• February 11, 2014

Chris Johns: A Magical Moment With an African Elephant

Chris Johns

This post was originally published in February 2014. We’re updating it as part of our #ThrowbackThursday effort to give some love to our favorite posts.

National Geographic needs your help to protect elephants and to continue reporting on wildlife crime. Learn how to make a difference here. —The Proof Team

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.

Picture of an African Elephant
An African elephant strips bark from an acacia tree in the Ngorongoro Crater, Great Rift Valley, Tanzania, 1989.

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.

On February 11, 2014, 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.

Read more about the ivory trade in Bryan Christy’s article: “How Killing Elephants Finances Terror in Africa” and in this gallery by photographer Brent Stirton. Also, check out the documentary Explorer: Warlords of Ivory airing August 30, as Christy investigates the increasingly mechanized, militarized slaughter of elephants.

Chris Johns is chief content officer of the National Geographic Society and was editor in chief of National Geographic magazine from 2005 to 2014. Prior to becoming editor in chief, he was a field photographer for more than 20 years.

There are 44 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Elsa
    August 24, 2015

    Elephants are my favorite animal, I love them! ❤️

  2. Bruce M. Hays
    August 24, 2015

    My mom and I had a similar moment with an old bull in Hwange National Park in 1969 (back then, it was spelled Wankie, and Zimbabwe was called Rhodesia)… we were in our VW beetle, with no other cars, at the remote waterhole called Kennedy Pan #3. The old bull casually sauntered over to my side of the car, put his trunk within an inch of the window, and sniffed… although his trunk was close enough to touch, he and I were both hesitant to actually do that@ After a minute, he went back to the water, had his drink, turned and left. Definitely unforgettable to be that close to a bull elephant, and not feel the least bit threatened!

  3. Lisa O’Sullivan
    August 14, 2015

    What a beautiful and magical moment…a moment to treasure.

  4. rocky chaudhry
    March 20, 2014


  5. James
    February 25, 2014

    Beautiful, wonderful picture just incredible.

  6. Rodolfo Kintanar
    February 23, 2014

    Education is needed to preserve the endangered animals in the world…For they too will go the way of the bisons in the U.S. Midwest plains unless protected and conserved.

  7. Scott Lockhart
    February 23, 2014

    The latest prediction is that in 20 years if the current kill rates continue there will be no more wild elephants or lions in Africa. Almost every species is threatened now in Africa at some level. Not even mentioning the decline in the Monarch butterfly and bees that are under pressure all over the world. If these species disappear what if any hope do we have for ourselves?

  8. Nina
    February 22, 2014

    Thank you for giving us the opportunity to live vicariously through you. Your story made me wish I had been there too. You are truly blessed.

  9. Maureen Duncan
    February 18, 2014

    Yes I had a similar experience with a bull elephant.We were in the hide & he came over & just looked out the corner of his eye as if to say I’m know you are there.Went under a tree for awhile & then came back & did the same thing again.What a moment.

  10. Schulte-Hillen
    February 14, 2014

    Was für eine schöne Geschichte. Der Elefant fühlte sich nicht bedroht. Im Gegenteil! Er war neugierig und furchtlos und freundlich. Chris Johns hat sich vor einigen Jahren mit großer Geduld Geparden genähert und auf ein außergewöhnliches Bild gewartet.
    Da löste sich eine der Geparden und ging auf ihn zu. Chris hat die Luft angehalten und sich nicht gerührt. Die Gepardin ging zu ihm, schnüffelte an der Hand, mit der sich Chris stützte, leckte an ihr und ging dann zurück zu dem Rest der Geparden.
    Leider habe ich es nicht erlebt, aber er hat es so erzählt, dass es wie eigenes Erleben in mir geblieben ist. Was für eine schöne Geschichte. Gegenteil! Er war neugierig und furchtlos und freundlich.

  11. Ali Mostafa
    February 13, 2014

    Elephants in Africa are endangered species, because of drought and lust for ivory. SAVE WONDERFUL CREATURES.

  12. PhotoNameBox.com
    February 13, 2014

    Great story, great pics! Respect!

  13. David Booth
    February 13, 2014

    What a wonderful photo,realy good lighting and such a great animal, thank you.

  14. Abida
    February 13, 2014

    Amazing encounters, getting addicted to Proof

  15. Francine Renaud
    February 12, 2014

    Merveilleux travail d’humanisation par le truchement du comportement animal…plus humain qu’on ne le croit

  16. Diana Matute
    February 12, 2014

    I’need information fron agenci travel to estecial paquet ,and is sow beautiful,my spocke is espanish

  17. Diana
    February 12, 2014

    I’ Love National Geografit is my Dreams to Travel in those beatifour citys ‘Bleses

  18. Amy Dear
    February 12, 2014

    Wow…how big, gigantic n diverse nature is..we are just a tiny bit of tht ..,,

  19. W.K.A.S.K Waragoda
    February 12, 2014

    An intelligent animal in the world.

