Some of my paintings of elephants went on exhibit at Hubro Litteraturhus, Sandefjord, Norway on 31 March 2011 along with a selection of Petter's photographs. Due to a full house we had a second event on 29 April, also with a full house. On both evenings we spoke, through the paintings on Hubro's walls, about the intelligence and sociality of elephants and threats to their survival. By clicking on the images you can see a larger version.

Joyce painting. (©ElephantVoices) I have enjoyed drawing and painting since I was a young child and I have sweet memories of sketching with my siblings and with my childhood friend, Amanda, at home and on family safaris in Amboseli, the Mara, Tsavo and elsewhere. We had a fancy pullout camping table that became our "studio" after mealtimes. At the Taft School I was fortunate to take drawing and watercolor and oil painting classes with beloved teacher, Mark Potter. And throughout my years as an undergraduate at Smith College, where I studied biological sciences, I took as many studio art classes as I could fit into my schedule.

Later, I included pen and ink illustrations of elephant behavior in my PhD thesis (34.12 MB) as well as in my memoir, Coming of Age with Elephants. When Petter and I moved to Norway, I began taking intuitive painting classes with local artist, Marit Skyer. Petter created a little studio for me in the house and I have spent many long winter evenings with elephants in Africa through my paintings. The paintings are for sale - get in touch if you are interested. The proceeds go toward our work for elephants.

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Elephant memories and dreams

MEMORIES OF DARKNESS (Acrylic, 100cm x 80cm)

I moved to Malawi, Africa, with my family at the age of six and I carry with me vivid memories of that early period of my life. But, it was in Amboseli, Kenya, that I had my first real experience with a wild elephant. My family took a holiday in East Africa when I was seven, driving by LandRover up through Tanzania to the northern side of Kilimanjaro. On the dusty Amboseli plains we met an enormous male elephant, standing alone on the salt pan.

When I asked my father what would happen if the elephant charged, he replied, “He will squash the car to the size of a pea pod!” With that alarming answer the elephant ran at us kicking up a cloud of dust. It was a terrifying experience which gave me a healthy respect for elephants as well as a tremendous thrill.

Many of my memories of that safari are of driving and driving through dark African nights that were punctuated by exciting moments when an animal appeared in the headlights. These memories combined with others later in life of the mysterious bodies of elephants looming in the headlights, agitated under the glare of a spotlight, or serene in the moonlight, inspired this painting.

AMBER EYES (Acrylic, 40cm x 50cm)

Elephants rely on their sense of smell and hearing more than they do on their sight, and African elephants, in particular, spend much of their time with their eyes cast down, their long lashes covering their irises. It is only when elephants are drawn to look directly at something unexpected, alarming or deserving of study, that they open their eyes wide. So it is a rare treat to look into the eyes of an African elephant, and when you do you are rewarded with beautiful amber-colored irises.

My daughter’s first name is Amber, for the eyes of the elephants.

CHARGE EN MASSE (Acrylic, 81cm x 64cm)

Elephants show an uncanny ability to coordinate the defense of their families. When they feel threatened they bunch together, assembling around the matriarch, and waiting for her to take the lead. She may decide to charge forward alone, or call on her entire family to attack en masse, or she may bid them to make a hasty retreat.

This painting was inspired by an incident that my daughter, Selengei, witnessed when she was a small child. The night before the incident a man had been killed by an elephant, and the Maasai moran, or warriors, decided to take revenge, threatening to kill a thousand elephants. By the end of the day six elephants had been killed or injured, the Wardens’ car pelted with spears and a man had been tossed some seven meters through the air by an angry elephant matriarch.

