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Look closer

:: the stories behind the map :: 

Every detail was included for a reason, down to the scale of miles, which is a Ugandan mud-wall relief, and the map’s compass rose motif, which comes from a Ghanaian painted cloth design.

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Dame Daphne Sheldrick 

For over thirty years, Kenya-born Daphne Sheldrick has been raising, rehabilitating, and reintegrating orphaned elephants back into the wild. She is the first person to have perfected the milk formula for baby elephants (a process taking 28 years), giving milk-dependent orphans a fighting chance. She remains the world expert on the topic. But beyond this important contribution, she has also revealed another vital ingredient to elephants’ survival: love, connection, and family. Her years of experience alongside elephants has revealed to her that the giant-brained, giant-hearted creatures have similar needs, emotions, and lifespans as humans. The key to Daphne’s success has been her lifelong experience with wild creatures, an in-depth knowledge of animal psychology and the behavioral characteristics of different species, and of course, the most essential component, a sincere and deep empathy. 

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The Savannah 

Of all ecosystems, it seems grasslands are the easiest to overlook. Without dramatic mountaintops to keep our attention, it can appear the boundless bush doesn’t have much to it. It does! Remarkably, the African savannah provides the grasses, sprouts, bushes, seeds, pods, twigs, and branches necessary for Africa as we know it to exist. The iconic savannah tree is the Umbrella Thorn Acacia (Acacia tortillis) depicted in this illustration. Like other savannah trees, the acacia is adapted to withstand hot and cold, drought and rain. Its hard, sharp thorns protect the acacia by deterring animals from over-browsing, but its seed pods, which fall to the ground, provide nutrition for many species. This species-rich territory is prime habitat for primal wildlife. Grazing actually increases grass growth. This unity of life, from fragile green sprouts to fierce predators, largely rests on the African elephant, the architect of Africa. Hour after hour of munching results in fewer trees and more grasslands for grazers like wildebeests, kudus, and zebras to move in. Predators like lions and leopards are quick to follow. Without elephants to push down trees and create pathways with their massive bodies, this entire ecosystem would change. When elephant populations plummet, other species and ecosystems connected to them—many we would never think of—plummet too.

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Elephant Keepers:  Human Family

Of all the heartening aspects of DSWT, the orphan elephants and their keepers is one of the most extraordinary. The only way to make an impact long term is from within, so getting locals involved on such an intimate scale is invaluable.  Broken hearts can be as fatal as injuries to orphaned baby elephants. At the DSWT’s orphanage, locals trained as elephant keepers act as caretakers and surrogate parents for the wounded littles ones. During the day they nourish them with milk, put on sunscreen, and encourage them to play. At night they sleep in the elephants' stalls in lofted beds; provide love when the elephants are scared, lonely, or showing signs of trauma; and do their best to give the orphans the affection and attention their own mother would.

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African Honey Bee:
Unusual Problem Solver

It isn’t easy to deter elephants: they’re huge, and they’re smart. Hungry elephants, deprived of their former range and migration paths, raid crops, causing financial and material damage to farmers. British biologist Lucy King proposed an ingenious solution. Elephants, she reasoned, are terrified of bees, and here’s why: bees are too small to sting through the thick skin of an adult elephant, but they can sting to death a tender and thin-skinned calf. Above all else, matriarchal elephants protect their babies. So why not build honey bee nests at intervals along farm fences? The elephants approach the fence, hear the bees buzzing, turn around, and leave as fast as they can. Problem solved! The bonus is that farmers harvest the honey, adding to their yield.

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Sir David Attenborough

One of the most beloved voices and greatest storytellers of the wild world, British naturalist Sir David Attenborough transforms the most ordinary scenes into bewildering beauty and action thrillers, simply by sharing stories. For over half a century his gentle wisdom, wit, and deep respect for nature has been a tonic for humanity. Through creating, producing, and hosting scores of documentaries including the groundbreaking production Planet Earth, he helps us understand the astonishing rhythm of nature, mesmerizing us with what’s at our fingertips and beyond and reminding us there’s a lot left to protect. At 91, you can still find him walking with penguins, submarining to underwater worlds, and constantly provoking and enchanting those around him regardless of where he is. He remains dedicated to reviving wonder, awe, and valuable lessons accessed through the natural world.

