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Chris Johns: A Magical Moment With an African Elephant

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An African elephant in the Ngorongoro Crater, Great Rift Valley, Tanzania, 1989

This post was originally published in February 2014. We’re updating it as part of our #ThrowbackThursday effort to give some love to our favorite posts.

National Geographic needs your help to protect elephants and to continue reporting on wildlife crime. Learn how to make a difference here. —The Proof Team

Elephants stir strong emotions, and with good reason. My most memorable encounter with this magnificent species happened in 1989 in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater while photographing a story on Africa’s Great Rift.

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An African elephant strips bark from an acacia tree in the Ngorongoro Crater, Great Rift Valley, Tanzania, 1989.

You’ll only find bull elephants in the crater—the sides are too steep for young elephants to navigate, so the females stay behind with their young.

It was just before dawn, and as the sun peeked over the edge of the crater, the pale golden light illuminated a bull elephant and the acacias he was browsing. I had climbed up on the roof rack of the Land Rover to photograph him, and though the bull was accustomed to being observed by scientists, the sight of a man on the roof of a vehicle must have struck him as somehow different.

He walked over and laid his huge tusks on the hood and leaned against the bumper. I retreated into the Land Rover through the hatch and slid into the backseat. When I looked up, I saw his trunk slip through the still open hatch. The tip gently tapped my left shoulder and snuffled my neck. An earthy smell filled the vehicle, along with the warmth of his breath. Then he suddenly lifted his trunk and ambled off.

It was magic—a brief moment of connection with a glorious beast, but on the animal’s terms. It helped me realize what I intuitively knew already: There is so much more to their personality than we imagine.

The thought of shooting this incredible animal for an ivory trinket is beyond abhorrent and too costly for elephants everywhere.

On February 11, 2014, the Obama Administration announced a national strategy against wildlife trafficking, including new restrictions on ivory trade designed to create “a near complete ban” on the commercial sale of African elephant ivory in the U.S.

Read more about the ivory trade in Bryan Christy’s article: “How Killing Elephants Finances Terror in Africa” and in this gallery by photographer Brent Stirton. Also, check out the documentary Explorer: Warlords of Ivory airing August 30, as Christy investigates the increasingly mechanized, militarized slaughter of elephants.

Chris Johns is chief content officer of the National Geographic Society and was editor in chief of National Geographic magazine from 2005 to 2014. Prior to becoming editor in chief, he was a field photographer for more than 20 years.

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