MERU NATIONAL PARK. NORTHERN KENYA
The African elephant has been part of my life since the very beginning and even more directly part of my father’s life in both his days as a hunter and later as chairman of his wildlife trust. There are few animals more imposing on a landscape than a herd of elephant and there are few elephant more imposing than a mature bull. It is a sad fact that as the human population has grown with such a vertical curve, the pressures on land use and on the elephants’ traditional ranges has become extreme. As the space freely available to elephant is now restricted by human land use, the conservation of the elephant has become a delicate, scientific balance that can be further complicated by rainfall or lack of rainfall and hence sufficient areas for the elephant to browse and water. Ever since man has dominated Africa he has hunted the elephant and in most areas to extinction. In the last few decades elephant poaching and the demand for ivory has resulted in a severe decline across the elephant herds. The poacher will take an elephant whatever the size of its tusks, be they large or small. Many elephants have not lived a full life into maturity and beyond and this has resulted in a tragic decline in the large, old bull elephants.
There are however a number of dedicated and selfless people, both game wardens and scientists involved in elephant conservation without whom the elephant would surely have been lost to the world. Thankfully, they have in certain areas been hugely successful in battling against the odds. I wanted to go into the field and try to sculpt a large, old bull elephant if I could ever find one. My benchmark was to find an elephant with ivory that would be estimated to exceed 100lbs per tusk. In other words an elephant one could rightly assume would only be found in a history book. I was invited by a friend of mine, Mark Jenkins, who was at that time the warden at Meru National Park to join him. Mark Jenkins was a case in point, a warden with selfless determination to see his park thrive. It was through his management, leadership skills and also the trust that non-governmental organisations had in his abilities, that has resulted in the recovery of Meru National Park. The tragedy of the conservation efforts that are made by the likes of Mark Jenkins is that everything hangs by a thread, the most delicate parts of that thread are both political goodwill and the strength and personalities of the wardens in charge of the parks. It is upon these threads that the future of these elephant depends.
Not only does the park now have a healthy population of black rhino, it is also a secure area for elephant and it is here that I found myself under Mark’s wing, sculpting amongst a bachelor herd that took my breath away. Amongst them was a very old bull who Mark had named Chuma in honour of his father, the late Peter Jenkins, who had been instrumental in creating Meru National Park in the early days. This elephant had the wise eye of an experienced old man. He had the evidence of severe traumas, not only a broken tusk, but the healed wounds left by a drop spear of the past, the failed attempt of a poacher. This elephant was being looked after by a number of askaris or guards – all bulls, some themselves large and mature. I camped with Mark, an old Kenya friend of mine Charlie Wheeler and Rupert Merton with his daughter Georgie. Rupert is one of those people who has been blessed with the ability to turn his hand to whatever task is placed in front of him. Not only has he been a successful manager in the music world and a professional sculptor, he has now taken on the mantle of film maker and has decided when possible to follow the wanderings of Coreth! We were able, over several days, to sit quietly amongst these elephant in a quite remarkable way. They seemed aware that we were no threat to them and they equally seemed aware that within the boundaries of Meru Park they were secure. I therefore set my tripod up on the roof of the Landrover and was lucky enough to spend a considerable amount of time observing and sculpting the elephants. I might however add that without the expertise of Mark and Charlie I would never have been able to get quite so close and sculpt with feeling such a degree of safety and security amongst such enormous beasts. It is only when the elephant gives you time in its presence, when the day moves from dawn to dusk that you see the small and intricate behaviour patterns which enables you to put character into the sculpture. There were too many magical moments to capture them all in bronze, but for example, I watched a large, old, bull in the heat of the day rest his enormous ivory in the V of a tree, supporting the weight of that huge head. He crossed his hind legs and disappeared into the land of nod.
What is encouraging however is that the Meru elephants are not unique. I was flown down to the Chulu Hills by my great friend Fuzz Dyer. There too we saw an old bull with enormous ivory. He was flanked by two younger askaris; one either side of him. They would not leave his side as he drank at the water hole, it was almost as if they were shielding him from danger, but they would also reach up with their trunks and touch the old boy, communicating who knows what to him.
What is it about the elephant that I find so irresistibly attractive? It is capturing the huge variety of mood, motion and scale; its size, its weight, the way its whole conformation makes it move. Not only is there a huge weight in its head, but if you look at the skeleton, it is made up of an enormous arch around its backbone, with its legs acting as pillars. However, what people do not necessarily realise is that the elephant, in effect, walks on its fingertips and this somehow gives its movement a great delicacy. Although there is such weight and mass in the elephant there is also extreme tenderness and sensitivity. The elephant is remarkably dextrous not only with the tip of its trunk, but also in the use of its enormous feet. It can move so silently and yet so quickly on its feet that without suspecting it you can be suddenly surrounded by a herd, an unnerving experience! To sit and watch an elephant choose a clump of grass, take it in its trunk and then gently prise it from the ground with a front foot or to watch it touching and communicating with other members of its herd makes one realise how gentle the animal can be. The elephant family is very close knit and although one does not want to be anthropomorphic, there is an extraordinarily human-like quality and care within the family. I firmly believe that should I make it through the pearly gates, after St Peter I shall meet a herd of elephants!