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Aerial Surveillance:
Eyes in the Sky

Serving as eyes in the sky, aerial surveillance is a highly effective deterrent for poachers, a method of scanning extensive areas of land for security and a way to prevent  and expose illegal activities. The DSWT owns a fleet of small planes from which they survey elephant and rhino habitats to collect data and identify (and treat) injured and orphaned animals. Some of their aerial missions are directed against poachers. According to the DSWT website, “Ambushes are laid at strategic locations identified from the air to combat persistent poaching activities, following which many arrests have been made by [Kenya Wildlife Service], whilst poacher’s hideouts, snare lines and shooting platforms erected over waterholes are sighted and also destroyed as are charcoal kilns.”

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Keystone Species:
Savannah & Forest Elephants

Forest and savannah elephants, both herbivores, are keystone species—what they do affects all the species in their habitats and, eventually, in the whole world. According to  National Geographic, “A keystone species is a plant or animal that plays a unique and crucial role in the way an ecosystem functions. Without keystone species, the ecosystem would be dramatically different or cease to exist altogether.”  Elephants spread seeds and nutrients; fell trees and maintain the savannah; and dig soil with their tusks, enriching soil and making water available. In these and other ways, they maintain the harmony in their environment that allows other species, both flora and fauna, to thrive.

The magnificent savannah, or bush elephant (Loxidonta africana), silhouetted against acacia trees and the wide African sky, is a compelling image with which many of us are familiar. Bush elephants are the biggest land animals on our planet, requiring extensive grazing areas, historically provided by huge ranges linked by well-trodden migration paths. Their huge ears allow them to radiate the extreme heat of the savannah.

Forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) are the shyer, more elusive, darker, and smaller subspecies of the two types of African elephants. As opposed to the highly sociable and studied savannah elephants (also known as bush elephants) who live in East Africa’s iconic vast open grasslands, the life of a forest elephant is much more mysterious. They live in Africa’s tropical rainforests, which are dense, wet, and viney with many places to hide. Scientists note their social networks are smaller than those of savannah elephants (generally about five elephants strong) and occur in isolated areas throughout their territories. Despite their differences, they are both disappearing: forest elephant tusks—long, straight, and easy to carve—are highly desirable on the ivory market. In the last decade, over 60% of forest elephants have been killed for their ivory tusks. 

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Trunk to Tail Communication 

As they are a highly social species with giant brains, elephants of course want to communicate! They constantly use all parts of their bodies, from their trunks to their tails, to get their point across. They even speak using their feet! These rumbles carry for miles, acting as a natural long-distance phone call. These nuanced infrasonic rumbles show, once again, how elephants function cooperatively. Elephant infrasound waves were first discerned by Katy Payne in 1984 after she rose to prominence researching whale songs. Fifteen years later Payne and colleagues founded the The Elephant Listening Project, whose mission it is to research elephant communication, particularly among forest elephants. Recently Payne wrote: “I trust that this is not the final chapter...The challenge is to keep listening and remembering that the story is ours as well as theirs.” (Living with Sound, 2013)

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"Wild earth thrives where elephants roam..." 
—Leslie Bulion

Bulion says, “I have loved elephants from afar as long as I can remember. Entranced by their giant-sized bonds, deep memories and playfulness, I even dreamed about elephants...I wrote "Elephant Gardeners" for Constance Brown's beautiful and hopeful Elephant Map Project because I can't—I won't—imagine a world where elephants live, love and play only in stories, poems and our inadequate human memories.”

Leslie Bulion is an award-winning children’s book and poetry writer. She has written three volumes of science poetry: At the Sea Floor Cafe: Odd Ocean Critter Poems (Peachtree Publishers, 2016) ; Random Body Parts: Gross Anatomy Riddles in Verse (Peachtree Publishers, 2015); and Hey There, Stink Bug! (Charlesbridge, 2008), with more coming soon on birds and spiders. She has also written four novels for young readers.  