I happened to be on the top of Observation Hill overlooking Enkongo Narok swamp that morning, giving a lecture to a group of Japanese students. Suddenly, the sound of war-whoops interrupted my speech and I ran to the edge of the hill to see what was happening. There below me, in the middle of Amboseli National Park, I counted 28 warriors walking rapidly from the south, carrying spears, their shukas tied up for battle. They were headed directly toward a group of elephants who were on the north side of the hill. Without hesitating, I began running down the hillside toward the elephants, shouting and waving my arms so that they would run away from impending disaster. Then I ran toward the men pleading, "ntasho! ntasho!" in Maa for them to stop. The commotion frightened the elephants who, fortunately, escaped into the deep swamp. As I negotiated with the leader of the warriors, however, the angry men proceed to spear and killed two buffaloes in front of our eyes. I departed to contact the Warden, to tell him of the warriors demands, while the men crossed the swamp to continue their search for elephants.

In the meantime, unbeknownst to me, little Selengei, out with colleagues to spend a morning watching elephants, met the warriors and witnessed a horrifying attack on Alison and Amy and their family. Several of the elephants were wounded in the battle that ensued and Alison grabbed one of the men in her trunk and tossed him through the air.

Elephants have extraordinary capacity for memory - their brains suggest that their abilities rival our own. And like people, elephants are intelligent enough to retaliate. The cycle of violence playing out between elephants and people across Africa and Asia is tragic. I believe that much of it could be prevented if people were able to understand the complex relationship that they are caught up in with elephants and if they took steps to improve it.

TOUCH ME, ELEPHANT (Acrylic, 69.5cm x 90cm)

In this painting I have tried to express the balance of power and vulnerability in the human-elephant relationship. In the painting we see the enormous size and strength of the elephant coupled with the gentleness of his tender touch. And we see the vulnerability and defenselessness of the women, who yet appears completely at peace with the presence of the elephant.

Each year elephants in Asia and Africa kill hundreds of people; while people kill tens of thousands of elephants. So while elephants are the more physically powerful, they are defenseless against our use of lethal force and over powered by our sheer numbers. Despite all of the dreadful things that we do to them - slaughtering them for ivory, exterminating them because we feel they take up too much space, abusing them in circuses and zoos - they appear to accept us, forgive us.

Elephants are fully capable of understanding that humans are their enemies - indeed our work with colleagues in Amboseli has shown that they are able to make subtle discriminations between different types of people who represent different levels of threat. In recognition of this, it has always seemed to me in my relationships with wild elephants that to be accepted among them, and to be trusted by them, is something to be cherished. When I am among the elephants I feel a, extraordinary sense of privilege.

Many years ago a young male elephant named Vladimir, walked up to the window of my car, so close that I could reach out and touch him. And so, without thinking of the consequences, I touched the wrinkled skin of his trunk. To my surprise, Vladimir, a completely wild elephant, was totally accepting of my touch, allowing me to move my hand up and down his trunk and and to hold on to his tusk. Thereafter, each time we met, I called out to him and he approached me and allowed me to touch him. So, in one sense the woman in the painting represents me, and the special feeling of trust and understanding that I have with elephants; in another sense the woman represents humankind and the elephant the collective forgiveness of all elephants for the wrongs we do them.

MARA LANDSCAPE (Acrylic, 81cm x 64.5cm)

The Maasai Mara landscape where Petter and I have recently started a new project is characterized by rolling plains punctuated by solitary and elegant Balanites trees.

The scenery is so different from that of Amboseli, where I have spent so many years of my life, and I love the image of elephants out on the open grasslands standing by these iconic trees.

PHANTOMS OF THE FOREST (Acrylic, 100cm x 80cm)

Phantoms of the Forest is inspired by a period in 1998 that I spent in the Maasai Mara and by an elephant who I met on one occasion on the edge of the riverine forest by the Musiara Swamp.

The elephant I met was a wise old matriarch who was accompanied by her family, which included her teenage son. She was magnificent female, with extraordinary presence. She walked by my car, passing within millimeters of the bonnet. As she did so, she looked directly in at me sitting in the driver's seat, with a look in her eye that seemed to say, “this is our place.”

Her son, following in his mother’s footsteps, his belly almost touching the car, looked in at me in exactly the same manner and then lifting his tail he thumped it, deliberately and heavily, down on the bonnet. It was one of those moments in the presence of elephants that I thought to myself, “there is another thinking being inside that brain.” I gave this matriarch the first female code-number, f0001 and her son, m0001.

