The Photo I Couldn't Take
Updated: Jan 2, 2020
My finger was on the button and the subject in perfect composition and I could not press the shutter. My heart wouldn’t let me. It felt disrespectful. Or maybe I was just afraid I would lose it and burst into tears.
Earlier that day…
Bouncing along the dirt road in a 4x4 open game drive vehicle, still a bit of early morning chill in the air, we were captivated by the wildlife at every turn - elephants, cape buffalo, giraffes, lions, and flocks of the most delightful helmeted guineas scurrying across our path. Our guide spotted two male lions, likely brothers, who had a kill. Our hearts broke as we stopped with a clear view and only yards away from one of the lions tugging on the prey. He was pulling on the trunk of a baby elephant.
The sight was both painful and fascinating, watching this lion work hard to move his prey. Even though very young, this elephant still weighed 200 to 300 pounds, probably 3/4 the weight of the full grown lion. You tell yourself this is all a part of nature, a part of the cycle of life, but it was nonetheless painful to watch.
Baby elephants are typically so well protected by the female herd that they rarely fall prey to the lions. Something had gone terribly wrong. Did it not keep up? Was it a sickly calf? We would never know.
All we knew was that after seeing so many adorable baby elephants hovering under their moms and walking in the middle of their herd with gangly, uncontrolled trunks going everywhere, this was tough to see. But this was nature and a fascinating view of the lion with his prey and I documented it with numerous photos.
After a mid-day break, we were back in the vehicles for another game drive through Chobe National Park.
The grasses were brown and trees were without leaves during the dry season making it much easier to see the game than when it would become green and lush in the rainy season.
We came upon a small elephant herd and one female was standing slightly away from the rest. Her trunk was dangling straight toward the ground, no tossing, no movement. Our guide pointed out her teats which were surprisingly positioned just like humans, two teats between the forelegs, not an udder like a cow or rows of teats like a dog. They were engorged, obviously full of milk from not having been recently suckled.
This was the mother of the baby who had fallen prey to the lion. Her grief was undeniable in her drooping ears, her limp trunk, her demeanor. She was in the depths of sadness. This was the moment I would not capture.
Elephants have a unique capacity in the animal world to experience many of the same emotions as humans - sadness, joy, jealousy, compassion, and grief. They are known to show signs of grieving for extended periods and even to “bury” their dead by covering with sticks and leaves.
Later on that drive we once again stopped where the two lions were now resting by their partially eaten prey.
But this time, several elephants had gathered nearby, a part of the young dead elephant’s herd. Lions are no threat to an adult elephant and these elephants had come to grieve over the body of their departed family member. It felt as though I was encroaching on this family’s funeral ceremony. Amazingly, the two resting lions stood up and walked a distance away as if to give the elephant family space to visit the body before the lions would return to their meal.
Once again, I had a “great” shot. I couldn’t take it. If the lions who killed because they must eat could give these grieving elephants respect, then so could I.