Artist retreat for elephants

Written by: Paul Dixon

Somewhere across Africa an elephant just died to give man a handful of ivory trinkets to prove his monetary wealth. There is no other use for ivory, unless you happen to be an elephant.

When I first arrived in Africa some 30 years ago, there were approximately 1.2 million elephants across the continent. Today about 440 000 survive. So in this relatively short time, 760 000 have perished to fuel man’s greed, to give man his false sense of wealth and superiority. Roughly 35 000 elephants are killed for their ivory by poachers every year, this equates to one every 15 minutes; all day, all night, every day, every night!

I had no idea all those years ago of the profound effect Africa and her wildlife would have on me. A lot has changed in that time, and I now find myself in the enviable position of being an artist specialising in wildlife. I was recently invited to take part in an “Artist’s Retreat” in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania, as a member of a very prestigious group of international artists.

The primary objective of the trip was to introduce the artists to a variety of wildlife but most importantly the elephants, to gather reference material for future exhibitions to be held at various locations through which we will be raising awareness and much needed funds to help prevent the ongoing slaughter of these majestic animals. These established artists, who have made names for themselves across the globe, will hopefully raise a substantial amount of money for the African Wildlife Trust through their high-end collections.

The group of artists getting close to an elephant.

The group of artists getting close to an elephant.

Globally people are generally unaware of the scale of the elephant poaching problem, certainly in Southern Africa the recent focus has been on the illegal trade in rhino horn, so elephants have taken a ‘back-seat’ so to speak.

Of the 35 000 elephants massacred annually for ivory, about 30% are from Tanzania and we were witness to the aftermath of some of the poachers handiwork; carcasses with their faces hacked off, some now just bones and skin but others more recent, highlighting the horrific demise these animals suffered.

The group looking at the skull of a poached elephant

The group looking at the skull of a poached elephant

It is now known that elephants, like humans, suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) so who knows whether there were other elephants who bore witness to these atrocities and will suffer the symptoms of PTSD. These animals will remember for the rest of their lives the horrific events that they may have witnessed and they will learn to fear and loathe man, perhaps becoming a ‘problem’ animal or a ‘rogue elephant’ as the expression goes, giving rise for the ‘need’ to be removed for the ‘safety of people’ and becoming just another dead elephant, adding to the losses.

Most of the other artists had never been to Africa and certainly had never seen elephants up close and personal in their natural habitat. They wanted to stop at every turn, every little thing needing to be examined minutely and as much information possible gathered and stored in memory banks, both human and digital!

Examining elephant dung

Examining elephant dung

With our objectives being the same we were very tolerant of one another, waiting patiently while photos and notes were taken of just about anything even remotely interesting, building blocks for paintings not yet even at the concept stage. There was an unspoken shared understanding, a silent rapport between us.

As we started to get to know each other a little more and we learnt more about our different styles and media, it became more apparent that there was an underlying common thread linking us all together and that was the passion that we all shared for the nature of our work and the wildlife that we portray.

Artist Julie Askew sketching out of the top of a safari vehicle

Artist Julie Askew sketching out of the top of a safari vehicle

People are often moved when they arrive in Africa, they feel a connection, as though there is some primeval link between them and Africa and I think I can quite safely say that this feeling was experienced by all the artists in some way.

As a group of artists specialising in wildlife, it is a responsibility of ours to try to create greater awareness among our audience to what is really going on, particularly about poaching. It is at these times through the various exhibitions of our art that we hope to get people’s interest and get them involved in some way or another in anti-poaching, whether it be joining other like-minded people, petitioning local government, peaceful demonstrations or if they can afford it, making financial contributions. As usual, these things always boil down to money and a lot of fund-raising is necessary to combat poaching. At the end of the day the guys with the most bucks are going to win the poaching war and at the moment those guys are the poachers; we need to change that! It is our responsibility as custodians of the planet and all it’s inhabitants to do everything in our power to make sure we do not lose yet another species to man’s vanity and insatiable greed!

John Agnew, Jan Martin McGuire and Julie Askew with their field paintings of a baobab tree, along with their enthusiastic guard, Aly

John Agnew, Jan Martin McGuire and Julie Askew with their field paintings of a baobab tree, along with their enthusiastic guard, Aly

If this mass murder of elephants is allowed to continue unabated, they will become extinct in about 12 years. Gone forever, no more elephants… ever. Can you imagine an Africa with no elephants? Difficult, I know, but a lot closer in reality than you think.

My sincere thanks to Pratik Patel of the African Wildlife Trust and Safari Legacy for giving us the opportunity to visit his wonderful country and gain the experience and a few more insights into what is happening in Tanzania. My thanks, also to all the other artists involved in this venture, for their patience and tolerance! Last, but by no means least, my thanks to all the staff at Kikoti Camp for making our stay comfortable and memorable, I look forward to seeing you all again someday!

James Gary Hines II, Jan Martin McGuire, and Dale Weiler giving a check for US$ 2 175 to Pratik Patel of African Wildlife Trust raised from sketches and drawings auctioned on Facebook.

James Gary Hines II, Jan Martin McGuire, and Dale Weiler giving a check for US$ 2 175 to Pratik Patel of African Wildlife Trust raised from sketches and drawings auctioned on Facebook.

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  • Cottonwood

    This is a great idea, bringing these artists together on behalf of the elephants. Perhaps we could also do a similar gathering for writers? http://www.barbarajmoritsch.com

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