  20. jennifer reid
    February 12, 2014

    that is awesome. they are amazing creatures.

  21. Sylvia
    February 12, 2014

    Wonderful. Beautiful. Thank you National Geographic. Continue the great work you all do.

  22. Toni Diamond
    February 12, 2014

    I have always been drawn to elephants and feel a strong connection to them. I enjoy pictures and stories…and particularly positive ones. It distresses me when I see reports of killings and mistreatment

  23. hiteksha
    February 12, 2014

    i love national geo. very much

  24. Jan
    February 12, 2014

    I love the picture, such a beautiful sight!

  25. Anurag Kakkar
    February 12, 2014

    Amazing. I am capturing elephants since last 7-8 years at Grass land of Dhikla, Corbett National Park, Inida. Somehow it give me very warm feeling to capture them. The best part what i like to photograph them is their skin color, ( It always give different view when we click in different seasons ) i.e. summers, winters and rainy season. Now would like to photograph to these giant fellas. BTW nice click love the background & bokeh.

  26. birladsergiu
    February 12, 2014

    foarte interesant

  27. Nirupama
    February 12, 2014

    Great experience!! One can only imagine.

  28. C. Castellanos
    February 12, 2014

    Elephants are amazing and intelligent…his touch must have felt like a blessing.

  29. Corrie Craukamp
    February 11, 2014

    We as humans think we know elephants, yet they always seem to surprise us by doing something like this. I think if you had stayed on the roof he would have only had sniffed you. He must have remembered your smell from somewhere else and only wanted to confirm that.

  30. Aziz
    February 11, 2014

    beautiful animals, with a backdrop of a very natural

  31. Sergio Baez
    February 11, 2014

    I can’t never expect myself not even thinking about having such an amazing encounter wth mature like that, God bless you man

  32. June Jones
    February 11, 2014

    An experience to remember forever. The elephant is to be admired for more than we know. Your experience will last a lifetime.

  33. Tatiana Johnson-Kline
    February 11, 2014

    Amazing. I have loved National Geo as far back as I can remember. The photos of other countries, the cultures, animals, marine life aand much more you have brought part of the world to me I would never be able to afford to see. Thank you and staff for all the beauty and education you have brought to my life. 🙂

  34. Ronette Santos
    February 11, 2014

    Just magical. I hope to be able to experience the beauty of the wilds like you did. Thank you for opening our eyes and showing us what we,humans, are destroying. I hope that the young generation could see these animals and realize that these are what we should be saving.

  35. Ben
    February 11, 2014

    “There is so much more to their personality than we imagine.” – How much exactly is something I have been discovering with HELP; the Human Elephant Learning Programs and it’s founder Dr. Andrew Mclean Andrew has been developing new methods of working with elephants in a humane & more symbiotic method since 2007 across Asia. In places like Kaziranga National Park, elephants are helping fight the war against poaching of their cousins, the Greater One Horned Rhino, as an indispensable asset to Park rangers, enabling them to unobtrusively monitor the parks wildlife & patrol the park where & when Land Rovers can’t. Elephants, when in a predictable and controllable environment, are most willing to work with humans.. How much more is there to their personality? You have to see it to believe it. H-elp.org

  36. Rich Davidson
    February 11, 2014

    As a 3rd generation NG reader I think
    there is enormous value in donating NG magazines to elementary schools
    for inspiring early natural education.
    How can we do more of this?

  37. António Henrique Alves Monbteiro
    February 11, 2014

    Let me right it in Portuguese, if you please – O valor de uma pessoa encontra-se na sua capacidade e força, no respeito na sociedade a que pertence, gujo respeito começa em si próprio, para poder tudo respeitar, mas tudo. Esse o enorme valor de cada um de nós.

  38. Wayne Acourt
    February 11, 2014

    They say, “you should love what you do & do what you love”.
    I’m fortunate that I do.
    But I envy you Chris & what you do. Thank you for sharing a part of it.

  39. Richard Chadwick
    February 11, 2014

    On my trip to Africa last year, I was struck by the deep emotional connection that the elephants have with each other. They displayed great affection.

  40. Evi
    February 11, 2014

    One of my favourite animal..Big, caring, gentle, slow walk but can be very fast…:-)

  41. Gigi Bohm
    February 11, 2014

    I am an English teacher and I love how descriptive your paragraph explains the encounter. Thank you. I plan to use it as an example in my class as we seek experiences that inspire awe.

  42. Kenton Moore
    February 11, 2014

    “You never take a picture, it’s given to you”. I wish I’d said that.

  43. Cláudio B.
    February 11, 2014

    Dear Johns,

    Are works like this that define how modern living and lack of feelings,
    take us away from the beautiful and the true realities of our world.
    Congratulations is little, but I hope that my words may become more of
    an incentive to continue to offer us always, these wonders.

    Claudio B.

    Writer, Historian and Brazilian scientist.

  44. Mariam Samuel
    February 11, 2014

    What a wonderful encounter. Not everybody gets to experience that.

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