I was very lucky to see and photograph both Asian and African wild elephants in a single year. My Asian elephant experience was in the thick forests of northern Tamil Nadu, India, while I got to get up close and personal with the larger African cousins on the plains of Etosha National Park in Namibia.
And these guys were certainly huge! They are physically larger than Asian elephants, with larger ears and tusks. I saw a few drinking and having a mud bath next to a waterhole.
This elephant would suck up large amounts of mud and water with its trunk and alternate flinging it up and over its head, and blasting its underside. The grayish white on the elephant’s skin is mud dried by the hot midday sun.
At one point we were watching a large adult snacking on some leaves of a low bush. After finishing its meal, it starting wandering in our direction, getting closer and closer. The beast soon filled my camera frame at 70mm, and yet it came closer still, making me nervous. My mind’s eye was playing out a scenario which involved this guy getting upset and flipping our van. Luckily, our driver was prepared and when the elephant got within 20 feet, he threw the van into gear and got out of there.
It was a joy to just sit and watch these mammoth creatures. Similar to watching primates, you can see the intelligence and intention in their movements. Their amazing multipurpose trunks that they use to grab, smell, drink, touch, carry, and sometimes break is endless enjoyment to see.
On my recent trip to Mudumalai National Park in India, I was lucky to encounter a herd of forest elephants. Asian elephants differ greatly from their African counterparts in that they are smaller, have much smaller ears, larger nails on their feet (for digging and foraging) and have two large forehead bulges.
Unlike the elephants I saw in Africa earlier this year, which were in the open savanna, these forest elephants seemed to appear out of nowhere. Like giant ghosts, they emerged from the thick forest overgrowth and surprised us. I was very glad at this point not to be on foot. These elephants seem gentle enough from a distance, but getting up close and personal could be a very dangerous prospect!
Later in the evening after seeing the elephants, I was back at the forest camp in which I was staying. About 10:00 at night we starting hearing some loud cracking and snapping coming from the dark forest, very near to us. We soon realized it was an elephant snapping bamboo and crashing through the underbrush. After a few minutes of this, we saw a large flash in the trees. The lights of the camp flickered a few times and then went dead for good. It turns out a large bamboo tree fell against the power line coming into the camp.
About 15 minutes later, we heard people shouting, banging pots, and lighting off fire crackers in the distance. The rogue elephant had left our camp and was now approaching a nearby village. Eventually these sounds died off and the forest went back to sleep. With no power. And an upset elephant. In the dark.
While in Etosha National Park in Namibia, I was lucky to photograph an Africa leopard. Our guide (the incomparable Kiran Khanzode) had found out from some locals that there had been a leopard kill in a particular area two days before. Since leopards typically hunt every two days (depending on the size of the game), we went to that area to see if we could see a leopard stalking prey for another kill.
We pulled up our vehicle and scanned the area, but saw nothing but a small herd of springbok. Then a very small movement caught my eye and there in the shadow of a small tree was a leopard curled up around a fallen log. The leopard was busy scanning the herd of springbok, and in particular watching one break away from the rest and wander closer – oblivious to the danger lurking under the tree.
A waited with baited breath, hoping to see the leopard spring into action. All the while I was using my 800mm lens and Canon 5DSr camera to squeeze every bit of detail from the scene. Fortunately for the springbok, the leopard decided against a full frontal strike, and decided to wait for a better opportunity. The herd moved away, and the leopard decided to catch a midday nap.
The Etosha Pan is a large dry lake bed in Namibia, which due to heavy mineral deposits forms a dry salt pan. The name “Etosha” comes from an Ndonga word meaning “great white place”. While the pan rarely sees water, it is surrounded by savanna and sparse forest, teeming with wildlife. The pan is 75 miles long and just shy of 3,000 square miles. Here you can see the white expanse of the pan stretching into infinity.
Occasionally the wildlife that lives at the edges of the lake bed wander out onto it to gather surface minerals, making up a portion of their diet. A blue wildebeest is dwarfed by the vastness of the pan.
The lake was fed by a large river about 16,000 years ago when glacial melt caused the formation of many such rivers. At some point tectonic plate movement changed the course of the river, and the pan dried up to its current state. The only time it sees a few centimeters of water is due to heavy rains, but this is a seldom occurrence.
The area surrounding the pan is dotted with waterholes which support a wide variety of wildlife. This area is protected within the boundaries of Etosha National Park, which completely surrounds the pan. Although I only spent one full day here, that glimpse of wildlife photographic possibilities will surely draw me back.