An incredible Journey
So inspired was he by the experience of documenting the incredible journey of three elephants and their mahouts over the varied landscape of Nepal, “a few photographs” became the basis for a feature film and a London photography exhibition.
Like so many of the best stories, the film Mahout, The Great Elephant Walk, started with the meeting of two friends, James Dartnall and Tim Edwards, son of the late AV Jim Edwards, the founder of Pioneering eco-tourism business Tiger Tops and co-founder of the sport of elephant polo.
James, born in Windsor, Berkshire in the UK, and educated at Wellington College, met Edwards junior at Bristol University where they were both studying biology. James already had an interest in photography that emerged during his childhood when his father ran a print and design studio with a medium format Mamiya.
After university, James joined the BBC’s natural history unit as a junior researcher and couldn’t resist getting involved in the studios and edit suites.
“After teaching myself the basics, I applied for my first job on a documentary about brown bears in Canada. After that I was hooked on the concept of working creatively with wildlife while travelling to new places. For me it is the only way I can combine my creativity with my thirst for knowledge of culture and wildlife.”
And so, documenting the journey of the elephants from Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in Chitwan National Park to Tiger Tops Karnali in Bardia National Park along with co-producer Jack Wylson was a project that had natural appeal for James.
“I don’t think Tim expected a feature documentary and a London photography exhibition; they’re just a product of my enthusiasm I guess”, says James.
At the end of the journey, which took five weeks in Monsoon conditions, James remained in Nepal and attended the World Elephant Polo Association (WEPA) World Championships at Karnali, where he auctioned six of the prints from stills taken during the expedition in aid of charities working to eradicate TB in elephants in Nepal.
The photographs reveal the intense symbiotic relationship between elephant and mahout, or keeper, and the extremely inhospitable conditions experienced by the caravan as it made its way through Nepal.
According to James, the three elephants, Champa Kali, Chan Chun Kali, and Ram Kali were selected from two criteria, the first was based on their hardiness and tolerance of the elephant to deal with new conditions or traffic and crowds. The second was the mahouts and whether their families were able to up sticks to the other side of the country, as where elephant goes, mahout must go too as the bond between the two is often for life.
Elephants are not thought to be speedy animals, with their top speed variously estimated at 18kmph, but they are a vital resource at Tiger Tops, making their progress a race against time to arrive in time for the season.
Living closely with these remarkable animals, James inevitably found himself a favorite, Chan Chun Kali, an elephant that was treated for and overcame tuberculosis. “She’s a walking example of what good the project we are supporting can do”, says James. “Plus she has a very unique cheeky smile caused by her overbite.”
Anthropomorphism aside, sleeping rough and being constantly on the move did not make for easy filming or photography conditions. “Between the monsoon rain, language barrier, incessant dust and the lack of directional control we had over the elephants themselves, this was one of the most challenging projects I’ve ever worked on. That said it also gave me the most amount of fulfillment and feeling of self-achievement when I got the shots I wanted. Apparently I love a challenge”, says James.
The expedition has also allowed James to raise awareness of The Nepal Elephant TB Control and Management Plan. “One of my favorite things about [the programme] is that it isn’t run by one large charity, instead it is more of a project or mission that was set up by one vet who took it upon herself to eradicate Tuberculosis in wild and domesticated elephants in Asia”, he explains.
“It also has a long term goal to prevent the return of the disease by training local vets in Nepal to test, treat and cure the disease themselves rather than relying on foreign vets.”
Photographs from the expedition, will be exhibited in London in February and March. Details will be posted on the film’s website. Mahout, the Great Elephant Walk, is due for release in summer 2013.