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It isn’t easy to depict a three-dimensional world in two dimensions: whatever the projection, there are bound to be distortions. The great American cartographer Arthur H. Robinson (1915–2004) developed this “pseudocylindrical” projection in the 1960’s in order to correct the major distortions evident in earlier world maps. For us, the rounded nature of the map evokes our world, and embodies the notion that we are all part of the same world: what happens in Africa eventually affects all of us. The domino effect of a keystone species’ demise reverberates throughout our planet.

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Elephant Skin

Butts abutt in this amusing and touching mother and child image. Baby elephants are thin-skinned and so prone to sunburn that their mothers oftentimes keep them in the shadows underneath their belly. And because they are so thin-skinned, they get very cold in the mild East African winter, which is why little elephants at the DSWT orphanage love their woolen blankets. With time, elephant skin thickens and becomes less sensitive.  Elephants skin sometimes appears to be gray and sometimes appears to be brown or rosy-hued: in fact, their natural color is gray, but they often take on the color of their habitat’s soil.

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Bryan Christy:
Rethinking Our Approach to the Wildlife Trade

Bryan Christy’s invaluable investigative journalism helps the world rethink the wildlife trade. He changes the structure and the way the stories of animal exploitation are told and how people think about them. His groundbreaking work reveals the even darker underbelly of the wildlife trade, which goes way beyond wildlife issue—it’s a security issue, a terrorist issue, and an issue deserving governmental attention. His investigations lead to new wildlife laws and convictions. He exposes serious crime, making this crisis relevant to groups beyond already supportive conservationists, and making it less likely that poachers will get away with their crimes. An investigator, journalist, and fighter for the small guy, Christy is the kind of person we need on wildlife’s side. Christy founded Special Investigations at National Geographic, where he has worked as a Contributing Writer to the magazine, as an Explorer Program TV correspondent, and as a National Geographic Society Fellow. For its 125th anniversary, National Geographic named Christy’s freelance work one of ten ways National Geographic had changed the world.

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The Matriarch:
Family Anchor & Lifeline

Female elephants anchor the elephant family. When a baby elephant is born, an expansive family of female caregivers— including the birth mom, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, and closest family friends—contributes to their upbringing. While males tend to part from the herd after puberty and set off on more independent lives, females stick together. The matriarch plays a particularly significant role in the “ecosystem” of an elephant family. Her leadership affects the daily rhythm of life, dictating when the herd walks, drinks, rests, plays, and sleeps. They learn lessons of love, playfulness, nurturing, discipline, and intense loyalty that have been passed down by matriarchs for millennia. Their bonds help keep them alive. Incredibly, matriarchs retain years of detailed knowledge about their environments—crucial survival information they pass on to their children. During droughts or food shortages, it is the matriarch who knows where to find water and food. When the herd is threatened, it is the confident matriarch who has the influence to encourage the herd to work together to fight predators. When adult females are killed, the massive matriarchal memory bank is destroyed, reverberating throughout the family and the species.

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Secret Worlds Where
Even Dung Beetles Have a Role! 

Beyond a tribute to one of our planet’s most charismatic creatures, this map celebrates the tiny wonders. They may seem less interesting at first glance, but after learning their story, even something as seemingly insignificant as a dung beetle becomes fascinating. There are two types: rollers and tunnelers, and both are invaluable to the African landscape as we know it. Here's why these curious creatures could be the crux of one of the most world's most iconic ecosystems. 

Within seconds of an elephant pooping, dung beetles arrive. Far from just a feast, the dung acts as a courtship tool; the males work tirelessly to roll the dung into a spherical ball in order to attract a mate. He rolls it to a size 30 times larger than the female; the more perfect the sphere, the more attractive he becomes. If she’s impressed, she climbs on and off they go, the male pushing while she sits on top. During this process, the dung become nature's fertilizer! Next, the female deposits an egg deep in the dung, and they bury the dung ball underground, the dung acting as a nutrient-rich incubator. When the larvae emerge, the shell that has protected them becomes lunch. Tunnelers' burial process enables the germination of particular seeds that species depend on. Many creatures depend on the burst of life that result from elephant dung, but none can rival the dung beetle for ingenuity, efficiency, and resourcefulness. And here’s something else amazing about dung beetles: they employ celestial navigation, attuned to the Milky Way.

