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How to take Photographs when Riding an Elephant

Introduction - When travelling in Asia or Africa, Elephants walk down the ramp from the Amber Fort and the Amber is always a special honor to be able to ride on the back of an elephant. The travel photographer can use his elevated position to obtain some really unique images. I have ridden on elephants in a variety of countries, and felt that some tips for the newcomer to elephant-back photography may be appreciated.

Elephant Basics - There are three species of elephant are living today: the African bush elephant, the African forest elephant and the Asian elephant. The latter is also known as the Indian elephant. You can see the differences between them at the Upali website. The three types of elephant are quite different in temperament. The Asian elephant is more amenable and controllable by humans, and thus the likelihood of riding on an Asian elephant is much higher. Asian elephants available for rides are generally encountered in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos, Singapore, and Thailand. African elephants can be ridden in South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. Details can be found later in this article.

Advantages of an Elephant Ride - An elephant can take you into parts of the countryside that would be unwise or impossible to get to in a vehicle. An elephant moves surprisingly quietly, and will not frighten away the birds or animals that you may wish to photograph. When riding an elephant you get to see your surroundings from a totally new perspective. An average elephant is some three metres tall, so the photographer taking images from the back of an elephant can expect to gain a great advantage over a photographer who stays on the ground. He will be able to see over large trees, bushes and grass cover. He will be able to angle his camera more towards the ground whilst still covering a wide field of view, thus reducing the amount of sky in the image, and helping with a more interesting image composition. He will progress at a slow and gentle pace, ideal for viewing the countryside and the birds and animals living there. The photographer will be able to approach these animals much closer than would otherwise be possible, as the animals will accept the presence of an elephant as 'one of their own'. Finally, if the unexpected happens and a tiger, lion, or rhino is unexpectedly encountered, the elephant will provide protection and a means of safe escape.

Elephant Riding Styles - There are generally two ways to ride an elephant: on a saddle or 'howdah', or sitting perched on the elephant's neck. The latter is also known as bare-back riding. For a photographer these are quite different methods, and so will be dealt with separately.

Howdah Riding - This is the easiest method, suitable for all beginners, and particularly useful for a photographer. An elephant handler, called a 'Mahout' in India or an 'Induna' in Africa, will be in full control of the elephant. He will command the elephant to stop, start, and perform other manoeuvres as requested. He will be familiar with the route and the countryside, and may even assist in spotting game or pointing out items of interest. The photographer is thus free to leave the details of the journey in the Mahout's hands, and concentrate on his camera, and the recording of scenes of interest.

Silver elephant-howdah with parasol, at the Meherangarh Fort Palace Museum.A Howdah is a combined frame and seating platform to help humans ride safely on the back of an elephant. They will generally seat from 2 to 6 persons at a time. You can see some examples of modern howdah pictures at the University of Guelp website. Don't expect anything as nice as the Royal Howdah shown on the left! This one can be seen at the Meherangarh Fort Palace Museum in Jodhpur, India. A traditional Howdah comprises of an open and flat platform with low rails surrounding it. The occupants will kneel or sit cross legged. This may not be comfortable for Westerners unused to sitting in this position for long periods, so the rails may be raised to allow the occupant's legs to dangle down the sides of the elephant's back. Alternatively, a more complex seating arrangement with a back-rest may be provided, facing front to back, or side to side. Rails will still be included for holding on to. In the times of the Raj in India there were Shikar Howdah, or Hunting Howdahs, which housed the sportsmen (sic) in a standing position. Although these may be glimpsed in museums, they are unlikely to be encountered in the field these days.

Bare-Back Riding - This is a much more 'hands-on' experience, and will not leave as much time available for photography as would the ride in a howdah. Nevertheless, it is a wonderful feeling to be in personal control of such a huge animal, and so if the chance presents itself, it should not be turned down. The beginner will either have a handler walking alongside to pass advice and instruction, or riding behind on the elephants back. Much of your time will be devoted to the learning of commands, and the correct use of the 'goad', so at this stage you may prefer to be photographed, rather than be a photographer. Once the basics have been mastered, though, the attention can be diverted away from the control of the elephant to the surroundings themselves, and with the elephant progressing through the jungle at a gentle pace, many opportunities will arise for superb photography. Unlike a horse or camel, there are no reins to hold on to, and the goad can be tucked into your belt when not needed, so both hands are available for camera control. You may need to use your feet, though, as a gentle pressure behind the elephant's left or right ear is commonly used to indicate the desired direction. The elephant will understand the words for stop, forward, and turn, but I will not detail the actual pronunciation of these or any of the other elephant commands here, as they will be dependent on the area that you are visiting. One additional command, best not forgotten, is the word for sit. You can then side off the elephant's back and regain your place on terra firma.

Mounting Up - For the Howdah rider, mounting will be an easy matter. Either the elephant will be brought to stand quietly next to a raised platform from where the rider will step into the howdah, or a ladder will be leant against the elephant's side so the rider can climb up from that direction. For the Bare-Back rider, mounting is a little more complicated. In Africa, the elephants are normally made to kneel. The rider then climbs on to one of the front legs, and from there on to its neck. The guide will be there to help if needed. In Asia, though, a different technique is used. At the correct command, the elephant will bend one of its front legs. The rider then steps on to the leg, which, at the command 'lift', the elephant raises further. The rider then pulls himself on to the elephant's neck by taking a firm grasp on to the elephant's ear. This causes no discomfort to the elephant.

Riding Preparation - Intricately carved white marble elephant and interior of the Adinatha Temple at Ranakpur.There are many similarities here to both horse and camel-back photography, so the reader may find other items of interest in the horse and camel articles. As elephants are both higher than the other animals, and more complicated to get on or off, great care should be taken that all the items you have with you are securely packed in a daypack, or attached to your person with a strap or lanyard. In the case of your camera, you may wish to use both, as it is unlikely to survive a fall from such a height! You may find that a carabiner is useful to attach bags and camera cases to the howdah rails, if available. Protection from a strong tropical sun is needed, so a hat with neck covering, a chap-stick for the lips, and general sunscreen lotion should not be forgotten. Sun glasses are equally essential. If it is the monsoon or rainy season you will need suitable protection for yourself, your daypack, and your camera. Here I would suggest a fully waterproof 'wetbag', as monsoon rains can be surprisingly heavy, and likely to find their way past a standard camera rain-cover. A water bottle, some food, insect repellant, and a small first aid kit will be useful.Unlike the horse or camel rider who has to keep a hold on the reins at all times, you are likely to have both hands available for camera operation so it is safe, an indeed preferable to leave the lens cap on this time, rather than relying on a cloth in the bottom of the camera bag to protect the lens surface. Both hands are needed for correct orientation of a polarising filter as well. In the strong tropical sun you will find this a very useful addition to your kit list, though don't make the mistake of leaving it on the lens when inside a forest or jungle, as light levels can drop quite suddenly, even in the middle of the day.

What to Wear - When photographing from elephant-back, you should wear neutral or khaki coloured clothes. Any wildlife that may be encountered can be alerted or even frightened away by white or bright coloured clothing, so these should be avoided. As mentioned above, a wide-brimmed sunhat is essential. Long trousers are equally important, as though the elephant may look smooth and gray from a distance, its back is actually covered with short black hairs that are quite sharp and will damage the legs of anyone wearing shorts. Long-sleeved shirts are recommended, especially in the summer months, as they provide protection from the sun during the middle of the day, and are an added protection from mosquitoes and other biting insects in the early morning or late afternoon. A fleece or warm jersey may also be necessary at these times of the day. For the feet, you should choose trainers or other closed, comfortable shoes. Flip flops are not suitable footwear, as they can easily be dropped.

On The Move - The elephant's gait is slow and measured, though does involve quite a bit of swaying from side to side. Personally, I have always enjoyed the sensation of riding on an elephant, but you should be aware that some find the motion rather difficult, and even complain of travel sickness. You should hold on tight to the rails of the howdah to prevent being thrown against the side rails - a bruising experience. Despite appearances, the elephant can move quite fast if necessary, so the rider should always be prepared for a sudden change of speed. If the elephant is spooked or surprised, it may break into a trot or fast run. If this happens, the gentle side-to-side motion will change dramatically, and the rider may be thrown about the howdah rather violently until the Mahout can bring the animal under control again. Never leave items lying carelesly on the floor of the howdah, or they may be thrown off as the elephant runs swiftly through the jungle. It is unlikely that the Mahout could find his way back to where you lost them.

A more common occurrence on a typical jungle walk on elephant back is to be brushed or even whacked by a low hanging branch or palm frond. Elephants, though very clever, are unlikely to make allowances for the height of the passengers on their back. Your hat should be secured with a neck strap to prevent it being swept away, and all cameras and bags should be fastened to yourself or the howdah. It only takes a small twig to catch a camera strap and have it whisked away to smash on the forest floor before your reactions will register what is happening.

Photography from elephant back whilst on the move can be a real test of anticipation and coordination. As mentioned above, the elephant's gait is slow and measured, and involves quite a bit of swaying from side to side, and quite a sudden jerk as the elephant changes which leg is currently in the air. Trying to take a photograph under these conditions requires quite bit of practice. A wide-angled shot is easiest to take, whereas you may find that framing a telephoto shot is almost impossible when moving. Fortunately, an elephant can stop and start quite quickly, so whenever possible, I would recommend asking the mahout to stop the elephant when a telephoto shot is required. The same notes apply to changing lens - when the elephant is on the move, it would be all too easy to drop a lens or back cap, so either use two camera bodies - one for wide, one for telephoto, or ask the mahout to stop when changing lenses is required.

When To Ride - Elephants walk up the ramp to the Amber Fort and the Amber Palace.Often, on a busy vacation when trying to pack the most into your holiday experience, you are not left with much opportunity to choose just when a ride on an elelphant takes place, but if you have the luxury of time available on your side, you should always choose an early morning or a late afternoon departure, rather than an elephant ride in the middle of the day. Not only will the light be much kinder to your camera, producing much more attractive photographs than those taken at noon, but the strong tropical sun will be kinder to you as well, increasing both your comfortabliity and endurance. If you are intending to spot wild birds and animals, you are much more likely to see then at the edges of the day than its middle. The monsoon time is best avoided, as if you get soaked whilst on elephant-back you will stay soaked, though it is worth remembering that photographs can look particularly spectacular in strong sunlight against a dark cloud background, or just after a heavy rain shower when the water is still glistening from the leaves or starting to steamily evaporate from the hot ground. Always keep an eye on current shutter speeds whilst photographing, as light levels can vary tremendously as you move from under the jungle canopy to a forest clearing and back again. Light levels whilst under the trees can be quite low, so always make sure that you have an appropriate ISO set on your camera to prevent blurred and fuzzy images.

Other Elephant Activities - Just like you or I, elephants require regular washing. This generally happens in the late morning, after they have been working for some time. The mahouts will ride the elephants down to the local river, accompanying them into the water to make sure they are properly cleaned. After letting the elephants take some time to drink, wallow about, and socialise with the other elephants, the mahouts will take a flat stone or a section of coconut shell and scrub the elephant's head, back and legs. From time to time the elephant will be commanded to hose himself down with a trunk full of water.

In an area where visitors come to ride on elephants, the daily elephant bathe is usually incorporated as an activity that visitors may wish to attend. If this is the case on your visit, I would certainly recommend that you go along. You can either watch what takes place from the river bank, and get some excellent photographs at the same time, or you can join in with the proceedings, ride the elephant bareback into the river, and help scrub the elephant as well. It goes without saying that you will get completely soaked whilst all this is going on, so you need to be prepared with suitable clothes that can stand getting wet, but are not too skimpy or revealing to upset local sensibilities. Your hotel will advise on what is and is not appropriate for the country you are visiting. Don't forget to empty your pockets before going in - water, passports and mobile phones do not mix. Ladies - watch out for teeshirts that turn transparent when wet! You will have a lot of fun taking part, and get to see an elephant at really close quarters. Whilst you are scrubbing it, the elephant will be lying down in the water, and you will have real eye-contact with these magnificent beasts - a humbling experience. If you have a truly waterproof camera, then take that as well, for some never-to-be-forgotten photographs.

Some Elephant Riding Locations

The following is a short list of locations where you can achieve your dream of photographing from elephant back:

  • Asia: India - India is justly famous for its elephants, and there are a variety of possibilities for elephant riding to be found there. You might wish to pretend that you are back in the days of the Raj by taking an elephant ride in India. The Wildlife Travels company offers an 8-day elephant safari package just outside Delhi. Learn more about The Wildlife Travels elephant safari on their website.
    Alternatively, Wild World India runs 'The Royal Elephant Safari' which takes participants on a nine-day trip through the Jim Corbett National Park and tiger preserve. The itinerary includes a stay in a Delhi hotel before departing for Corbett National Park and a stay at the Park's lodge. Visit are made to nearby villages, with travellers spending the night in tents. They then ride elephants through the Ramganga Valley Reserve with side trips for fishing and jeep-driven game viewing, spending more nights in forest houses and/or tents. The last leg of the safari is a ride along the Palain River before returning to Delhi at the conclusion of the adventure. Wild World India can be contacted from their website above, or directly at 26 Kailash Hills, New Delhi-110065, Tel 011-2691-4417.
  • Asia: Nepal - Adventures Pilgrim Trekking coordinate elephant riding safaris in several areas of Nepal. The most popular elephant safari destination is Chitwan National Park. The park offers travellers a chance to see a variety of wildlife, including endangered species such as the one-horned rhinoceros, the Bengal tiger and the crocodilian gharial. Safari packages in Chitwan range from a two-day, two-night stay to a four-day, three-night sojourn. Visitors can choose to bunk in the Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge, Tharu Village Resort or in a tent camp. Depending on which package you choose, prices include accommodations, an elephant-back safari, sightseeing excursions, boat rides, jeep safaris, nature walks, park entrance fees and all meals. See their website above, or contact them directly at Adventure Pilgrims Trekking C/O World Explorers, One Adventure Place, Kempton, Illinois 60946-0074, USA, Tel 815-253-9000. If you get to Chitwan without pre-booking any elephant riding activities do not be concerned. There are plently of elephants in the park, and plenty of opportunities to arrange everything locally.
  • Asia: Thailand - Plenty of opportunities in the Chiang Mai region of Thailand. Chiang Mai is in the northern, mountainous part of the country, and elephants have been working here for centuries. Lately, more elephants are working as trekkers instead of logging help due to tourist demand. Find out more at the Elephant Nature Park's website. They are based in Chiang Mai.
    An exciting alternative is to enrol in a three-day mahout training school, offered by the Anantara Resort at Chiang Saen, 70 kilometres north of Chiang Rai, in northern Thailand. Itís an incredibly beautiful, lush and unspoilt part of the country, with misty mountains, forests and rivers to set the perfect backdrop for elephant back photography. Anantaraís elephant camp, designed as a traditional hill tribe mahout village, works closely with the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang to help rescue and rehabilitate Thailandís sad, city-bound elephants and their trainers. Since the banning of commercial logging in 1989, many elephants and their owners faced unemployment, forcing them into either illegal logging facilities where they suffer abuse or overwork, or into big cities to beg change from camera-snapping tourists. The sanctuary provides an opportunity for a fresh start for both the elephants and their mahouts, helping them to break the cycle of poverty and put their skills to a useful end.
    The camp also provides a wonderful opportunity for resort guests to get up close and personal with the gentle giants, creating a memorable bond and experiencing a vanishing way of life. Guests are encouraged to immerse themselves in the daily care of the elephants, which includes collecting them from the jungle at 6.30 am, feeding them their average daily consumption of 250 kilograms of bananas, bamboo and sugarcane, and joining in the daily bathing ritual at the river for a true immersion in all things 'elephant'.
    If you prefer a little less 'hands on' and a little more luxury, you should check out the Four Seasons Tented Camp; a five-star luxury campsite nestled into a riverside hill overlooking the poppy fields of Burma. Though luxurious and suitable for the more up-market clientale, this resort also has a strong eco-focus, with its own elephant sanctuary.
  • Asia: Singapore - Visit Singapore Zoo for a chance to ride an Asian elephant while enjoying their "open zoo" setting. Animals are separated from the public with moats or glass enclosures, unless you are riding on an elephant. Rides are offered from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. and 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. every day. Visit the Singapore Zoo website here for more details.
  • Asia: Bali - If you'd rather watch elephants than ride them, elephants perform daily at the Elephant Safari Park. It is run by Bali Adventure Tours. The Elephant Safari Park is situated in a pleasant five acre site, surrounded by natural forest. Highlights include a restaurant overlooking a lake, a reception center, a gift shop, an elephant arena and a museum with more than 1,000 exhibits. Guests can watch elephants take paintbrush in trunk to create large land mammal masterpieces; there is also a gallery in which elephants' paintings are displayed. Visitors are able to hand-feed elephants and have their pictures taken with them. The Elephant Safari Ride Tour package includes a stay at the 25-room Elephant Safari Park Lodge, elephant rides from room to park, park admission, an elephant ride through a forest, lunch and insurance. Contact them through their website above, or directly at Bali Adventure Tours, Adventure House, Jl. By Pass, Ngurah Rai, Pesanggaran, Bali 80361, Tel 011-62-36- 721480.
  • Asia: Laos - In Laos, the Elephant Park Project offers a 'Living with Elephants' 2 day tour at the Elephant Village, Luang Prabang. This 'Living like a Mahout' program is unique in Laos and offers you a very exceptional experience to live with the elephants and their trainers in the Elephant Village in Luang Prabang. Follow the day of the Elephant Mahout (Elephant keeper) and learn about them and their life in the project area. Ride the elephants, wash them and bring them to the forest. Stay overnight in the Elephant Lodge. Help with elephant feeding (they eat a lot!) and share time with elephants and their handlers in one of the most beautiful areas of the Laotian countryside. Alternatively, you will find that elephant interaction and elephant tours in Laos are available at different locations around the country. These include: Hong Sa - Sayabouli, Champassak - King fisher Lodge, Phou Asa, Vientiane, and others.
  • Africa: South Africa - There is nothing like a safari aboard an African elephant to explore the game parks and photograph the numerous species of African wildlife. Currently three South African game lodges offer the chance to ride out into the bush on the back of an elephant: Camp Jabulani in Limpopo province, Addo Elephant Back Safaris in the Eastern Cape and the Elephant Sanctuary in Gauteng.
    Camp Jabulani is located in South Africa's Limpopo Province The privately owned camp has several safari packages including wedding and honeymoon safaris, and features an 18-hole golf course, its own winery, a spa, gourmet dining, 24 guest rooms and 12 elephants. Visitors have the option to participate in daily elephant-back safaris, wildlife-viewing expeditions in open jeeps, hot-air balloon rides and clay pigeon shooting. Book your Camp Jabulani elephant ride on their official website.
    To find out more about the Addo Elephant Back Safari, visit their official website here:
  • Africa: Botswana - Botswana's Abu Camp offers a luxury filled elephant safari in the Okavango Delta through a company called Classic Africa. To find out about a luxury elephant safari from Classic Africa, you should visit their website here:
  • Africa: Zimbabwe - Elephant rides are available from a number of operators in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. They do not use howdahs in Zimbabwe, as the elephants are ridden from saddles or blankets directly on the elephant's back. Morning or sunset tours are available. Though these tours are not cheap, meals and drinks are included. The elephants seat two or three passengers at a time, plus the Induna (elephant carer) who sits on the elephant's neck. Elephant back Safaris, elephant viewing, and elephant training are also available at the Antelope Park, just outside Zimbabwe's third biggest city of Gweru. There are some great opportunities for horse-back safaris and lion viewing/feeding here as well.
  • North America: USA - Try the Southwick Zoo in Mendon, Massachusetts just outside Boston if you want to stay closer to home. Rides are offered every day to the general public for people who weigh 150 lbs. or less. You can explore Southwick's Zoo online here:

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