“Nobody move!” Nelson, one of the Save The Elephants researchers I’m working with, hisses urgently from the back seat.
Only inches away – so close I can almost touch her – a wild elephant, the matriarch of the Royals family, looms over our vehicle, a four-legged giant, ears pulled forward, head and trunk snaking back and forth.
Her deep earthy rumbles send chills up my spine.
While the rest of her family grazes quietly around her, the dusty red animal fixes
Her powerful tusks gleam brightly in the late afternoon sun like two white daggers and we’re so close I can see the little holes in her ears from where she’s caught them on thorny acacia bushes.
She stops rumbling momentarily, rolls up her trunk and falls silent – a sure sign she’s about to charge.
Normally the elephants of Samburu – a reserve in northern Kenya – are quite trusting and relaxed around the Save The Elephants vehicles but we’ve accidentally come too close to her family and are about to pay the price.
Any minute this enormous elephant could ram our jeep.
I’m too frightened to take my focus off the matriarch in case the flicker of my eyes makes her charge and the palm of my hands are red from where I’ve been digging in my nails.
The elephant’s head is so large she’s blocked out the sunlight. I try to change position in the truck, to move away, but Nelson’s warning rings in my ear.
Any movement – no matter how small – and she could charge, so all I can do is eyeball the largest land mammal on Earth as she stares and stares, ears spread wide like a kite, feet planted firmly on the ground, emitting what sounds like unimpressed short snorts from her curled trunk.
And then, after what seems like the longest Mexican stand-off in history, the matriarch suddenly abandons her show of bravado with a dramatic toss of her head, gives a loud snort, steps sidewards and begins feeding off a bush nearby as though nothing has happened.
I almost pass out with relief…. Welcome to the fascinating, sometimes precarious but vitally important world of Save The Elephants in Samburu – an hour’s flight from Nairobi – where a team of dedicated researchers and rangers are valiantly protecting the world’s dwindling population of African elephants.
I’m staying at Save The Elephant’s tented research camp on the bank of the Ewaso Nyiro river after being invited by the organisation to photograph their work.
As a Kiwi-born, former conservation journalist now working as a wildlife photographer and photojournalist in London, it’s been a lifelong dream to work with Africa’s wildlife.
Founded by elephant expert, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Save The Elephants is dedicated to defending elephants against the ivory trade and to securing them a future in a rapidly changing Africa.
The researchers at Samburu conduct vital research on elephant behaviour and ecology in Africa to provide fresh insight into the life of these intelligent, gentle giants whose lives have been so decimated by poaching.
In Samburu, Save The Elephant’s intricate study of the individual elephants found that of 38 mature bulls that were recorded in the year 2000, only five were still to be found in 2011.
Half of the mature females were also lost over that time, victims of the poaching as well as a severe drought. A quarter of all families were left without experienced females to lead them, leaving the young orphans to fend for themselves. It’s no wonder the matriarch of the Royals defends her herd so aggressively.
“During the poaching crisis of the last eight years we lost many of the eldest, most magnificent elephants from the population we know in Samburu,” says Save The Elephant’s chief executive, Frank Pope.
“It was extremely distressing to see the individuals we know brutally killed, and see the impacts on their families.
“Thankfully it seems we may be through the eye of the storm here in Kenya now, thanks to strong collaborative efforts of the private sector and the government wildlife department.”
In fact, Save The Elephant’s anti-poaching operations and conservation work in Samburu has resulted in such a dramatic drop in the decline of elephants in the past four years, that poaching is now at pre-crisis levels. Meanwhile World Animal Protection is set to release a report about the Asian elephant, assessing the welfare and scale of elephant tourism and exploitation in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, as well as parts of India and Sri Lanka.
Just this month a public petition was launched in the UK and championed by Prince William calling for the government to ban the country’s domestic ivory market. The petition attracted more than 100,000 signatures. Alongside China’s historic decision to ban the ivory trade, this revelation appears to shed a small light at the end of the tunnel for elephant conservation.
But this doesn’t mean Save The Elephants – which relies on funds and donations to carry out its work – can rest on its laurels, especially as catastrophic rates of killing continue in other parts of Africa.
“Now that China has committed to ending the ivory trade, markets are starting to shift across the border into Vietnam and Laos where there is barely any control at all,” says Pope.
“Elephants have been wiped out from vast tracts of the central African forest and the savannahs have lost a third of their population in just a decade. The battle for elephants is far from over.”
And it’s a battle worth fighting for. During my work in Samburu, I discover that elephants are loyal, intelligent, trusting, compassionate, protective and integral to our world.
I photograph baby elephants being gently nudged up muddy banks by the entire herd, matriarchs leading their families cautiously over crocodile-infested rivers and even witness a leopard stalk a baby elephant before being chased away by the matriarch.
I hear heart-breaking stories of entire herds being wiped out by poachers yet uplifting tales of orphaned babies starting new families. I also learn that elephants command and deserve great respect.
I’m shown the smashed up truck at the Save The Elephants research camp that was beaten to a pulp by a frustrated bull elephant in musth, a periodic condition where they experience increased aggression and testosterone levels.
Luckily the two researchers inside escaped unhurt, but the elephant turned over the heavy vehicle as though it were a piece of mere plywood.
Fortunately our encounter with the matriarch is a lot less violent and after her dramatic display, we decide to leave the Royals to their twilight grazing and head back to camp just as the sun is setting.
It’s one of those postcard African sunsets where the land is bathed in a deep red and orange glow.
An aroma of mint from the ‘Toothbrush Tree’ which the elephants have rubbed up against permeates the air and I feel like I’m in paradise.
The next morning I’m due to leave Samburu and it’s hard to stop the tears from flowing. I cry not just because I’m leaving this magical place, but for the uncertain future of the elephant families left behind.
I think about the matriarch who stood so magnificently and terrifyingly close to our vehicle and pray that not only will she have a long and fulfilling elephant life, but one day she’ll no longer have to defend her family against the brutality of mankind.