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"Save the elephants to save the forests
to save the world!"  —Ian Redmond, OBE 

Kicking off his career as an assistant to Dian Fossey in 1976, British field biologist and conservationist Ian Redmond, OBE, has researched and written about some of our planet’s most charismatic and endangered species for over four decades, focusing primarily on the great ape and elephants. With an unwavering passion for the natural world, he spotlights mountain gorillas and elephants, including lesser-known cave elephants. He argues their survival isn’t an option; we don’t want elephants and wild creatures to survive for simply their own good—their survival is necessary to our future, as they are the workforce of the forest and plant the forests of tomorrow.

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Ingenious Organ:  Elephant Trunk 

A snorkel, smeller, horn, bulldozer, arm, weapon, and shower nozzle—an elephant’s trunk is an extraordinary organ. No bones, but over 40,000 muscles, allow the trunk to move in various directions with accuracy and power. Elephant trunks can taste air, gently pick up an egg, shuck corn, push over trees, trumpet louder than a subway train, and save a life with a quick swat. Their ability to adapt to such a range of functions has inspired scientists to create robotic arms based on them—another ingenious design inspired by nature! Elephant babies aren’t born with trunk dexterity—they learn over time to use their unusual appendage, one of the most enchanting things to watch! 

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Play = Survival 

Behind every goofy elephant is a survivor. For elephants, there’s a powerful relationship between survival and play, a behavior that spans their entire lives. Just like in humans, play is about much more than having fun. It encourages cooperation, fosters tolerance, and boosts creativity. Researchers have posited that elephant play might be a rehearsal for leadership, bonding, and even fighting skills; again, the same might be said for humans. But elephants play with such silliness, with such an apparent sense of humor and happiness, it’s hard to believe they’re not just loving life. Elephants engage in their “floppy run,” a crazy, head-swinging, trumpeting, sloppy-swaggering parade; baby elephants helicopter their trunks with obvious joie de vivre; and young elephants roll around together, engage in mock warfare, trumpet their hearts out, and fling sticks around. Life is fun! And not just for the youngsters: adult elephants play, too. It’s also an indicator that elephants are at ease and happy, particularly meaningful after stressful times and for young orphans recovering from trauma. The first signs of play are one of the strongest indications an orphaned elephant has a chance of surviving.

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Elephant Ears

Oversized, floppy, and so thin in sections they are nearly see-through, elephant ears have many functions. For a creature who spends a large part of their day under the hot sun, they require a temperature regulator and their ears are it! The web of tiny blood vessels (visible to the naked eye) on the extensive surface area of their ears release excess heat. Flapping ears back and forth is their version of a built-in giant fan (some ears are over 6 feet long and 4 feet wide!). Their ears are also used to communicate emotions: ears flapping can signal an elephant is happy or angry. They also help them hear: when using their ears working together with their feet, elephants can hear another elephant’s call up to six miles away! An interesting note, beyond the text on the map: the African elephant ear is shaped roughly like a map of Africa; the Asian elephant ear is shaped roughly like a map of India.

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Ancient Migratory Pathways 

Elephants are the gardeners of Africa. The savannah as we know it depends on elephants. As the world’s largest land mammal migrates through the African continent, the side effects are invaluable: the pads on their feet are so large seeds get stuck in them and are carried to plant the trees of tomorrow. Their massive bodies develop trails for other animals. In their path new trees grow, providing food and shelter and oxygen-rich clean air for all of us. Elephants eat seeds, transport them, and disseminate them through their dung. Because they walk such long distances, they are responsible for spreading and planting seeds throughout the vast African continent. There are countless plants that solely depend on elephants to survive; even their dung provides the ideal environment for species to grow and flourish and acts as an ideal fertilizer and food source for other animals. Before animals and humans began competing for space in Africa, and before the continent was divided by political boundaries, elephants ranged through wide spaces on their ancient migration routes, moving from one habitat to another in search of food and water. As they criss-crossed their ranges, they dispersed seeds over vast distances, providing food and pathways for countless other species, while at the same time meeting their own nutritional needs. In optimal conditions, a mature elephant eats 400 pounds of vegetation and drinks 50 gallons of water daily. These vast migration routes and ranges are now truncated and greatly diminished, making everyday life difficult for elephants. There are currently projects designed to connect ranges via man-made passages, and wildlife conservation organizations including DSWT protect land whenever they can to give animals more room.

