Photography by  Nick Brandt

Photography by Nick Brandt

The ecosystem’s engineers, gardeners and architects

There is a famous story, said to originate in India, involving blind men and an elephant. Each blind man touches a different part of an elephant: trunk, ear, tusk, skin, tail. When asked to describe the creature, the men find little on which to agree. After all, each has only touched a part and not the whole....

What an elephant is depends a great deal on who wants to know, and why.

Elephants have been working animals since at least the Indus Valley Civilization[174] and continue to be used in modern times.Historically, elephants were considered formidable instruments of war.Elephants were historically kept for display in the menageries of Ancient EgyptChina, Greece, and Rome. The Romans in particular pitted them against humans and other animals in gladiator events. In the modern era, elephants have traditionally been a major part of zoos and circuses around the worldIn many cultures, elephants represent strength, power, wisdom, longevity, stamina, leadership, sociability, nurturance and loyalty. 

Despite how well they have worked for and with us elephants most important role is that of being a keystone species, meaning they are intrinsically linked to our survival. The role that a keystone species plays in its ecosystem is analogous to the role of a keystone in an arch. While the keystone is under the least pressure of any of the stones in an arch, the arch still collapses without it. Similarly, A keystone species plays an important role in maintaining and balancing the structure of an ecological community and affecting many other organisms within this community. The loss of elephants from one particular site would mean that all the biological interactions and ecosystem processes in which they are involved, would also be lost.

Elephants as seed dispersers

Elephants disperse seeds by eating them, transporting them, and then spreading them through their dung. The overall body size of an elephant and their highly frugivorous diet make them particularly impressive seed dispersers.

Elephants as water providers

Elephants also provide water for other species. The desert elephants in Africa will travel miles in search of water and they will remember underground spots for water in which they will dig wells. This water is then opened up for other animals, enabling them to drink. In Kenya, people will actually follow elephants for many miles, as the elephants will lead them to water sources.

Elephants as habitat modifiers

Elephants are like engineers, as they alter and modify habitats by pushing over trees, stripping bark from trees and generally stomping around being elephants. For example, in Africa they transform woodlands into open savanna, creating grazing habitat for dozens of grassland species. When they move on, the savanna grows into scrubs for a host of browsing animals and then once more becomes woodland.

With the largest brain of any land animal, they are smart, sentient, social and empathetic, qualities we strive for ourselves. We share so many characteristics with elephants that they may well be more like us than any other animal. But we are risking their future and, in the process, damaging the integral habitat required for biodiversity throughout Asia and Africa.

Elephant numbers have dropped by 62% over the last decade, and they could be mostly extinct by the end of the next decade. An estimated 100 African elephants are killed each day by poachers seeking ivory, meat and body parts, leaving only 400,000 remaining. An insatiable lust for ivory products in the Asian market makes the illegal ivory trade extremely profitable, and has led to the slaughter of tens of thousands of African elephants. Between 2010 and 2014, the price of ivory in China tripled, driving illicit poaching through the roof. If the elephants are to survive, the demand for ivory must be drastically reduced. As of 2011, the world is losing more elephants than the population can reproduce, threatening the future of African elephants across the continent. Bull elephants with big tusks are the main targets and their numbers have been diminished to less than half of the females. Female African elephants have tusks and are also killed, which has a terrible effect on the stability of elephant societies, leaving an increasing number of orphaned baby elephants. As of 2017, there are still more African elephants being killed for ivory than are being born. . . elephant populations continue to decline.

Photography by  Nick Brandt

Photography by Nick Brandt

Below are a few NGO's that support the protection, rescue and rehabilitation of elephants and African Wildlife. 


In Kenya this Elephant Nursery, that rescues and rehabilitates orphaned elephants, exists nestled within Nairobi National Park under the auspices of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which is overseen by Dr Dame Daphne Sheldrick, whose elephant experience spans a lifetime. This pioneering organisation, which works in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service offers hope for any orphaned elephant fortunate enough to be found alive.

Foster and orphaned elephant here at 


The iworry campaign calls on world governments to make the illicit ivory trade and wildlife crime a priority issue, to make a financial commitment to security enforcement and to impose a complete ban on all ivory sales.


Reteti Elephant Sanctuary. Community United For Elephants


An ever-growing movement of grass roots level, community focused conservation is gaining huge momentum in Northern Kenya, and a new wave of wildlife protection is emerging. Once heavily poached and severely degraded by instability, the northern rangeland is now restoring itself through transparent, self-governed community conservancies that promote the preservation of natural resources in order to create stability, employment and revenue.


The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee exists to provide captive elephants with individualized care, the companionship of a herd, and the opportunity to live out their lives in a safe haven dedicated to their well-being, and to raise public awareness of the complex needs of elephants in captivity, and the crisis facing elephants in the wild.


Big Life was co-founded in September 2010 by photographer Nick Brandt, award-winning conservationist Richard Bonham, and entrepreneur Tom Hill. Using innovative conservation strategies and collaborating closely with local communities, partner NGOs, national parks, and government agencies, Big Life seeks to protect and sustain East Africa’s wildlife and wild lands, including one of the greatest populations of elephants left in East Africa. The first organization in East Africa with coordinated anti-poaching teams operating on both sides of the Kenya-Tanzania border, Big Life recognizes that sustainable conservation can only be achieved through a community-based collaborative approach. This approach is at the heart of Big Life’s philosophy that conservation supports the people and people support conservation. 

Big Life has established a successful holistic conservation model in the Amboseli-Tsavo-Kilimanjaro ecosystem that can be replicated across the African continent.

Nick Brandt created these open edition archival pigment prints for Big Life. They are signed but not numbered. (All his other photos are Limited Edition). 100% of proceeds go to support Big Life Foundation and are promptly shipped via Federal Express.

Recommended Reading

An African Love Story by Damne Daphne Sheldrick