The year I met this female was the same year that I met Petter. Indeed, the second time I met him was when I was out by this very forest with the Mara elephants. Unfortunately, a security incident forced me to abandon the study after I had identified about 150 elephants and I never dreamed that I would see this female again. Yet, thirteen years later, Petter and I have started a new project in the Mara and f0001, now called “Big Mama” was one of the first elephants that we met and we have seen her many times since.

Individuals and behaviour

IN THE PRESENCE OF GRACE (Acrylic, 54cm x 64cm)

Grace, who passed away a few years ago, was one of Amboseli’s grand dames and an elephant who is the subject of many of our best photographs depicting elephant behavior.

This painting is after a photograph taken by Petter and shows Grace engaging in what we refer to as a Herding-Push - a push that is meant to be “motherly” rather than aggressive. Her behavior occurred moments before she gave what we call a Little-Greeting-Rumble to her daughter and others, who responded by lifting their heads and ears and calling back to her.


Echo and Erin: Resting in the Elephant Grass is inspired by a series of intimate photographs that Petter took while in the company of Echo and her family. We had been out together in the morning recording the voices of these elephants by the edge of Longinye Swamp. Later that day we went back to see them, Petter in our car, while I was in a separate vehicle with a visitor.

As I was observing Echo and her family a noisy tourist frightened them, causing them to run away in panic. Echo took up the position of “rear guard”, following her family at a dignified pace, but looking back over her shoulder to keep an eye out for any more trouble. The elephants ran straight into the Consimilis, or “elephant grass,” and right to the spot where Petter had parked. They talked back and forth amongst themselves, as if discussing the incident that had frightened them, and then, within two meters of Petter, they relaxed and fell asleep. They felt safe.

TONIE AND BABY (Acrylic, 40cm x 50 cm)

I have a special affinity for Tonie because it was through her that I was first given a window into the emotional lives of elephants. Back in 1980 I found her standing out on the open pan in the hot sun with a stillborn infant at her feet. For a long time she struggled to raise the lifeless newborn and then she seemed to understand, and stood listlessly by her dead calf. Her whole body seemed to spell grief. Her head and her ears drooped and the corners of her mouth turned down. Her movements were slow and spiritless, except when she was called to defend her calf from predators.

When on the next day I found her still standing vigil over her dead calf, I decided to take some water to her. I filled two 20-liter jerry cans and took with me a large plastic basin. Parking my car nearby, I set the basin on the ground and began to pour. As she heard the water splash into the basin she came eagerly to my side and began to drink as I poured, her tusks just centimeters from my head. After she had quenched her thirst she reached into my car and touched me gently on my chest. Then she went back to her vigil.

This painting of Tonie and baby is inspired by a recent photograph taken by our friend and elephant sculptor, Doug Aja.

MARA BULLS CHILLING (Acrylic, 60cm x 72.5cm

The first step in our new project in the Mara entails getting to know the elephants individually, and the first stage in that process involves taking identification photographs. Our photographs focus on the notches, tears, holes and venation patterns of the elephants' ears, the configuration of their tusks and any other features that may distinguish one individual from another.

This painting was done from an ID photograph of a beautiful male who was in a group of six bulls relaxing and feeding below the Siria Escarpment on the plains of the Maasai Mara. Notice the cup-notch in his upper right ear and his long asymmetrical tusks. He also has a wart-like growth on his trunk and a strong vein on his lower right ear. He has been given code number m0514 and is awaiting a name.

MR. NICK IN MUSTH (Acrylic, 30cm x 39.5cm)

I began studying elephants at the age of 19 and Cynthia Moss gave me the initial task of getting to know the males of the Amboseli population - identifying, numbering and naming them. This male, code-numbered 86, was one of the first males I met. His ears were very "ragged," with many nicks and tears, and so I named him Mr. Nick, after the nick-name of one of my high school teachers.

Mr. Nick was estimated to have been born in the same year as I, and being the same age I felt a special affinity for him. When he finally came into musth he became one of the males whose sexual and aggressive behavior I studied in detail during my post-doctoral research.

