Beard’s Eye View

When elephants began dying, Peter Beard suspected that poachers were not entirely to blame

Peter Beard at Hog Ranch in 2014 feeding giraffes
Peter Beard at Hog Ranch in 2014 feeding giraffes Wikimedia Commons

For a photojournalist, being in the right place at the right time (usually a bad time) is often a matter of luck, earned by risks taken and obstacles overcome. Peter Beard made that kind of luck.

Beard took this haunting image in 1971 from a single-engine Cessna flying over Kenya's Tsavo National Park as part of his effort to document an environmental disaster—a forest stripped of its vegetation. The juxtaposition of the plane's shadow—the metaphorical intrusion of predatory modernity—with the remains of one of Africa's most magnificent creatures suggests both a Goya canvas and the harsh reality of war photography. The picture is included in Peter Beard, published last month.

Beard was born in New York City in 1938, an heir to both the Hill railroad and Lorillard tobacco fortunes. After graduating from Yale, where he studied old masters drawings, he began spending much of his time in Kenya. Beard's muse was Karen Blixen, author (under the pen name Isak Dinesen) of Out of Africa and other works that portray the continent as an untamed Eden. "When you go to art school, you become an escapist," Beard says today. "I wanted to get away from the unnatural and escape to the natural. To go back into authenticity."

In the early 1960s, Kenyan park officials were saying that the biggest threat to the country's great elephant herds was ivory poaching. But Beard believed that the greater problem was density—that the migratory and evergrowing herds, confined to parks established to protect them, were eating their way into oblivion. Yes, there was poaching, he acknowledged, but the carcass in this picture (and in many others he took) was sprawled, tusks still in place, in a denuded landscape.

Beard—tutored by Richard M. Laws, a zoologist who had begun a study of Tsavo's elephants in 1966—believed that the herds had to be scientifically culled by professional hunters. Neither game wardens nor wildlife advocates welcomed that idea; among other concerns, they believed that news coverage of thousands of elephants being shot would doom any conservation efforts. In the rancorous debate that followed, Laws resigned.

Beard's persistence in photographing starved elephants led to his being banned from Tsavo and other preserves. "I went anyway," he says. "I knew all the ways in." He also began hiring pilots to fly him over the vast parks. Beard saw in the elephant's plight some human parallels. "We're just like the elephants," he says. "They adapt to the damage they've caused. They'll walk 20 miles on a desert they've created to get to the next tree." He published many of his elephant pictures in his 1965 book, The End of the Game. As development and farming expanded, more elephants were forced off their natural habitat and into parks. By 1973, Laws' successor in the elephant study, Philip Glover, was calling vast areas of Tsavo "elephant slums."

In the end, Beard may have been right about the problem and wrong about the solution. Gay Bradshaw, a psychologist in the environmental sciences programs at Oregon State University and Pacifica Graduate Institute in California who is writing a book to be called Elephant Breakdown, contends that "culling is neither ethically nor scientifically viable." She and others have attributed a recent rise in aberrant elephant behavior—including attacks on humans and rhinos—to the disruption of herd dynamics that comes with habitat destruction, culling and poaching. The only way to save elephants, Bradshaw says, is to expand their habitat and find a way for humans to coexist with them and other wild animals. "The problem that won't go away is human population and its consumptive demands," she says. "In Africa and India right now, there just isn't any room for elephants."

Beard still travels to a 45-acre spread he owns outside Nairobi, and he sees short-term changes in Tsavo after periodic droughts and die-offs. "The vegetation in the park is coming back slowly," he says. But he notes: "In the years since I first went to Kenya, the human population has gone from about 6 million to more than 35 million."

Today, his pictures of the African wildlife crisis function as a kind of motivation for what may be his true art—the daybooks he has compiled over the years, using photographs, drawings and newspaper clippings, all held together by exhaustive notations. When pressed to define his work, he uses the Swahili word fitina, variously defined as intrigue, mischief and dissension. "It's a combination of gossip, rumor and voodoo," he says. "I love the idea of a compost heap, fermenting and changing, so when I look back in the diaries years later they're different from what I saw at the time." He doesn't mention any of the many Swahili words for luck, but it is there, earned and owned.

Owen Edwards, who writes often for Smithsonian, is executive editor of Edutopia, a magazine about education.

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