Feb 18, 2015

An African Impact

African Impact is a volunteer organisation that I have been involved with for a number of years now. On a recent wildlife and landscape photography workshop in KwaZulu-Natal we had a very special encounter with one of the well known old bull elephant. Tori, hailing from Manchester, UK, was especially privileged. She had been waiting most of her young life to see an elephant in the wild and told me she had always avoided zoo's so that her experience wouldn't be tainted. We had been on a few drives and the elephants had left their calling cards but we hadn't been able to find them. Then we did.

We spent some time sitting with three bulls all known to the guides and staff at Thanda and African Impact. An old favourite pulled a huge branch down right next to the vehicle ate for a few mins then walked behind the vehicle. Perhaps it was because he felt we weren't paying him enough attention, but he then walked right up to the vehicle and said "Hello!" in a silent elephant sort of way.

It wasn't dangerous at all as he had been with us for nearly 40 mins before he wondered up to the vehicle but it is not the sort of behaviour one wants to encourage nor condone as continuous close encounters with wild animals blunten the authenticity and capacity for the animal to respond and behave 'naturally'. It is for the same reason that Uganda does not permit physical interaction with habituated gorillas. If they come too close, even if the gorillas are choosing to approach, you'll be firmly but safely moved away by the guides.

Elephant are real gentleman and should be treated as such. Too often (and this is a pet peave of mine) nature is constructed as savage and extreme. Everything is either dodging death in a headlong and unavoidable quest to pass on a genetic package of some sort or is primal-y focused on killing to survive so as to deliver on the same mandate. A sad simplification in my opinion.

In any case the round about purpose of this post is to show how images (and their henchmen - text) can lie to us so spectacularly. As people we tend to feed our egos and there is evidence of this all the time. Almost everyone these days it seems, gets 'charged' by some 'rogue' animal or other. Guides sometimes feed this 'heroic-narrow-escapeism' with angry shouting and diminutive language. What a pity! Often these 'dangerous' encounters are nothing more than a conversation. Elephant saying 'hello - but I'm a little nervous'.

The first picture (below), with the creative blur etc, looks super dangerous, like a full on charge, ears out, the trunk is even rolled up (people who think they know often flag a rolled trunk as evidence that separates a mock from a real charge). Impact certainly seems immanent.

The second picture (below) reveals more of the truth. The 'rushing-elephant-look' (above) is the result of a relatively slow shutter speed and a 'walking head nod' by the elephant. Was the elephant close? For sure. Was it dangerous? Not at all. Encounters like this should be seen for what they are - a privilege. Not a prequel to ensuing triumphant self congratulation. The wild is not out to get us and we are not special when we emerge unscathed. We should be critical of media that suggests otherwise as it is sensational and sad (take a look at the titles of almost any NatGeo Wild or Animal Planet daily line up and you'll see what I mean: here is the names of the top four titles in alphabetical order: Africa's Deadliest; Alpha Dogs; Animal Fight Night and Animals Gone Wild). Lets rather be honest and, like Tori, lets enjoy the privilege.

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