This painting is from a photograph taken by Petter showing a closeup of the wonderful texture of Mr. Nick’s skin and the flow of his temporal gland secretion when he was in full musth. The photograph was taken just after he had given a deep and throbbing musth rumble.

THE MUSTH MALE (Acrylic, 80cm x 64.5cm)

Males in musth carry themselves with a very characteristic swagger, known as the Musth Walk - holding their heads high, their jaw tucked in and their ears stiff and slightly extended. This posture makes them appear even larger and more impressive than they are!

When confronted by another male of equal stature a musth male will draw himself up to his full height and spread his ears in threat as in this painting, after a photograph by Doug Aja.

BATTLE OF THE TITANS (Watercolor, framed, 79cm x 59cm incl. metal frame)

When male elephants in musth fight, they do so to inflict bodily harm. These fights are rare and dangerous, so to witness such a battle is both thrilling and horrifying.

During the years I studied the behavior of musth males I had the opportunity to observe, photograph and film numerous battles for supremacy between musth males.

This painting is based on an exquisite photograph taken by Martyn Colbeck. I tried to capture the sense of movement and power as the male on the left uses his tusk as a lever to knock the other male off his feet. Such battles can be over in a matter of minutes or drag on for many hours.


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Remembrance in the Confluence of Trails is inspired by a series of photographs Petter took of the bones of the lovely Esmeralda, who died a horrible death after being poisoned.

Elephants have an understanding of death, and show characteristic behavior around dying and dead elephants and the bones of their own kind. They will attempt lift dying elephants, and they will stand quietly over the body of the deceased and pick up and carry away their bones. It is as if they mourn their dead and have some level of respect, understanding or memory of those who have passed away.

The elephant practice of visiting the final resting place of a companion results in the laying down of new elephant trails. 

In this case five trails converged on the carcass of Esmeralda. At the time that the photograph was taken the flies feasting on, and laying their eggs on, her decaying body still covered the nearby bushes. Her skull, jaw bone, a scapula and some ribs remained, but the long bones and other smaller bones had already been carried away by the elephants.

In Maasailand, elephant skulls are often found with stalks of grass sticking out from a hole in the skull and these have been placed there by passing Maasai. In Maasai lore it is believed that the elephants are descended from a young bride who was turned into an elephant for disobeying her father. As it is a Maasai tradition to gather grass, spit on it and place it in the skulls of deceased people, elephants are included in this ritual due to their special status. 

It is also believed that when elephants find dead humans that they, too, place grass upon their graves.

Indeed, there are many stories, some of which I have been told first hand, of elephants covering both the bodies of deceased elephants and deceased people with plucked vegetation. Growing grass is a symbol of peace and spit is a symbol of rain and the two together are a blessing bestowed upon the deceased.

Elephant conservation and welfare

RAIDING (Acrylic, 73cm x 60cm)

Conflict between people and elephants over diminishing resources is an enormous problem in the parts of Africa and Asia where the two species share the same landscape. As the number of people continues to grow, and the demand for resources increases, the pressure on wildlife, particularly landscape species like elephants, becomes more acute.

As their habitats disappear, their migration routes become blocked by settlement and their water sources dry up, elephants are forced to enter the places where people live. They help themselves to maize fields, they break pipes to access water to drink, they knock over grain stores, they destroy homes, and when attacked they retaliate, killing and injuring people and livestock. They have no choice.

Elephants are smart: they carry out their raids on moonless nights when people are least able to defend themselves. In this painting I tried to depict the chaos caused by a family of elephants raiding a village.

THE LAST CROSSING (Acrylic, 100cm x 80cm)

The Last Crossing is inspired by a recent visit to the island of Lamu off the coast of Kenya. Returning to Kenya as a young adult in 1975 I was captivated by stories I heard of elephants sliding down the sand dunes and swimming in the sea on Kenya’s northern coast near Somalia. Then came the devastating poaching of the 1970s in which 35,000 elephants were slaughtered in this area of Kenya alone.

