict areas. The animals need space and the humans need space. Depending on the seasons [wet or dry], elephants require a range that’s much greater than the parks. Today, there’s a push for people to own land independently. When lands are subdivided for private ownership, it’s a big liability for conservation. Buyers want to monetize the land with agriculture, and that’s only going to create more conflict with animals.

Unique to African photography opportunities is the ever-present menagerie of species that are framable in the same space and time. A family of elephants seeks relief from midday heat while exercising right of way over a family of giraffes. Ammann tends to have Samburu to himself during these hours while tourists lunch and the elephants go to water.
On The Universal Fascination With Elephants
Ammann: With elephants, you can interpret the scenes—a mother telling her calf, get up, it’s time to move on, a group bathing, individuals greeting each other. You feel connected to what’s happening. These young males aren’t really fighting [page 3]; this is a friendly tussle.

So you feel like you understand elephants and that perhaps they might understand a bit of what you’re doing out there. So in that sense, elephants are a very satisfying subject to photograph and observe. With elephants, the interaction is almost constant. In commenting on the book, Jane Goodall speaks to this subject, referencing the elephant’s “intelligence, love of family and delight in the good things of life.” As humans, we tend to feel affinity with animals that we deem to be highly intelligent. The simple fact that elephants travel in family groups, exhibiting a lot of touching and tenderness [page 4], automatically endears them to us.

Dionysius (no longer living) was one of Kenya’s largest elephants. Ammann was able to approach to within 30 to 40 meters to make this shot with an 800mm lens.
On Accessibility And Big Targets
Ammann: Elephants are easy to find. Several years ago, I did a book on cheetah, and sometimes I would go for weeks without seeing a cheetah, which was very frustrating. Most of my elephant photography is from the Masai Mara in the early days, from Samburu in the last 15 years and Amboseli for a bit of diversity. In these parks, the elephants are protected and have no fear of cars, so you get close enough to smell them and hear the rumbles of their stomachs. That’s pretty unique even by African standards. In Central Africa, if you see an elephant, he runs or charges—those are the only two reactions. The problem in Kenya is that accessibility attracts more visitors, and the more visitors, the less wild it feels.

On Composition And Wishful Shots

Ammann: What makes East Africa so unique for wildlife viewing and photography is that so many animals can occupy the same general space at the same time. There are so many opportunities for capturing the menagerie of life [pages 1-2]. Photographically, I find that challenging—capturing elephants purposely interacting with other animals. I’ve never photographed a little dik-dik [tiny antelope standing 12 to 16 inches at the shoulder] at the feet of elephants. You feel that it should happen, the elephants walk right past them. I’ve seen baboons a meter from an elephant foot, but a little dik-dik would be the ultimate.

Elephants belong in scenery, but I do take lots of pictures with long lenses, where I pick out interesting patterns and associations. Often, these are the sorts of compositions that are most available to me during periods of poor-quality light. At midday, the light is very stark with a lot of contrast, yet this is when much of the interesting behavior takes place. If I could ask the elephants to bathe in the early morning, it would make for much better lighting, but that’s not the reality. So, I’m often frustrated by the light.

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