As a young boy I was typically interested in the animals that had sharp teeth and claws yet was terrified by one animal some often refer to as the gentle giants of Africa. At the time I disagreed with this description.

They were enormous even when viewed from afar and they literally towered above you if they approached. They lacked sharp claws and sharp teeth but were an incredible four metres high, thick skinned, and equipped with tusks that I imagined were only there to harm. Their strength was indescribable and they could push over trees with their foreheads, their feet or even by simply allowing their six ton bodyweight to rest against such a tree. Ears would perk out in intimidation, and with head raised they would bellow loud trumpets and rumbles – as if their sheer size wasn’t intimidating enough already. When approached by one of these giants I would cower under the vehicle seat in tears because at that age, out of sight meant out of mind. It took many years of many these experiences before I started reading more about them, viewing their behaviour and interactions and starting to form a better understanding of what they were really about. They were far from the terrors I had created for myself in my head, but still needed to be respected.

The animals I admired ate meat, yet these were herbivores feeding on grass, leaves, fruit and branches – how could I fear a herbivore that wasn’t there to eat me? They had a mystery about them and an underlying intelligence that often made me question mine. The more time I spent in their presence the more I understood them and admired their beauty, placid nature and temperament, yet I was fully aware of how their placid nature could change if they were disrespected.

They were the African Elephants – the gentle giants of this continent.

Elephant, head, ear, eye, wrinkles

A look of mystery. Wrinkles and shadows of the forehead with long eyelashes protruding from the eyelid.

Immersed in this unbelievably beautiful environment that never gets old, never disappoints and is ever-changing it almost feels as if I need to attempt to share the experience with those who aren’t able to experience it first hand. One way of doing that is through photography; capturing moments, textures, interactions and representing the feelings felt and a small insight into why us guides choose the profession of a ranger in the African bush.

Being such large animals, elephants are difficult to photograph. One generally attempts to go wide in order to capture the animal in its environment, but to get a more intimate photographic portrayal of what they are really made up of, going in close can be far more effective..

Elephant, trunk, tusk

Quenching a thirst. The most important appendage of an elephant – the trunk; its muscle fibres and wrinkles with bark-stained ivory tusks from years of use

Elephant, Textures, Skin

A canvas of elephant texture. The wrinkles in the skin on the belly

Elephant, Trunk, hairs

The hand-like tip of the trunk with sensory hairs. Texture and shadows.

Elephant, Textures, Toe nail

Toenails in the mud and fine textures of skin. Toenails of an elephant are often over-looked and are fascinating yet seemingly bizarre.

Elephant, textures, knee

Mud-filled skin folds covering the elbow of a forelimb

Elephant, Textures, Tail

A swinging tail as an elephant passes. The coarse nylon-like hairs are extremely tough. Looking down the hind leg, one gets the idea of how much hair an elephant actually has

Being close enough to an elephant that you can actually count its hairs and appreciate the intricacies of its skin wrinkles can be an overwhelming experience when you’re in it for the first time. But once that initial trepidation has subsided, looking just that little bit closer can let you connect still further with these giants who, when you look into their eyes, you know are looking back at you…

About the Author

Alex Jordan

Field Guide

Born in Cape Town, Alex grew up on a family wine estate in Stellenbosch. Spending much of his young life outdoors, Alex went on many a holiday into Southern Africa’s national parks and wild areas. After finishing high school, he completed a number ...

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on Textures and Details of a Giant

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Darlene Knott

I agree with you, Alex, but still feel intimidated by them when they seem annoyed! We love to sit and watch their behavior, their interactions. Fascinating indeed!

Marinda Drake

Lovely blog Alex. Wonderful close up images. I have read quite a few books about elephants lately. There is so much to learn and understand. They are fascinating animals.

Dina Petridis

what is certainly amazing is that these large animals can walk so quietly that they can be next to you before you know.

Denise Vouri

Beautiful b/w photos of this “gentle” giant. I find elephant behavior fascinating and love watching them cool off in the smallest of mud holes, trunks completely engaged in the transfer of muddy water to their backs. Thanks for sharing.

Leonie De Young

A beautiful blog Alex. Ellies are truly gentle giants and so intelligent. Amazing how Mother Nature enabled them to do so much with their trunk. The pics of various parts of the elephant were fascinating and thought provoking. Thank you for sharing with us.

Kim Heckman

You are so perfectly correct!! These close up photos give me an entirely new perspective of the wonderful animals. Great job…thank you!!

Judith Guffey

I’m counting days until I’m counting elephants again at Londolozi.

Wendy Hawkins

Thank you Alex for this very enlightening information about these magnificent animals & your amazing pictures! Yes I know your fear, I was also terrified of them & would cower in the back floor, until I realised I was now older & wanted to see the national parks that are close to me, so I faced my fears at the Elephant Sanctuary & then went to Madikwe & also Addo, where I was fine, but its all about respecting the animals space, be it the biggest or smallest so I will be going back to Addo next year! Enjoy the rest of the week & weekend 🙂

Karen Millman

What a beautiful recounting of such incredible gained knowledge and insight into these amazing animals………loved the closeup shots soooo much!!

Eulalia Angédu

Awesome text and very detailed pictures you got there.Not only the devil is in the details indeed.This awesome research makes the wild more interesting and full of adventures and discoveries.Bravo Alex Bravo!

Carolyn Whitaker

We had so many amazing encounters with elephants while there. It is quite wonderful, yet humbling, to be stopped in your rover and have a herd split to go around you! I love these magnificent creatures.

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