100 years of elephants: See how Nat Geo has photographed these iconic creatures

Once considered exotic quarry and beasts of burden, elephants are now viewed as treasures in need of saving.

By Christine Dell'Amore
Published 21 Apr 2023, 09:51 BST
Since the first elephant story was published in National Geographic in 1906, the magazine has taken ...
Since the first elephant story was published in National Geographic in 1906, the magazine has taken different angles on covering the pachyderms, from hunter’s quarry to beasts of burden to species that need saving. As time went on, technology also advanced, helping photographers capture more intimate moments. Michael ‘‘Nick’’ Nichols made this photograph of orphan elephants splashing in a human-made water hole in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park by mounting a camera to a pole, which allowed him to get a closer view of the elephants but still maintain a physical distance. Daily mud baths are key to elephant hygiene, offering the animals effective sun protection while also cleansing their skin of bugs and ticks.
Photograph by Michael Nichols, Nat Geo Image Collection

Eliza Scidmore, the first female writer, photographer, and board member for National Geographic, has another accomplishment to her credit: She was the first person to publish a photograph of an elephant in the magazine, in December 1906.

An inveterate traveller who brought Japan’s famous cherry blossoms to the U.S. capital, Scidmore had photographed Asian elephants being rounded up in Siam (now Thailand) to serve as work animals for the king.

Adolescent elephants tussle in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve in this image by Nick Nichols, one of the first wildlife photographers to extensively document African elephants in the wild. Such play develops social skills in the young animals, as well as confidence and strength. This image was published in the magazine in September 2008.
Photograph by Michael Nichols, Nat Geo Image Collection
For the first set of elephant images published in National Geographic, in 1906, Eliza Scidmore photographed captive elephants herding wild ones across a river in what’s now Thailand. In the early 1900s, Scidmore became a household name to readers of the Geographic, producing 15 articles and some of the journal’s first color photography.
Photograph by Eliza R. Scidmore, Nat Geo Image Collection

A year later, in 1907, the magazine published nighttime photos of African elephants near Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro. The photographer, Carl Schillings, worked in the style of George Shiras, aka Grandfather Flash—the first person to use camera traps and flash photography to capture images of wildlife.

But it wasn’t until 1912 that the publication ran its first feature story on elephants, part of a well-publicised hunting expedition, led by former president Teddy Roosevelt and photographed by Carl Akeley, a taxidermist for P.T. Barnum, founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Looking back on a century of the magazine’s reporting on pachyderms, Julia Andrews, an editor for the National Geographic Image Collection, says there are “definite trends that would shift from decade to decade.” 

For instance, Andrews says, in the early years the prevailing theme was elephants as the hunted: “The story was very much ‘man with his trophy.’ ” (See more stunning photos of elephants.)

African elephants move through Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve in an image by Nick Nichols, published in September 2008.
Photograph by Michael Nichols, Nat Geo Image Collection
Wild elephants bathe in a river in Borneo in a photograph published in June 1934. They ‘‘seem to take as much pleasure in their daily dips as any youngster at the old swimming hole,’‘ wrote author Edmund Heller. He described the bumps on their heads, distinctive features of Asian elephants, as ‘‘knobs of wisdom.‘’
Photograph by ACME, Nat Geo Image Collection

In the 1920s and 1930s, as zoos became more popular and piqued curiosity about wild animals, stories emphasised elephants’ roles as beasts of burden. In 1928, King Kong directors Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack wrote and photographed a story about taming African elephants, claiming “the mighty beast, having submitted to man’s superior intelligence, serves him well.”

Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, smaller cameras made field reporting easier, and African safari culture blossomed. By this period, National Geographic’s reporting on elephants had changed to “the idea of you going into the habitat of the animal, not the other way around,” Andrews says.

When Quentin Keynes—Charles Darwin’s great-grandson—photographed a story in Kenya in 1951, it was titled “Africa’s Uncaged Elephants” and shot from a custom tree house he built on the savanna. The camera traps first created by Shiras also began to evolve into smaller, more sensitive units that could capture the daily lives of wild animals as never before.