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Extraordinary Intelligence

We tend to measure the intelligence of other species by our definitions of human intelligence. Empathy, self-recognition, cooperation, language, and memory—nearly every trait we have believed to be exclusive to humans is not. And it seems by these standards, elephants excel: they make and use tools; learn by social example; have brains structured like ours; exhibit benevolence, compassion, and loyalty to other species; create order and discipline in their own societies; and perceive keenly. Like us, their brains and their emotions are connected. Scientists have even witnessed a condition similar to post traumatic stress disorder in elephants who have experienced devastating loss such as the loss of a mother to poaching or witnessing a culling—memories that stick with them and impact their will to live. In some ways, they might be more intelligent than humans: for instance, they have extraordinary memory banks, perhaps deeper and keener than ours, in which they store crucial survival information. We constantly remind ourselves that we should learn from experience and history, but elephants actually do. During droughts, older elephants remember where to find water based on drought experiences decades earlier. And though they don’t speak the way we do, their communications are nuanced and various and effective (they can hear a football drop miles away!), including the ability to convey highly specific infrasonic messages over many miles. Their large brains (three times as large as other land mammals) don’t prove they’re smart—their extraordinary lives do.

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The Map Itself

For the actual map, we combined and keyed data from two sources: Iain Douglas-Hamilton’s map showing the historic (pre-1900) range of elephants, when elephants inhabited most of Africa; and the Great Elephant Census map of 2012, the most reliable source available when we made the map in 2013-2015. In 2016, an updated Great Elephant Census map was released. It it is a cartographic truism that a map is obsolete before it is even finished, especially if it involves information about an elusive subject like our endangered species. The 2016 census map shows ranges more diminished and lower elephant populations than its 2012 equivalent, but does not change our premise or the implications of the data on our map: the African elephant is increasingly threatened, and without dramatic human intervention, will become extinct. The shocking irony is that humans are at once the elephant’s predator and champion.

Connie Brown on the Aesthetics of the Map 

Ornamentation: A successful illustrated and decorated map should conveys beauty, clarity, and truth in equal measure. While ornamentation is lovely, it should, in the words of art historian Kent Bloomer, a "confer grace" on the subject—not overpower it. In this map, I used designs from African regions where elephants reside or have historically resided. To unify the designs, I rendered them all of them in one hue—a subdued terracotta. These designs—the outer border and the design elements between them, along with the designs linking the round map with the circle in which it sits, derive from various sources—a Zulu beaded bracelet, an Ashanti "Adinkira" printing stamp, a woven prayer mat from Tanzania, a wall mosaic from South Africa, and a carved calabash bowl from southern Nigeria. The map's compass rose motif comes from a Ghanaian painted cloth design; the motif above the scale of miles comes from a Ugandan mud-wall relief. It was a great pleasure to research and adapt these designs for the map. For more information about specific borders or design elements, contact me here.

Palette: For actual cartography, one's color options are limited in a form-follows-function way. For purposes of communication, land mass is most successfully a color over which one can superimpose place names and whatever data is important for the map. Yellow, light green, pink: those are the traditional choices. I chose a saffron yellow for the land mass in the elephant map, over which I painted layers of the same tone to indicate elephant range. When the land mass is the most significant feature in a map, I choose, as I did here, towards the more subtle water treatment of a dot pattern rather than a solid blue. Beyond cartography, I assigned—as I said—a subdued terracotta for the map's orientation. I rendered all the illustrations in natural colors. At the very end, I washed the entire canvas in a bronze wash to cast an inviting sheen.

Lettering style: I hand-letter all of my maps. I choose the lettering style carefully, knowing how important lettering is as a style element: lettering casts a spell (anachronistically, my hand-rendered letters are often based upon fonts designed for printing). For the elephant map, I used Optima, designed by Herman Zapf (1918-2015). Optima is a simple, non-serif, elegant type font designed in 1958 to be readable, modern in its spareness, and evocative of carved Roman letters.