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Photographing Elephants

Photographing Elephants

The ethics of wildlife photography must supersede the ambitions of those who venture out in search of the image, writes Ashish Chandola, one of India’s most experienced conservation cinematographers. 

One of the many classic images of wild tuskers taken by that master wildlife photographer, the late M. Krishnan, who was the quintessential conservation photographer. Photo Courtesy: The Estate of M. Krishnan

The old cliché, that a photo is worth more than a thousand words, holds more truth than we are willing to admit. My aim is to reinforce this point, which I trust the photos accompanying this write-up will accomplish.

I personally deal with moving images and can say with total conviction based on experience, that though scientific research and findings are of great value, they reach a limited audience. But when you marry scientific facts and findings with the craft of the filmmaker or photographer, one creates a tool that not only informs and educates, but is also of use and value to Protected Area managers and conservation entities.

But the film, or photo for that matter, needs to be true. It must not over-sensationalise the main problem facing the Asian elephant in India today – human-elephant conflict, and must present the facts and the natural history of elephants in the wild truthfully and accurately.

So what can photographs and films do? To begin with they can inform the general public that the most pertinent reason for the human-elephant conflict is the fragmentation of elephant habitat.

This is true in parts of Karnataka and more so in the Duars of North Bengal. Tea gardens and coffee plantations have fragmented elephant habitats in both these elephant range areas. Estate management has not left the stipulated forest cover, which has made it impossible for elephants to move across their range without coming into contact and conflict with humans.

Elephants are highly-adaptable creatures and it has not taken much time for them to realise that they can get more nutrition raiding a paddy field for a short duration than hours spent foraging in degraded forest patches. In such situations, it is not wise to approach them and it is essential for photographers to remember that the interest of the subject comes first, always and every time.

If you place yourself in a dangerous situation and get hurt or even killed, it is the elephant that will be blamed and people are unlikely to say that you were foolish to put yourself in a dangerous position. If you care for your subject, avoid such situations.

On the other hand, I am reminded about the time when an elephant had been declared a ‘rogue’ and slated to be shot and killed in West Bengal. The veteran photographer and writer, the late M. Krishnan happened to be in the area. Using his knowledge of elephants and field skills, he got fairly close to the elephant and obtained some excellent photographs. He used these to argue that the elephant was not a ‘rogue’ or killer elephant and was able to convince the Forest Department to give it a reprieve.

A female elephant attempts to pull her calf stuck under the truck. Elephants are extremely sensitive creatures and this mother stood guard over the truck and her dead baby, charging at anybody who dared to approach the truck. Photo: K.M.B. Prasad.


The other threats to elephants and other wildlife are National Highways and railway lines running through our Protected Areas. In the Bandipur Tiger Reserve, data collected over four years showed that an average of four chital-sized mammals were killed by speeding traffic every month. This included two tigers and one elephant calf and even one sub adult elephant about nine years old! Most casualties occurred at night with wildlife getting blinded by headlights. While the data is crucial, pictures such as the one shown here (page 69) speak volumes. Elephants are extremely sensitive creatures and the mother stood guard over the truck and her dead baby, charging at anybody who dared to approach the truck. While elephant deaths on highways are thankfully not a frequent occurrence, deer, monkey, leopard and other wild creatures have been killed. The photographs and the data were crucial evidence that finally convinced the High Court that closure of the highway from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m. was essential. The night-time traffic ban in Bandipur has been in force since 2010 and the casualties have come down by at least 65 per cent.

Railway lines are a bigger problem and we often see heart-rending photographs of dead elephants killed by speeding trains (sometimes even entire herds) in our newspapers. Again, data and photographs are used to convince stakeholders to realign railway tracks where possible, and sensitise train drivers to drive slowly through Protected Areas.

Sadly, poaching for ivory continues to be a threat, despite the efforts of forest departments across the country. The cruelty of poachers is illustrated in the photographs of this handsome tusker below.

While some photographs may be unpalatable and make people squeamish, I do believe it is necessary to circulate them as widely as possible. A number of tourists and photographers who visit our national parks for a holiday come away with happy memories and some prize photographs, but a surprising number are not aware of the threats to the animals they capture with their cameras.

Corbett is one of the world’s finest forests, made famous by photographers who have recorded the life of wild animals such as this young tusker for over a century. Photo: Nirmal Ghosh.


Along the backwaters of the Kabini reservoir in Karnataka, water is discharged from the dam to help farmers downstream tide over the dry summer months. In the forests of Nagarahole and Bandipur, which flank both sides of the Kabini, fodder for herbivores is also becoming scarce. The lush green carpet formed along the backwaters as the water recedes attracts elephants and other herbivores. Congregations of over 250 elephants are not rare. Such concentrations also occur in the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary and Corbett Tiger Reserve.

Elephants make excellent photographs and give you ample time and opportunity to get good photos of them feeding or family groups interacting. If you find them bathing or young ones playing in water, one can watch and photograph them for a long time indeed. These are magical and dramatic moments but can easily be marred by a close approach.

To enable you to get dramatic photographs, drivers and guides sometimes provoke elephants to charge. This upsets the animals – not just an individual animal, but the whole herd. All photographers must discourage such practices.

Elephants make for outstanding subjects and normally give you ample time to obtain behavioral images depicting feeding, drinking and family interaction. Photo: Ashish and Shanthi Chandola.

While a photograph can say more than a thousand words, how the photograph is made is as important as its impact. The interest of the elephant or the subject of your filming or photography must come first even if it means that you have to sacrifice what you may consider the ‘ultimate’ photo.

First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIII No. 5, October 2013


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Bittu Sahgal

March 9, 2014, 05:09 AM
 Ashish Chandola is one of the pioneers of wildlife photography and cinematography in India. His body of work helped lay the foundations for conservation photography in our country and he continues to be a conscience-keeper for new entrants to the field.
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Jennifer Scarlott

February 7, 2014, 02:03 AM
 Unethical wildlife photography is such a betrayal of trust between the photographer and her/his subject. Photography replaced shikar as a humane way of interacting with and recording one's experiences in nature. I hope it can keep that venerable place in the history of human interaction with the wild.