During an unusually cool morning in the Masai Mara National Reserve we spotted a distant African White Backed Vulture perched upon an unidenitifed object. This isn’t an unusual sighting by any means, but what intrigued us was the presence of rangers and a KWS (Kenya Wildlife Service) vehicle which left the scene prior to our arrival.
As we drove closer the vulture’s perch became recognisable. The corpse of an Elephant.
It was the first time I had witnessed the aftermath of an elephant’s demise and despite the poor light I was keen to photograph our discovery. I had two specific photographs in mind, one making the vulture the subject and the second, and in my opinion the more important of the two, a shot which would show a lot more context of the vulture’s surroundings. I was keen to take both of them before the vulture either flew off, or left its temporary perch to feed on the remains.
Firstly the shot of the vulture with just a little bit of the elephant corpse in shot, maybe not enough to positively identify the perch, it could easily be mistaken for a large rock…
After getting this photograph I quickly changed camera and lens to get a wider focal length for my second and in my opinion, more important photograph. The wider focal length was needed to include the whole corpse as well as the vulture. Using a single AF point placed over the vultures head I took the shot as it looked towards us and lifted some if its feathers.
Incidentally, a morning which would challenge the perceptions many hold about weather conditions around equatorial Africa!
A reasonable question at this point would be, “Why were you so keen to photograph a dead elephant?”
The simple answer is that as a natural history and wildlife photographer, I think it is interesting.
I also wanted two very different photographs to show how a different approach can result in a photograph which asks so many more questions and perhaps tells a story. Was the elephant a victim of poaching? When and how did it die? Was it predated by lions or did it die of natural causes?
We will of course never know exactly but there is a lot of evidence we can use to build a picture of what may have happened. Here is my story of this Elephant’s demise…
The KWS rangers had been present to remove the tusks which would therefore make poaching an unlikely cause of death. Although the corpse looks well predated and scavenged there were no signs of any other carnivores other than vultures. This would perhaps mean it had died more than a few hours ago, there’s a lot of meat to get through on an Elephant and abdominally it looks well eaten. This is where the most nutritous ‘bits’ can be found! I don’t think KWS would scare away lions to remove the tusks and thus deny a hungry pride of what would have been a very hard fought meal. They would wait until the predators had had their fill and moved on before commencing their unfortunate but necessary task. I also think the elephant did not die of old age. Elephants die of old age due to starvation when they no longer generate replacement teeth to be able to eat properly. As a result they often limit their movement to stay in wet marsh areas where food is much easier to chew. Incidentally this is the real explanation behind the Elephant graveyard myth! The location of this elephant was far from any wet marsh areas so I also think there is a good chance it was predated by a pride of lions. It’s unusual but it’s certainly not unknown for a hungry pride to go after a lone elephant, especially when a lot of Wildebeest and Zebra had moved north out of the National Reserve to follow the heavy rains which had been falling in the Conservancies.