Sabachi, Kenya 2009. Photo © 2017 Joachim Schmeisser. All rights reserved. www.joachimschmeisser.com.
LAYONI, Photo © 2017 Joachim Schmeisser. Photo © 2017 Joachim Schmeisser. All rights reserved. www.joachimschmeisser.com.
Photographs of poached elephants are graphic and painful. In order to obtain their ivory tusks, poachers first shoot elephants with poison, and then, while the animals are still living and breathing, they rip their tusks (the equivalent of human teeth) from their skulls. Many die from hemorrhaging. They can survive for multiple days in agony. These images have been circulated widely in recent years, as elephant populations continue to be endangered by human activity.
But there’s only one such photograph in Elephants in Heaven by Joachim Schmeisser, a new photo book published by teNeues, and it’s at the volume’s conclusion. Cruelty isn’t Schmeisser’s chosen subject; instead, he tells a story of courage and kindness at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, where elephants orphaned by poaching are nurtured by human hands until they are able to lead a wild and free life with their kind.
Schmeisser’s ties to the DSWT date back eight years, when his son Konstantin received an elephant sponsorship as a birthday present. Because of the photographer’s work in Africa, they were able to stop over to meet Kibo, an elephant whose mother had been killed. Kibo lived at DSWT with about twenty or thirty other babies.
All of the elephants at DSWT are fed specially formulated milk (in the photographs, you can see their names written in marker on the bottles). The caretakers provide the infants with umbrellas to protect them from the sun and wrap them in warm blankets when it’s cold. The elephants can roam and play during the day–in fact, water arrives every day in tanks in order to make mud baths–before returning to the stable for safety at night. The caretakers sleep there with them.
For elephants in particular, the violent death of a loved one leaves emotional scars. Some babies can’t survive the trauma. One role of an elephant’s trunk, Schmeisser writes, is to provide comfort, and the animals will frequently snuggle together. When there’s no trunk available, a human hand will do.
Still, all elephants arrive at DSWT with the goal of growing strong enough to be returned to the wild. That choice is left to each individual animal. After around five to eight years, he or she will decide to leave and start a new life. Of the 200-plus elephants saved by the team at DSWT, over 100 have already re-entered the wild. They have grown up to create at least twenty-five babies of their own. This year, Kibo, the elephant Schmeisser calls his “godchild,” entered a wild elephant family.
An estimated 35,000 elephants are killed annually for their ivory. A century ago, five million elephants walked the earth. That number has since dropped to 400,000. No matter their size and resiliency, these are fragile animals. Learn more and see how you can help by visiting the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust website.
Find Elephants in Heaven here.
Arrangements are made so that the elephants can frolic in water and mud-even during dry spells. Photo © 2017 Joachim Schmeisser. All rights reserved. www.joachimschmeisser.com.
Just like humans, elephants comfort each other in stressful situations. This is one of the many functions of the trunk. Here, the hand of the caretaker assumes this role until the elephant is two years old. Photo © 2017 Joachim Schmeisser. All rights reserved. www.joachimschmeisser.com./em>
Portrait of KIBO, one year old, Nairobi National Park 2009. Photo © 2017 Joachim Schmeisser. All rights reserved. www.joachimschmeisser.com./em>
© Elephants in Heaven by Joachim Schmeisser, published by teNeues, $65, www.teneues.com.