When I headed the elephant program for Kenya’s wildlife authority in the early 1990s Iain Douglas-Hamilton and I flew in a single engine plane along the coastline to look for survivors. We saw a couple on the island of Manda, just north of Lamu, but on the beautiful islands further north all that remained were the elephants’ sun bleached bones. 

Elephants no longer swim across the channel from the mainland to Manda Island, either.

In recent years the dredging of the channel, increasing settlement and growing hostility toward their presence on the island has dissuaded them from crossing. I feel my heart cry out for the elephants - one more loss in a fight for survival.

AFRICA'S LOST GIANTS (Acrylic, 40cm x 120cm)

Africa’s Lost Giants is an outpouring of anger and sadness about the greed and indifference of mankind. The largest African elephant tusks reside in the British Museum of Natural History in London and weigh, respectively, 226.5 and 214 pounds. They came originally from Legumishira, a small volcanic crater on the northwestern slopes of Kilimanjaro, and date back to the late 1800s. Legumishera is part of the range of the elephants of Amboseli, who I have spent most of my adult life studying.

Today, very large tusks in Amboseli and elsewhere, are only half that weight. The average weight of tusks in trade is now under five kilos. This means that the trade in elephant teeth has mined, and is continuing to mine, Africa’s elephants.

Elephants are sexually dimorphic, meaning that adult males and females grow to different sizes. Males measure twice the weight of females. Elephant tusks continue to grow throughout life with the tusks of males being longer and thicker than the tusks of females. By age 50 the average tusk weight of males is seven times the weight of females. Poachers target older males with larger tusks and then turn their sights on the large females, the matriarchs, the leaders of families.

The ivory trade is gathering pace once more and this time entire populations risk going extinct. In the last two decades China has become a major consumer of ivory, and with a growing middle class and enormous investment in Africa, ivory is being smuggled from Africa to China by the ton.


The Elephants were the Last Individuals is inspired by a quote from one of my favourite books. The quote is: "There was still in Africa a marvelous, irresistible freedom. Only it belonged to the past, not the future. Soon it will go. There'll no longer be herds swirling against the forests and crushing them in their passage. The elephants were the last individuals." The book is The Roots of Heaven, a French novel written in 1958 by Romain Gary. Set in French Equatorial Africa the novel tells the story of Morel, a crusading environmentalist who sets out to protect the elephants from ivory hunters, who he says are driving the elephants to extinction.

Morel writes a petition to put an end to the hunting in which he describes elephants as a lasting symbol of freedom for all humanity. In the book he explains to Mina, a barmaid, how his crusade for elephants came about. He tells her, “I first began thinking about the elephants during the war, when I was a prisoner in Germany, probably because they were the most different thing I could imagine from what surrounded me: they were the very image of immense liberty. Every time we looked at the barbed wire or were almost dying of misery and claustrophobia in solitary confinement, we tried to think of those big animals marching irresistibly through the open spaces of Africa, and it made us feel better. Barely alive, starved, exhausted, we would clench our teeth and follow our great free herds obstinately with our eyes, and see them march across the savanna and over the hills, and we could almost hear the earth tremble under that living mass of freedom. We tried not to speak of it, for fear the guards would notice, and sometimes we would just look at each other and wink, and then we knew that it was all right, that we could still see it, that it was still alive in us. We held on to the image of that gigantic liberty, and somehow it helped us to survive.”

Today the elephants of what was once French Equatorial Africa - Chad, the Central African Republic, Republic of Congo and Gabon are almost gone.

FREE SPIRITS (Acrylic, 40cm x 120cm)

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Free Spirits is inspired by a series of photographs taken by Petter of a family of elephants at play and has become the banner for The Elephant Charter. The Elephant Charter, which Petter and I wrote together with four other elephant biologists represents a consensus of the nature of elephants and was written to provide a set of guiding Principles as a touchstone for anyone needing to address elephant interests.

The Charter is intended to promote scientifically sound and ethical management and care of all elephants, providing guidance to law and policy makers, enforcement agencies and the courts, organizations, institutions and international bodies, as well as to managers of wild and captive elephants. Please join us by signing the Elephant Charter.