Published: May 2007
Christine Eckstrom

When a group of elephants wandered through the Luangwa Valley camp author Christine Eckstrom shared with her husband, photographer Frans Lanting, she had reason to smile. "After all that humans have done to them and knowing that many of the older elephants would remember the dark days of poaching just two decades ago," she says, "I was always touched when elephants seemed relaxed around us."

What was your best experience during this assignment?

For two weeks we camped along the Luangwa River in a remote part of the valley where masses of hippos gather in pools at the end of the dry season. Hippos are often peripheral characters on African safaris, but in Luangwa Valley, they're at center stage. And for those two weeks, we were immersed in their lives. There were hundreds right below us, and we heard them all day and night. It was as if they were engaged in constant party conversation. Sometimes their steady background noise of murmuring grunts would be punctuated by one hippo making a high-pitched grunt-wheeze call—a sound you can hardly imagine coming from such a huge animal—and that would set off all the other hippos in a long echo of calls up and down the river. Sometimes they would all fall silent—especially at twilight—when we watched them emerge from the river like gray ghosts, moving up the far bank in shadowy ranks and then melting into the bush to forage for grasses and sausage fruit in the cool of the night.

What was your worst experience during this assignment?

One day I spotted a young elephant with a severed trunk. It was a heartbreaking thing to see. Elephants' trunks are so sensitive and important to them for feeding, drinking, touching, and more. It was hard to watch the elephant struggle to feed, even though it was managing to survive. The most likely cause of its injury was a poacher's snare. Poaching has been seriously reduced in Luangwa Valley, but it remains a constant problem. Even snares set by poachers for small animals can cause dreadful harm and suffering to other creatures, from lions to elephants.

What was the quirkiest experience during this assignment?

Early one morning, we watched a family of elephants ascend the front steps of a safari lodge and then walk straight through the lobby, past the reception desk, and down the back steps to a courtyard where they fed on the ripe fruit of a mango tree. A few years earlier, when the lodge owners planned to expand the reception area, they knew that this would block the traditional route that the elephants used to reach a favorite mango tree. The lodge owners were assured that the elephants would simply walk around to the back to reach the tree, but the elephants had other ideas. Now, during mango season, the elephants have the right of way.