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The Last of the Big Tuskers

NWS Specialist Leader David Yarrow places himself in the path of endangered giants

Renowned photographer David Yarrow has travelled across the globe to capture his inimitable black-and-white images of the world’s wildlife, from polar bears in the High Arctic and emperor penguins in Antarctica to the magnificent megafauna that range across the plains of Africa. One of his more recent assignments took him in search of the largest of the large: Africa’s “big tusker” elephants, so called because of their huge tusks that each weigh in excess of 50kg and reach almost to the ground.

Even for a man who has photographed lions, tigers, bears and great white sharks over the course of his career, getting the right shots of these gigantic bull elephants would require both placing himself in the line of danger and, in the words of David himself, the requisite amount of ‘balls’. The only way to capture an image that would do these giants justice would be to travel into the bush and approach them on foot. But when facing up to an 11 ft-tall elephant with hulking tusks of almost the same length, this is no easy task.

David’s assignment would take him to Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks in southern Kenya, where he would meet with local guides and park staff who work to protect the big tuskers. His aim would be to photograph three of the remaining 30 or so bull elephants who can still lay claim to the title, including Tim, an Amboseli resident approaching 50 years old who is thought by some to be the largest living elephant (and thus the largest land animal on earth).

Tim was involved in a headline-grabbing incident in 2016 when he wandered into a conservationists’ camp with a large spear sticking out of his head. Tim knew he needed help, and also knew where to find it. Two years prior, he had survived another spear attack after vets in Amboseli removed the weapon and treated the wound – which had turned septic – with antibacterial clay. It seems that an elephant never forgets, as Tim again sought help from humans after his second spearing incident. This time, Amboseli's most famous elephant was sedated by a tranquiliser dart and treated by a vet from the Kenya Wildlife Service, before quickly recovering and heading back into the bush.

Elephants may be incredibly imposing (especially when you’re lying in front of them with camera in hand, as David is prone to do) but they are also enormously intelligent – one of the most intelligent animals on the planet, in fact. Elephants have been shown to demonstrate a number of behaviours associated with higher intelligence, including grief, self-awareness, learning, altruism and compassion. David’s job was to capture the big tuskers’ personalities as well as their form.

The Circle Of Life By David Yarrow

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Before he could do this, however, he’d have to find them. African bull elephants may be hard to miss when up close, but the big tuskers of Amboseli and Tsavo range over 23,000 km2, an area larger than Wales. The rarity of these elephants makes their protection a priority of park staff and organisations like the Tsavo Trust, whose CEO Richard Moller worked closely with David on this assignment. The elephants’ colossal tusks understandably make them a desirable target for ivory poachers, and for this reason the big tuskers’ exact locations are kept tightly under wraps. Although no elephant has been poached in Amboseli for seven years, a big tusker named SATAO 2 was killed in Tsavo just six months before David arrived there. Making use of local knowledge, the expertise of park staff and the team at Tsavo Trust, as well as jeeps, bush planes and radio collar data, David was able to locate, approach and photograph the big tuskers that he travelled to Africa in search of.