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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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.

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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.

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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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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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The individuals within a family group exhibit a great deal of social contact, from tussles to romps. It’s this interaction that makes them particularly appealing subjects for photo illustration. The wet season, with its flush of nutritious vegetables, provides more energy for play. Conversely, thirsty and weary elephants can be rather poor photo subjects. An 800mm lens helps the photographer observe from a substantial distance.

However good your lodge is, if you leave the lodge and encounter 20 mini-buses, there goes your five-star experience. Or you pay $500 to $700 per night to be away from mini-buses where private farmers give you a different experience, but then the ranches are artificial in another fenced-in sense.

On Photography Before Technology
Ammann: I shoot digital and film. In some ways, I find it more rewarding to sit back and wait for the results from film—the old-fashioned pulling the slides out of the boxes and putting them in sleeves and getting excited. All the labs in Kenya are shut down, so I have to develop in Switzerland. This sitting in the lodge in the evening and editing images on a computer takes something out of photography for me. You know the shot in your head, then you wait to take the slide out of the box and see if your expectations have been met; sometimes you’re pleasantly surprised, but most often you’re disappointed. With digital that doesn’t happen. I get worried when I hear about a National Geographic feature where 100,000 photos were taken and 16 are used. Without digital, there’s a cost factor; 100,000 shots on film represent serious money, so film tends to slow down the process in the field.

Beyond that, I feel safe with my slides in sheets on my bookshelf. Living in Africa with computers, things can still go very wrong. Photography to me is being out in the bush, not being behind a computer. The computer is work, the bush is pleasure.

On Appreciating The Subject
Ammann: I don’t think you can cover a subject well without intuitions and feelings that come out of experience. The more time you spend with any of the species, the easier it becomes to predict behavior and the more likely you’re there when the shot happens. Everybody can take portraits, but to go beyond that you have to have patience and you have to anticipate. I still miss a lot.

Overall, I like to spend time with elephants. Photography is just a justification to do it. If I get an unusual shot, it’s rewarding as a photographer and it might turn into a financial justification, but the original motive is to have fun in the bush. I don’t envy photographers who can’t afford to have that attitude, whose results are directly related to their livelihood.

To see more of Karl Ammann’s photography, visit www.karlammann.com.

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