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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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Later, Ammann experimented with a piece of the great bull’s tusk to see the reaction from a living family group.
On Finding Wilderness In East Africa
Ammann: If you know the parks well, you know where tourists don’t go, or don’t go at certain times of the day. The drivers like their patterns. After the morning game drive, they like to take their clients back for lunch and then you don’t see them until 4:30 in the evening. I go out in midday. It’s hot; the elephants in Samburu and Amboseli like to cool themselves in the water. They splash around and do all the things that they don’t do later in the day or early in the morning. This is what the tourists miss. For two or three hours, the park is your own. To beat the heat, a family unit of 10 to 15 may stand in the shade under one big tree. You can park within a few meters—so close that one might rub its behinds on your car. After five minutes they settle down and you become part of the family. It’s pretty special. In Samburu, you can identify the trees that are regularly used for those rest periods by the footprints and droppings. Almost every day, there will be a group at lunch time under that tree. They have their bath, their rest, then they move into the hills for browsing. Not much interaction behavior happens after they leave the river area.

In many high-use areas of the parks, off-track driving is no longer permitted, and when that happens, the wilderness experience is gone. If you have to stay on a track, then it becomes a glorified zoo. More cars mean more restrictions, less of what you came to experience. I need the wilderness aspect, the kind of Africa that I knew 20 years ago and I hope still exists. I have a small car that I can handle with one hand and keep the other hand on a camera and lens supported by a window mount. In the Serengeti, for example, they have a policy for allowing off-track driving outside core areas, so tourists have a reason to explore beyond the high-density areas. You can still find that wilderness feeling, but there may be fewer animals.

On Guiding Your Guide
Ammann: The tour drivers manipulate the tourists to a great extent. As a photographer, you might be inclined to say, let’s pack a lunch and stay out all day, but for the driver that’s not very exciting. He puts in a lot more hours and burns a lot more fuel. But if you’re a discriminating tourist who has done your homework, most operators will have to accept that the guy who pays the price calls the tune. When I lived in the Masai Mara, I’d see people miss the [wildebeest] migration by the last few miles that the guides weren’t willing to drive. In one case, the migration was at Keekorok, but the Governor’s [Camp] driver didn’t have the mileage allowance. The tourists had traveled thousands of miles to miss the migration by 20 miles.

On Increasing Tourism
Ammann: In Samburu, several more lodges have been built, which they should not have allowed. If tourism was in full swing, as it was before, the park would be overcrowded. Tourism is money, and where money is to be made, developers will find ways to beat the system. That’s Africa. So in some ways, a moderate decline in tourism is a good thing because it takes the pressure off the parks. As another example, they’re talking about an international airport in the Serengeti, 400 kilometers of tarmac road and triple the bed numbers—everything you don’t want.

On The Intervention Of Man

Ammann: Every year, it becomes harder to find true wilderness. I had an e-mail from Lord [Andrew] Cole asking, What do you know about someone setting up a cheetah farm in the Mara? Sure enough, there are plans afoot to breed cheetahs and sell them internationally. South Africa started it all; they say there’s more wildlife today than ever before, but it’s all on private land. They go to auction and buy an eland and breed it with another eland; they decide the genetic line like bloody cows or sheep. We’ve become evolution. Kenya is now going some of the same way. There are big ranches in Laikipia that are trying to make a living on tourism; if your neighbor has black rhinos, you need them, too. You have to go to Congo or Central Africa to see real wilderness.

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