Seeing an elephant in the wild for the first time

An African elephant prepares to take another bite of leaves, in Maasai Mara, Kenya.

For many, our relationship with these vulnerable giants begins as a child. Whether it’s a fleeting glimpse of an elephant at a zoo, or an introduction to the species though nature documentaries, it’s hard not to be mesmerised by these giants of the African Savannah. But nothing, yet nothing compares to your first sighting of an elephant in the wild. It’s an experience guaranteed to catapult you back to childhood, to an age when adults towered over you and elephants were the largest giants to roam the planet. A time when you perceived elephants to be so large that you’d have to crane your neck to glimpse the sky above their bulk.

So dominant, so overwhelming. You’ll struggle to take a breath the first time a wild elephant walks by. Rooted to the spot you’ll want to reach out, overwhelmed yet unafraid of the magnamity that is this wild beast. You’ll notice details you never have before. The long, seductive eyelashes, slowly fluttering to protect the tiniest of eyes. The whiskers protruding from the mouth, drawing further attention to the stature and age of the matriarch. The minimalist tail, naked but for a few tatty end hairs which the young cling onto.

As the elephant ambles by, you’ll notice the plodding nature of the giant feet and your attention will be drawn to the footprints left behind in the sand, their size somewhat  magnified as the youngest of the herd gingerly follow in the elders’ footsteps. It’s almost hard to spot the smallest among the herd. So protective, so loving, the elder females will encourage the young to walk in the centre, ever mindful of potential dangers yet seemingly oblivious to the risks of such small and fragile frames underfoot. Morphing between giddy with excitement and shy and retiring, each elephant calf will transform before your very eyes as they gain confidence with each step and they explore new landscapes.

The trust that these young have in their elders is evidence in their body language, their cries and their gazes. Reaching up to the sky with what little strength and trunk control they have, the youngest fondly caress the trunk and mouth of stooping elders. With delightful squeals and a skip underfoot, they exhibit a freedom and a soul that’s seemingly untouched and unrivalled by humans.

(This is an extract from our photobook ‘Vulnerable Giants‘)

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