A trapped elephant struggles in thick mud in Kenya’s Nannapa Conservancy. Passing herders alerted the conservancy manager to his plight, and veterinarians and rangers launched a rescue. Using a tractor, towropes, and their hands, they freed the exhausted animal. The image was published in July 2021.
Photograph by David Chancellor, Nat Geo Image Collection
A bull elephant walks through Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater in a photograph taken by Chris Johns, who was editor in chief of National Geographic magazine from 2005 to 2014. Johns’s photography of elephants in Ngorongoro ‘‘helped me realize what I intuitively knew already: There is so much more to their personality than we imagine,’‘ he later wrote. This image was published in October 2009.
Photograph by Chris Johns, Nat Geo Image Collection
It’s feeding time for hungry orphans at the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in northern Kenya. Established in 2016, the refuge is staffed by local Samburus; some are warriors who once feared the creatures. This image was published in August 2017.
Photograph by Ami Vitale, Nat Geo Image Collection
Two lions watch elephants spar in Botswana’s Okavango Delta in a previously unpublished photograph taken in October 2018. Beverly Joubert is one of the first wildlife photographers to capture such intimate portraits of wild African elephants.
Photograph by Beverly Joubert, Nat Geo Image Collection
Elephants wade through grass near a lake in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, leaving trails in their wake. This photograph, which appeared in the magazine in September 2005, was taken after a worldwide ban on ivory trade had boosted Kenya’s elephant numbers.
Photograph by George Steinmetz, Nat Geo Image Collection

A conservation shift

Barely any elephant stories were published in the 1970s. But the 1980s brought with them an era of conservation reporting, starting with the November 1980 article “Africa’s Elephants: Can They Survive?” by Explorer Iain Douglas-Hamilton and his wife, Oria.

An African forest elephant bathes in Gabon’s Loango National Park in a camera trap photo, published in February 1999. Nick Nichols’s pioneering work on camera traps—getting colorful portraits of elephants at their level—‘‘pushed wildlife photography to new, higher levels,‘’ says editor Julia Andrews. “I compare him to George Shiras, the world’s first true wildlife photographer, whose work at the turn of the 20th century was championed by the magazine.”
Photograph by Michael Nichols, Nat Geo Image Collection
A forest elephant tries to defend itself after it was hit by a train in Gabon’s Lopé National Park. Park officials decided the animal was too severely wounded to be saved, and after it was killed, the meat was distributed to local people. A changing climate—warmer nights and less rainfall—may be reducing food options for forest elephants, as a story in the May 2022 issue reported.
Photograph by Jasper Doest, Nat Geo Image Collection

National Geographic Explorers Beverly and Dereck Joubert began what would be decades of work observing and studying the African elephant with their May 1991 piece, “Eyewitness to an Elephant Wake.” The story was one of the first to show that elephants have an “emotional inner life”—that like humans, elephants grieve their dead, says Lori Franklin, an editor at the National Geographic Image Collection.

Painted and decorated with bright colors, an elephant marches in the annual Elephant Festival on the eve of Holi, an annual Hindu celebration, in Jaipur, India, in 1929. Over the decades, many photographers have relied on National Geographic’s photo engineering laboratory for the latest technology. Autochrome, an early color-photography process, produced this photo.
Photograph by Franklin Price Knott, Nat Geo Image Collection
The Elephant Festival in Jaipur features elephant polo, elephant tug-of-war, and an elephant beauty contest. When Charles Fréger photographed the festival in 2012, however, it was canceled early—reportedly because of animal welfare concerns. This photo was published in August 2013.
Photograph by Charles Fréger, Nat Geo Image Collection
Carl Akeley, the taxidermist for P.T. Barnum, photographed this eight-month-old elephant fetus during an expedition to Africa in the early 1900s. Partially funded by the Smithsonian, and led by former president Teddy Roosevelt, the trip was meant to collect as many specimens of African wildlife as possible. This image appeared in the magazine in August 1912.
Photograph by Carl E. Akeley, Nat Geo Image Collection
A portrait of the first rescued orphan elephant at the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in northern Kenya.
Photograph by Ami Vitale, Nat Geo Image Collection
Two elephants play at a water hole in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, in an unpublished image taken in 1955.
Photograph by RAPHO GUILLUMETTE, Nat Geo Image Collection
An elephant mother walks with her calf at sunset through Namibia’s Etosha National Park. Having a baby elephant is a serious commitment. Elephants have a longer pregnancy than any other mammal—almost 22 months. Photographer Annie Griffiths captured this image for the March 2012 issue.
Photograph by Annie Griffiths, Nat Geo Image Collection

