Austin Stevens Adventures: Elephant Charge

Friday 12th February 8.00pm

Continuing this week is the wildlife adventure series with Austin Stevens. In this instalment, Austin heads to Sri Lanka for a close encounter with some wild Asian elephants. The ultimate goal of his mission is to photograph a rare tusked bull in full charge – from directly in front.

Having spent a number of years photographing elephants in his native Namibia, Austin Stevens knows just how dangerous these wild creatures can be. However, he has put his fears aside in an attempt to gain the perfect picture – a head-on snap of a tusked adult male in full charge. “Believe me, that’s a whole heap of trouble,” he says.

To get his shot, Austin heads to Sri Lanka, home to 4,000 Asian elephants. The search begins in Kandy in the central highlands of the country, where many animals are domesticated for load-bearing and religious purposes. While he is in the city, Austin is lucky enough to witness a lavish Buddhist ceremony featuring 60 ornately decorated elephants – some of them big adult males with tusks. Since around only 70 of Sri Lanka’s elephants are ‘tuskers’, this is a rare sight – but the size of the tusks gives Austin something to think about. “[This is] probably my most foolhardy assignment yet,” he reflects.

Leaving the tame animals of Kandy behind, Austin travels 50 miles north to the tropical lowlands where patches of jungle hide herds of wild elephants. In the dry season, the herds are drawn out of the dense undergrowth in search of water. “There should be great gatherings of elephants coming to drink.” says Austin. “I’m hoping to get into these herds and take close-up photographs.”

With the help of a local farmer, Austin is soon on the trail of a lone bull. Fresh mud on the high branches of the trees indicates that the animal is not far away. “There’s an elephant walking right ahead of me,” he whispers. Sure enough, Austin’s tracking expertise leads him to within a few metres of the animal. Elephants kill 60 people every year in Sri Lanka alone, so it is important Austin approaches with caution. “I’ve got to hope I can read this guy like I would the guys back home,” he says. The bull is drowsy in the heat of the day, but poses no less of a threat to somebody encroaching on his territory. “That’s as close as I want to get to this guy,” Austin says, before taking his shots and leaving.

To have any chance of spotting a charging elephant, Austin needs to leave the relative safety of the forest and head out into the open. He sets off to Minneriya, an ancient reservoir in the north of the country. During the dry season, the water in this area recedes, leaving lush grassy plains that attract elephants – and other animals – into the open. After a two-hour walk, Austin stumbles upon a big herd of around 40 animals. “This is very unusual,” he enthuses. “Seeing this many together is really quite rare – looks like I’ve hit the jackpot!”

Austin quits his cover on the outskirts of the plain and edges forward, camera in hand. Before long, he is completely exposed and has attracted the attention of a large female, the matriarch of the herd. As the elephant approaches, there is nothing Austin can do but lie still. “Okay, we’ve got problems,” he says. “If she decides to charge, we’ve had it.” After a tense standoff, the female seems satisfied that the interloper poses no threat and leads her family away – leaving Austin with some great shots. “This is one of the most amazing elephant spectacles I’ve ever seen,” he says. However, none of the animals in this herd have tusks, meaning Austin’s assignment is incomplete.

For the elusive tusker shot, Austin drives 20 miles west to Kalawewa. Surrounded by swamp forests, this area provides more cover, potentially allowing Austin to get nearer to the animals without being spotted. Thanks to some fresh tracks, he is led to another herd – this one containing a huge tusked male. “With some luck, I might just get the money shot – a charging elephant!” he says. But with proximity to large tuskers comes a new danger – as Austin soon discovers…

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