Baku spoke with German wildlife photographer Joachim Schmeisser about his new book, Elephants in Heaven, a unique project that makes the consequences of poaching abundantly clear
It is a sad fact that elephants have been hunted and killed for their ivory tusks since antiquity. While efforts continue to be made to raise awareness on this ongoing problem, there is one terrible consequence that is still all too often forgotten about or simply overlooked: the fate of the calves left behind when a parent is slaughtered. This was something wildlife photographer Joachim Schmeisser was determined to document. He came across abandoned baby elephants through the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Headquartered in Nairobi, it is the world’s largest and most successful rescue and rehabilitation operation for orphaned elephants. It was here that Schmeisser was inspired to document them, and eventually produce Elephants in Heaven, which boasts touching animal portraits that convey the devastating consequences of poaching. We spoke with Schmeisser to find out more.
You’ve been a supporter of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust for some years now, which is what led to this photography project. But how did you first come to be sponsoring elephants?
It all started as sort of a coincidence, or fate, if you will. I had already fallen in love with Africa and had been in Ghana and South Africa on numerous photography shoots. In 2009, my son Konstantin turned 15 and, as a birthday present, we made him the foster parent of a small, one-year-old orphaned elephant named Kibo. He had been rescued by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust under dramatic circumstances and was being raised in the Trust’s nursery camp in Nairobi. We were en route to the Hadzabe bushmen in Tanzania and the mountain gorillas in Rwanda and had a long layover in Nairobi. so it was only natural that we visited Kibo and took a few pictures. Surrounded by all those little elephant orphans changed our lives and that was the beginning of a wonderful friendship and our collaboration with the Trust. The pictures gave us the possibility to help support the Trust and their fantastic work over the years and make them better-known in Germany.
How did the idea for making this a book come about? And what was the image selection process like? How did you decide?
As a photographer, you always have the idea for a book in the back of your mind. However, making it happen is not easy and you need the right partner, whom I found in Hendrik teNeues. We developed the project together. The selection process was time consuming but exciting.
What is the focus of the book?
Elephants in Heaven deals with the small orphaned animals in the nursery camp in Nairobi. Some of them are as young as four weeks old. I wanted to document their day-to-day relationships with their keepers, the older orphans in the reintegration units in the bush and, finally, the elephants who have been successfully returned to the wild – the large bull elephants and the herds in Amboseli.
This book very much feels as if it’s been a labour of love…
In addition to the images themselves, it is crucial to increase awareness concerning the struggle against poaching. It takes the lives of over 30,000 elephants every year in the most brutal way. With a population of roughly 400,000, if poaching isn’t stopped, in just 10 years there won’t be any more elephants left in the wild. Several photographs in the book document the barbaric methods used by poachers and the often dangerous, work of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
You have a striking monochrome aesthetic to most of your photography, why is that?
In black and white, one is able to concentrate more on the composition itself – on the light and the subject, for there are no colour factors to distract you. That’s what I love about it the most. At the moment, I’m actually leaning towards a slight sepia tint and I’m also making Platinum Palladium Prints that have a look all their own. It produces images with enormous power and depth and a somewhat dreamy and other-worldly quality.
Many of these elephants, once rehabilitated and released back into the wild, must be at risk themselves of being killed for ivory, like their parents before them. What, in your experience, is the most effective way to combat this tragic cycle?
There are actually a lot of factors that play a role. The most important measure would be an international trade ban on ivory. especially concerning China, the largest ivory importer in the world. The Chinese government has promised a ban on ivory by the end of 2017. Education is one of the most effective weapons in the struggle against poaching, and is why the Trust is so intensely involved with educational work in schools and communities. These successful programmes strive to improve living conditions and educational standards, encouraging communities and the next generation to protect their wildlife and environment. We can do a lot to support that. Each and every one of us can, by contributing to organisations such as the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust or becoming the foster parent of an orphaned elephant. It’s crucial to raise awareness in our societies, which, in turn, puts more pressure on political institutions to make lasting change.
Have you had any particularly memorable moments with the orphan elephants during this project?
It was in the evening, not far from the reintegration unit in Tsavo National Park. I had just taken my last pictures of the day and the orphans were already on their way back to the stables with their keepers. Sometimes you are so immersed in your work that you forget what is going on around you. At any rate, the orphanage is often visited by wild elephants and former orphans who have been released. As I was standing near an artificial waterhole, one of these former orphans suddenly appeared behind me. There was this incredible evening light. Of course, I started photographing him, moving closer and closer. When I was about two metres away from him, it dawned on me that I was all alone with a huge, nearly full grown wild adult bull elephant. He slowly came toward me and got so close that there wasn’t even space for the camera between us. He was perfectly peaceful, looked straight at me and let out these very low sounds that I had often heard but never that close. I will never forget that combination of unimaginable power and sensitivity. That elephant is called Challah.
What about new discoveries? Anything you didn’t know before about elephants?
They are the most majestic creatures I have ever encountered, with striking intelligence and extremely social behavior. They have an aura that touches you profoundly. There are a lot of similarities with human behavior I became aware of that I had never realised before. Elephants have a self-awareness. They are highly sensitive, can communicate over vast distances (by means of infrasound) and can hear with their feet. They even have telepathic abilities. There is a wonderful story that’s hard to believe but true. After a few years in the nursery camp in Nairobi, the young orphans are brought to the reintegration unit in Tsavo National Park. This happens in a specially-equipped truck, so that they are comfortable and do not panic. After all, the trip is over several hundred kilometres. In the reintegration unit everyone is prepared for the new arrivals. However, not only are the Trust keepers waiting for them – so too are the elephants that have already been released and joined wild herds. Somehow, no one can rationally explain how, they come to greet the orphans from the nursery in Nairobi – sometimes a group of them, sometimes just one. Those are really touching moments and after witnessing them there’s no need to discuss whether or not animals have souls.
What’s next for you?
I’ll be busy with this project for a long time to come. But I have a few exciting ideas…
© Elephants in Heaven by Joachim Schmeisser, published by teNeues, £50, www.teneues.com
Photography courtesy of Joachim Schmeisser. All rights reserved. www.joachimschmeisser.com