Today the Obama Administration announced a national strategy against wildlife trafficking, including new restrictions on ivory trade designed to create “a near complete ban” on the commercial sale of African elephant ivory in the U.S.
Here, National Geographic Editor in Chief Chris Johns recalls a magical encounter with an African elephant experienced while on assignment in Tanzania.
Elephants stir strong emotions and with good reason. My most memorable encounter with this magnificent species happened in 1989 in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater while photographing a story on Africa’s Great Rift.
You’ll only find bull elephants in the crater—the sides are too steep for young elephants to navigate, so the females stay behind with their young.
It was just before dawn, and as the sun peeked over the edge of the crater, the pale golden light illuminated a bull elephant and the acacias he was browsing. I had climbed up on the roof rack of the Land Rover to photograph him, and though the bull was accustomed to being observed by scientists, the sight of a man on the roof of a vehicle must have struck him as somehow different.
He walked over and laid his huge tusks on the hood and leaned against the bumper. I retreated into the Land Rover through the hatch and slid into the backseat. When I looked up, I saw his trunk slip through the still open hatch. The tip gently tapped my left shoulder and snuffled my neck. An earthy smell filled the vehicle, along with the warmth of his breath. Then he suddenly lifted his trunk and ambled off.
It was magic—a brief moment of connection with a glorious beast, but on the animal’s terms. It helped me realize what I intuitively knew already: There is so much more to their personality than we imagine.
The thought of shooting this incredible animal for an ivory trinket is beyond abhorrent and too costly for elephants everywhere.
Chris Johns is executive vice president and group editorial director of National Geographic, and editor in chief of National Geographic magazine. Under his leadership, the magazine has won numerous accolades, including 19 National Magazine Awards, and in 2008 Johns was named Editor of the Year by Advertising Age. Before becoming editor in chief in 2005 he was a field photographer for more than 20 years.