The magazine’s coverage of elephants has had meaningful impacts on society, Franklin says. “The Hidden Cost of Wildlife Tourism,” a 2019 cover story photographed by Kirsten Luce, revealed abuse of captive elephants; that led to a massive petition and eventual release of a well-known, injured animal into a sanctuary

The three-part magazine series “Megatransect: Across 1,200 Miles of Untamed Africa on Foot”—the saga of Explorer Mike Fay’s journey across the middle of the continent, photographed by Michael “Nick” Nichols—ultimately led to the creation of 13 national parks in Gabon and three in the Republic of the Congo.

A male elephant grabs an evening snack in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park. Most of the park’s elephants were killed for their ivory, used to buy weapons during the nation’s 15-year civil war, which ended in 1992. With poaching controlled, the population is recovering, as photographer Charlie Hamilton James revealed in the May 2019 issue.
Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James, Nat Geo Image Collection
An elephant strolls through the lobby of a Luangwa Valley Lodge in Zambia, after remodeling blocked the animal’s access to a mango tree in the hotel courtyard. ‘‘Though the image is whimsical at first glance, it points to a profound issue: Both elephants and people have laid routes across Africa, many of them crisscrossing each other. Now it’s up to us humans to figure out how to coexist in these shared spaces,’’ photographer Frans Lanting wrote in the September 2005 issue.
Photograph by Frans Lanting, Nat Geo Image Collection

Into the 21st century, National Geographic continues to focus on elephants’ decline. All three species—the African savanna elephant, the African forest elephant, and the Asian elephant—are now endangered, mostly because of ivory poaching and habitat loss.

But there are also stories of hope, with photographers seeking out solutions to the crisis. Nick Nichols’s photographs of raincoat-adorned orphaned elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, the world’s most successful rescue center for baby elephants, were especially popular with readers. Ami Vitale’s reporting on warriors who once feared elephants but now protect them, in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve, also highlighted how change can happen for the better.

In the May 2023 cover story “The Elephant Next Door,” Brent Stirton’s photographs illustrate how Asian elephants and people are jostling for space in a rapidly urbanizing world. (Watch the trailer for Secrets of the Elephants, a four-part National Geographic series streaming on Disney+.)

National Geographic’s century of reporting on these “magnificent” species is an unrivaled achievement, Andrews believes: “We are educating people about elephants, and in the end, we should be very proud of that.”

In a previously unpublished image, tourists pose for photographs with Asian elephants on a beach in Phuket, Thailand. In their June 2019 story, photographer Kirsten Luce and writer Natasha Daly set out to look behind the curtain of the thriving wildlife tourism industry, to see how animals at various attractions—including some that emphasize their humane care of animals—are treated once the selfie-taking crowds have gone.
Photograph by Kirsten Luce, Nat Geo Image Collection
A forest elephant reaches for the fruit of a Detarium macrocarpum tree in Gabon’s Lopé National Park. Fruit is the most nutritious part of the animal’s diet. Elephants help trees such as this one spread by digesting the fruit, which makes the seeds germinate faster. The photograph was published in May 2019.
Photograph by Jasper Doest, Nat Geo Image Collection
A young male, forced to leave his family herd, wanders through Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve in a photograph published in September 2008. Adult males, called bulls, tend to roam on their own, sometimes forming smaller, more loosely associated, all-male groups.
Photograph by Michael Nichols, Nat Geo Image Collection

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