Why elephants are so special to us



We have been professional wildlife photographers since the late 1980s, photographing animals throughout Africa and across the globe. So it is inevitable that we are frequently asked: “What is your favourite animal to photograph?”

That’s usually the easiest question to answer and for both me and my wife Sharna the answer is unequivocally – Elephants!

Sure, they don’t have the beauty or mystery of leopards. They certainly don’t have the haughty grace of cheetahs (which we often refer to as the ramp models of the animal world). And rarely do they have the imposing majesty of a magnificent male lion or a glorious tiger.

But all these are cats…and anyone who has owned a cat will tell you they spend most of their lives sleeping.

Elephants on the other hand are always ‘doing something’. When they do sleep in the daylight hours it is usually on their feet (unless they are calves, securely sprawled in the shade of mommy) and only for brief, well, catnaps. Otherwise they do lie down for an hour or two in the early hours of the morning…and usually we are doing the same at that time.

The rest of the time they are busy doing things.

And that unique appendage, the trunk, lets them do so many things that are remarkably human. We can sit for hours, cameras shooting away, or simply watching entranced, as they use their trunks to stuff food into their mouths, rub an eye, scratch an ear, cuddle a calf, pick up tasty morsels like marula fruits lying on the ground, tear bark from trees, rip grass or seedlings from the earth, shake a tree or stretch high overhead to pluck seedpods off its uppermost branches, and slurp and spray water at a waterhole.

We’ve watched too, with teary eyes, as they gently caress the bones of fallen elephants, paying homage to a departed family member perhaps. Elephants seem to have an understanding of death, and mourn the departed.

We watched once as an old bull lay dying of old age near a waterhole in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. Each and every elephant that arrived to drink first went to the old bull lying helplessly nearby, touched him gently with their trunks, stood silently for a moment, and then moved solemnly away.

Several younger bulls fetched water in their trunks and tried to revive the old boy, standing so their bodies threw shade over his massive head lying in the sand. Much later, when it was obvious that the bull had finally breathed his last, several elephants at the waterhole raised their trunks and trumpeted loudly, the sound reverberating across the plains and competing with a rapidly approaching thunderstorm.

So, yes…elephants are without doubt our favourite animals. Period. Their social structures mimic ours so closely, and as sentient creatures, beings, their lives and behaviour are so close to our own (if only humankind would take time to learn the lessons these gentle giants could teach us).

We have often said that if there was some way for us to spend every day for the rest of our lives with elephants, we’d be there like a shot!

Let us pray though that there will still be elephants for the rest of our lives, and for those of your children and their children too!


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Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
Senior Vice President
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
James Isiche, Regional Director, East Africa
Regional Director, East Africa
Jason Bell, Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Consulting Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy