AFRICAN ELEPHANT - Meru National Park, Northern Kenya
Read the story full story
The African elephant has been part of my life since the very beginning and even more directly part of my father’s life in both his days as a hunter and later as chairman of his wildlife trust. There are few animals more imposing on a landscape than a herd of elephant and there are few elephant more imposing than a mature bull.
It is a sad fact that as the human population has grown with such a vertical curve, the pressures on land use and on the elephants’ traditional ranges has become extreme. As the space freely available to elephant is now restricted by human land use, the conservation of the elephant has become a delicate, scientific balance that can be further complicated by rainfall or lack of rainfall and hence sufficient areas for the elephant to browse and water.
Ever since man has dominated Africa he has hunted the elephant and in most areas to extinction. In the last few decades elephant poaching and the demand for ivory has resulted in a severe decline across the elephant herds. The poacher will take an elephant whatever the size of its tusks, be they large or small. Many elephants have not lived a full life into maturity and beyond and this has resulted in a tragic decline in the large, old bull elephants.
There are however a number of dedicated and selfless people, both game wardens and scientists involved in elephant conservation without whom the elephant would surely have been lost to the world. Thankfully, they have in certain areas been hugely successful in battling against the odds. I wanted to go into the field and try to sculpt a large, old bull elephant if I could ever find one. My benchmark was to find an elephant with ivory that would be estimated to exceed 100lbs per tusk.
In other words an elephant one could rightly assume would only be found in a history book. I was invited by a friend of mine, Mark Jenkins, who was at that time the warden at Meru National Park to join him. Mark Jenkins was a case in point, a warden with selfless determination to see his park thrive. It was through his management, leadership skills and also the trust that non-governmental organisations had in his abilities, that has resulted in the recovery of Meru National Park.
The tragedy of the conservation efforts that are made by the likes of Mark Jenkins is that everything hangs by a thread, the most delicate parts of that thread are both political goodwill and the strength and personalities of the wardens in charge of the parks. It is upon these threads that the future of these elephant depends.
Not only does the park now have a healthy population of black rhino, it is also a secure area for elephant and it is here that I found myself under Mark’s wing, sculpting amongst a bachelor herd that took my breath away. Amongst them was a very old bull who Mark had named Chuma in honour of his father, the late Peter Jenkins, who had been instrumental in creating Meru National Park in the early days. This elephant had the wise eye of an experienced old man.
He had the evidence of severe traumas, not only a broken tusk, but the healed wounds left by a drop spear of the past, the failed attempt of a poacher. This elephant was being looked after by a number of askaris or guards – all bulls, some themselves large and mature. I camped with Mark, an old Kenya friend of mine Charlie Wheeler and Rupert Merton with his daughter Georgie. Rupert is one of those people who has been blessed with the ability to turn his hand to whatever task is placed in front of him. Not only has he been a successful manager in the music world and a professional sculptor, he has now taken on the mantle of film maker and has decided when possible to follow the wanderings of Coreth! We were able, over several days, to sit quietly amongst these elephant in a quite remarkable way. They seemed aware that we were no threat to them and they equally seemed aware that within the boundaries of Meru Park they were secure.
I therefore set my tripod up on the roof of the Landrover and was lucky enough to spend a considerable amount of time observing and sculpting the elephants. I might however add that without the expertise of Mark and Charlie I would never have been able to get quite so close and sculpt with feeling such a degree of safety and security amongst such enormous beasts. It is only when the elephant gives you time in its presence, when the day moves from dawn to dusk that you see the small and intricate behaviour patterns which enables you to put character into the sculpture. There were too many magical moments to capture them all in bronze, but for example, I watched a large, old, bull in the heat of the day rest his enormous ivory in the V of a tree, supporting the weight of that huge head. He crossed his hind legs and disappeared into the land of nod.
What is encouraging however is that the Meru elephants are not unique. I was flown down to the Chulu Hills by my great friend Fuzz Dyer. There too we saw an old bull with enormous ivory. He was flanked by two younger askaris; one either side of him. They would not leave his side as he drank at the water hole, it was almost as if they were shielding him from danger, but they would also reach up with their trunks and touch the old boy, communicating who knows what to him.
What is it about the elephant that I find so irresistibly attractive? It is capturing the huge variety of mood, motion and scale; its size, its weight, the way its whole conformation makes it move. Not only is there a huge weight in its head, but if you look at the skeleton, it is made up of an enormous arch around its backbone, with its legs acting as pillars. However, what people do not necessarily realise is that the elephant, in effect, walks on its fingertips and this somehow gives its movement a great delicacy. Although there is such weight and mass in the elephant there is also extreme tenderness and sensitivity. The elephant is remarkably dextrous not only with the tip of its trunk, but also in the use of its enormous feet.
It can move so silently and yet so quickly on its feet that without suspecting it you can be suddenly surrounded by a herd, an unnerving experience! To sit and watch an elephant choose a clump of grass, take it in its trunk and then gently prise it from the ground with a front foot or to watch it touching and communicating with other members of its herd makes one realise how gentle the animal can be. The elephant family is very close knit and although one does not want to be anthropomorphic, there is an extraordinarily human-like quality and care within the family. I firmly believe that should I make it through the pearly gates, after St Peter I shall meet a herd of elephants!
TIGER - Bandhavgarth & Kanha, India
Read the story full story
Tiger, recently voted the world’s most popular animal in a poll on British television, yet a cat that is currently being persecuted, probably to extinction in the wild, is a subject that I have longed to tackle. The tiger is the biggest of the big cats.
It has an almost supreme feline look from the tip of its nose through those piercing eyes to the end of its tail. The enormity of expression in its face can change in the split of a split second. The movement in its shoulders and down its spine through to the flick of its tail and the nonchalant and confident way that the tiger ambles through the jungle, all fills the sculptor with an enormous palette of action. Other than that imposing head, the tiger does have an extraordinarily narrow, almost two dimensional appearance when viewed from above or behind, this body flows through the undergrowth giving the chance of an enticing twist to the sculptor.
It is well known that the tiger is under huge pressure. All too often one has met or spoken to people who have ventured to India on the quest to find tiger, going to some of India’s most famous tiger reserves, to come back home disappointed. With this in mind, I was determined to try to find and sculpt the tiger in its environment. A brief telephone call to Northern Ireland produced a highly amusing travelling companion, namely my best man Danny Kinahan.
In preparation for the safari, I had been well advised by Julian Matthews of Discovery Initiatives. Julian is very experienced in travel to India and has many of the right contacts at his fingertips. He, along with Joanna van Gruisen a wildlife photographer of some repute, advised me to travel to Madhya Pradesh, to visit two of India’s finest tiger reserves; Bandhavgarh and Kanha. I was given a most efficient and essential guide called Raj Singh who met us on our arrival at Bandhavgarh. Under Raj’s guidance we had the most extraordinary amount of success in a remarkably short time. Pug marks were sighted and the sound of the langur monkey and samba deer led us towards what was surely a tiger.
We came across a crowd of gypsy jeeps, an elephant or two with their mahouts and a queue of people hoping to take an elephant ride to where a tiger was lying up. Once most people had left, we took cameras, sketch books, plasticine and wire and climbed aboard the elephant, not really believing we could possibly be about to see a wild tiger so soon after our arrival. But sure enough, not too deep into the Sal forest, there lay a mother, two cubs and what we assumed to be the father of the cubs. I could not believe my luck and I set forth immediately to sculpt a tiger, discovering the delights of working from the back of an elephant!
The next few days were filled with similar adventures. The sights and sounds of the jungle, the deep chill of early morning starts, wild boar, chital deer, a feeling of being in Rudyard Kipling country and enormously satisfying days which invariably ended with another delicious curry. Danny was asked by a visitor how long we had been in Bandhavgarh, to which he replied very matter of factly; "nine curries!"
We travelled south to the famous Kanha National Park, wonderful bamboo and Sal forests and early morning steam rising from the water courses. Here again under Raj’s guidance we saw, both from elephant and from the jeep, several magnificent tiger and also wonderful bird life. By now I had made several field studies of tiger, chital, langur monkey and even elephant. Although we had met people who had had considerably less luck than us, we could have left these parks and flown home under the misapprehension that there is no great problem with tiger populations in the Sub-Continent. I had seen, over two weeks, fourteen different tiger.
In the Indian press however, I read the horrifying news that the Sariska Tiger Reserve was officially deemed to have lost its entire tiger population to poachers. Also, the world famous Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve had recently had twenty one tiger poached. This was dramatic news, not least as it came from an admission by the Government who are renowned for keeping their heads in the sand over the plight of the tiger. We travelled from Kanha to Delhi where I had arranged to wine and dine with Joanna van Gruisen and her husband Raghu Chundawat, the eminent tiger biologist, who has spent many years studying the tiger in the Panna Reserve. It was from them that I learned the true horror about the scale of the poaching of big cats in the Sub-Continent. I was shown a film taken in Tibet by two charities; the Environmental Investigation Agency and the Wildlife Protection Society of India. It showed an astounding number of tiger, leopard and otter skins smuggled from India.
The skins are openly for sale, often as Tibetan costumes called chubas. Lhasa, the capital of Tibet Autonomous Region and the streets of Linxia seem to be the central markets for these unfortunate animals. The skin chubas are worn by Tibetan people mainly from Kham at their festivals, both in Tibet and the adjoining Sichuan. There seems to be a complete lack of respect towards wildlife, combined with an influx of wealth, funds gained largely from the recently increased sale of a local caterpillar fungus which is used in oriental medicine. Amongst the numerous skins was found over thirty snow leopard skins taken from both China and India. It would appear that the vast majority of poaching is carried out with both poison and tiger traps not unlike the gin-trap of old.
In the case of the tiger and the leopard in the parks of India, the problem is exacerbated by a lack of political will and a highly over bureaucratic Ministry of Environment and Forests. This umbrella organisation cannot possibly provide the clout to preserve the tiger’s jungle effectively because its remit is too large and has conflicting demands put upon it. There is no specific Ministry of Wildlife which would look after the interests of the tiger above all else. At fifty years old, the average age of a forest guard is too high and they are armed at best with old fashioned rifles, but much more usually with sticks.
They are not equipped to oppose the modern poaching organisations that have all the latest gear; satellite navigation, high velocity rifles and high tech communications. The more one hears, the more one realises that the plight of the tiger in the wild has reached a critical stage. It has indeed been said that its survival in the wild at the current rate of depletion is impossible. It is equally awful to know that there are more tiger in North American collections, both in zoos and in private hands than there are in the wild in India. It fills me with sadness that I might not be able to return to India to sculpt the tiger in the wild. If the wild tiger is lost to India, India will have lost the jewel in her crown and those both responsible for its protection and its destruction should hang their heads in shame on the world’s stage.
THE SNOW LEOPARD - The Himalayas, Ladakh
Read the story full story
For a wildlife sculptor there is always a dream that seems to be beyond one’s grasp. For me that dream has been to find a snow leopard in the wild. The snow leopard is a cat whose range takes in the whole of the Himalaya and Central Asia, running from Bhutan right the way up through Mongolia into China. It is some of the world’s most inhospitable country. The cats live at altitudes of between twelve and seventeen thousand feet; their range coincides directly with that of the blue sheep and ibex which are their primary prey species. The cat is so rarely seen by anyone other than the local herdsmen that to see one is an extraordinary privilege.
I was invited by Dr. Rodney Jackson, the founder of the Snow Leopard Conservancy (SLC), to join him on a trip to Ladakh in northern India. Rodney has studied snow leopard in various parts of their range for many years and is one of the world’s leading authorities on this cat. I flew to Leh, again with Rupert Merton who could not resist the chance of attempting to film the experience. The best time of year to view snow leopard is at the end of January/early February when the weather is at its bleakest. The blue sheep come lower down the mountains and hence the cat will follow its lunch. It also happens to be the time of the mating season which is when you will find one cat calling to another; an eerie and extraordinary sound. Leh at that time of the year is completely cut off from the rest of India as the roads into Ladakh are impassable. You therefore have to fly from Delhi landing at Leh at an altitude of nearly twelve thousand feet which immediately lands you in the danger zone for altitude sickness, let alone frostbite. After a few days of acclimatisation and meeting the SLC crew, principally Rinchen Wangchuk, Jigmet Dadul and Tashi Lundup and indeed Rodney, we set forth up into the Hemis National Park where we were to set up our base camp. It immediately became evident that the attempt to find the snow leopard was going to be considerably more difficult than I could ever have imagined. The mountains are dramatic in their ruggedness, the colour of the rocks are uncannily similar to that of the cat. To use the analogy of looking for a needle in a haystack is to understate the task at hand! Although I had a wonderful telescope and more particularly some very experienced local eyes and knowledge, at the end of the day this only slightly reduced the chance of failure, a sighting is only in the gift of the snow leopard. The snow leopard has exceptionally good sight, astonishing camouflage and is incredibly shy of humans.
Over the days in the field we spent a considerable amount of time both searching the mountains with my telescope and also following up known scent rocks, looking for pug marks and any other signs of the cat. This to no avail, we tried another tactic whereby I spent several nights in a hide, way above the camp on my own. To say it was chilly was a minor understatement and on one night there was a major and rare fall of snow which collapsed both my sleeping bivvy and my hide. However, time was moving on and days were running out and only persistence could enable us to have any chance of finding a cat.
Towards the latter part of our safari, Rodney and Rinchen had to return to Leh and Rupert, poor chap had damaged his back and was tent-bound, not the most convenient place to hurt yourself. We had been joined by two charming Americans, Ami Vitale, a photographer and Paul Kvinta who writes for National Geographic. With great excitement, they had seen fresh pug marks near the camp, but as fate had it they had to return home that morning. Jigmet and I set forth with my trusty backpack studio and followed the tracks way up into the mountains. We came to a point where it was just too dangerous to continue, so reluctantly we backtracked, climbed the mountain opposite and with my scope scanned the area around which we had been. It was with enormous excitement that, albeit at a distance, we saw sitting on a rock a large male snow leopard. It was staring down towards some blue sheep. I have to admit I wept with joy, the aim of not only seeing a cat, but having the chance to sculpt it in such extreme conditions had been achieved. I can quite categorically say that never have I seen such a powerful vision nor had such an astonishing sighting of a wild animal as I did with the snow leopard that day.
Apart from the mystery that hangs over this remarkable cat, sculpturally I find it hugely exciting. The snow leopard has some almost outsized features; large feet, very thick fur which gives an almost flowing look to the rosettes in its camouflage and the tail is phenomenal – very long and very thick. It is a huge balance for the cat as it leaps nimble footedly down and over that extreme terrain after its prey. The tail also helps the cat shelter from the extremes of cold as it curls up out of the wind and snow. There is a heavy appearance to the body, largely due to the fur, but this in itself is a fine signature, making a distinction between it and the other big cats. The face of the snow leopard is also very distinct, it has a prominent forehead and surprisingly small ears; one assumes to protect their extremities from the cold. When it lies down it becomes practically invisible, blending in to the rocks seen, only if you are lucky, due to the twitch of its tail. You could well ask, as indeed I did of myself early on in the expedition, what use it would be sculpturally to see a snow leopard at such a distance. Surely one needs to see it close up to get a feel for its movement, anatomy and character, but having lived for the best part of three weeks in the snow leopard’s environment I had learned so much about the cat that I almost felt part of it. The fact is quite clear; the cat showed me its soul. The sighting which lasted only a few minutes made an impression on me that was so deep that all I have to do is shut my eyes and I can see it as freshly as I could do on that day. I set forth immediately to create what I had seen; a sculpture that for me captures a magical moment. Having walked those mountains, seen those sights, watched prayer flags flying across that extraordinary country, I could come home and feel that I had understood the snow leopard. I could put all that I had learned from the experience into creating a collection of snow leopard sculptures.
The snow leopard, like all big cats is under enormous threat. Its place in the world is anything but assured. It is evident from work done by the charities, the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), that horrifying numbers of snow leopard have been killed to satisfy the demand for their pelts from China and Tibet. Predation also occurs all too often across its ranges where these meet with cultivated land and farmed stock. Although the Buddhist culture discourages the taking of life, for the protection of their flocks and in desperation, the farmers may resort to killing the snow leopard. SLC has put considerable time and effort into education schemes, homestay operations (guest houses) for tourism and in building predator proof corrals to protect the stock. Much of the education and the homestays are orientated around persuading the local villagers that the cat’s preservation will benefit the community by drawing in the tourist who wants to walk in the footsteps of the snow leopard.
I hope that other people will have the moving experience of seeing the snow leopard as I did while SLC and its partners work to transform the ‘ghost cat’ from a perceived threat (pest) into an asset worth more alive than dead.