National Geographic

Photos: A Good Year For Poaching, Not So Good For Elephants

"Unfortunately, most years are bad, since we've taken over the planet," Michael "Nick" Nichols of National Geographic laments on the phone.

A photograph shows what amounted to more than a ton of ivory seized in Malaysia in December. i i

A photograph shows what amounted to more than a ton of ivory seized in Malaysia in December. Elizabeth John/Traffic Southeast Asia hide caption

itoggle caption Elizabeth John/Traffic Southeast Asia
A photograph shows what amounted to more than a ton of ivory seized in Malaysia in December.

A photograph shows what amounted to more than a ton of ivory seized in Malaysia in December.

Elizabeth John/Traffic Southeast Asia

The wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic said in a statement this week that "2011 has seen a record number of large ivory seizures globally." The seizures amount to more than 25 tons of ivory and probably represent "some 2,500 elephants, possibly more," the statement reads.

Nichols is quick to assert that he's "no expert" — but he kind of is. A veteran wildlife and conservation photographer, and now editor at large, he's been entrenched in these issues for decades. He's currently on a long-term assignment documenting lions in the Serengeti — and sending dispatches as he goes.

And for years, elephants have been close to his heart. His coverage has ranged from a 2006 story on poaching around Zakouma National Park in Chad to a story on elephant orphans in National Geographic's August issue.

A storage area for confiscated ivory at Zakouma National Park, in 2006.

A storage area for confiscated ivory at Zakouma National Park, in 2006. Michael Nichols/National Geographic hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Nichols/National Geographic

A lot has changed over the course of just a few years. Numbers might say it best: When Nichols started photographing in Chad in 2006, there were 3,600 elephants there, he says, "and it dropped all the way to 600 [this year]." That's even in areas under watch and protection.

"If you're losing elephants in places where we watch them ... you've got a huge, huge problem," Nichols says.

So why the spike in elephant poaching? Why now? Nichols speculates, and Traffic asserts, that it's the growing demand for ivory from a growing middle class in East Asia — "and the increasing sophistication of the criminal gangs behind the trafficking," the Traffic statement reads. "Most illegal shipments of African elephant ivory end up in either China or Thailand."

For someone like Nichols, whose mission it is to stop this kind of activity, there are two options for recourse. Show the grisly side of things: Elephant carcasses, piles of tusks, armed traffickers. Or make a more emotional appeal by showing what's to love about elephants.

Here, Nichols shares some of his favorite photos from his time in the field.

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    Days of planning and the placement of an infrared camera trap produced rare images of an adult elephant in the deep forest, the shot triggered as the bull rose from swimming in a river. Loango National Park, Gabon, 2003
    National Geographic magazine, August 2004/National Geographic
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    "After two decades in Central Africa working with frightened aggressive elephants," Nichols writes, "I was given the gift of a year with the Save the Elephants research project in Kenya. Samburu National Reserve, Kenya, 2007
    National Geographic magazine, September 2008/National Geographic
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    Surrounded and protected by adult females, younger elephants play and mock fight. Samburu National Reserve, Kenya, 2007
    National Geographic magazine, September 2008/National Geographic
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    Saturn, an elderly mother, cares for two calves orphaned after the deaths of their mothers, who were Saturn's adult daughters. The extended family structure helps elephants cope with such losses. Samburu National Reserve, Kenya, 2007
    National Geographic magazine, September 2008/National Geographic
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    Maya and her oldest daughter affectionately greet Boone, a formidable bull who spends most of his time east of the reserve. Neither of the females are in estrus, so it is not a sexual meeting, but seems to be full of admiration. Samburu National Reserve, 2007
    National Geographic magazine, September 2008/National Geographic
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    "For many years I photographed wild elephants that were afraid of humans because of endemic elephant poaching," Nichols writes. "As a final chapter I asked National Geographic to allow me to photograph the Orphans Project led by Daphne Sheldrick. Nairobi, 2010
    National Geographic magazine, September 2011/National Geographic
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    Mzima the elephant, a poaching victim, greets schoolchildren visiting Tsavo National Park. "To poachers," says Daphne Sheldrick, "elephants are just money and meat. But that is changing. The word is getting out to a younger generation."
    National Geographic magazine, September 2011/National Geographic
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    A dehydrated and traumatized 2-year-old comes in from a rescue in northern Kenya. It is very hard for the elephants to survive away from their wild families if they have spent significant time with them.
    National Geographic magazine, September 2011/National Geographic
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    The bond between mothers and calves can endure for 50 years, if uninterrupted by poaching. Lamai Wedge, Serengeti, 2011
    Michael Nichols/National Geographic

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