Jane Wynyard’s life was once Alexander McQueen dresses and Christian Louboutin shoes and VIP parties in London; now she lives out of a backpack working to protect the elephants of Africa from unprecedented threats

She stood outside in the Taranaki rain this week. After years in the savanna of Kenya; after weeks confined to her room in Nairobi and then at Auckland’s Jet Park quarantine facility as a Covid precaution, Jane Wynyard struggles to describe what it was like to feel the New Zealand rain on her skin again.

“I’ve loved the rain. We get rain twice a year in Samburu. For me, the rain is a real luxury – I just put my face up to it.”

For the past five years, the New Zealand photographer has been on the frontline of the battle to save Africa’s elephant; a battle that is being lost. Last week, the International Union for Conservation of Nature announced it had reevaluated the risk to the continent’s elephants. The savanna elephants’ risk status on the Red List was raised from vulnerable to endangered. And forest elephants’ risk status was heightened from vulnerable to critically endangered.

The announcement was illustrated by Wynyard’s evocative images of the savanna elephants; images she has been capturing since 2017 as she works as a consultant with Save the Elephants and the Elephant Crisis Fund to communicate the dangers and the solutions with local communities and with the world.

The NZ Government agreed last year to ban the sale of ivory – but is it too little, too late, for the African elephants? Click here to comment.

Working at Samburu National Reserve, she and the wildlife and the local communities are exposed to the extremes of climate change. There have been nights when the Ewaso Ngiro river has suddenly risen and they’ve had to rush to grab the elephant radio collars and their computers and other equipment, and evacuate.

More often, they have suffered the extreme droughts that have made Wynyard appreciate Taranaki’s rain so much. She recalls her first drought, and the deaths – of wildlife, of livestock. The elephants were skinny, and having to dig into the dry riverbeds to find any moisture. There were huge dust tornadoes coming through.

“There are cases where the elephants were trying to get waters from the villagers’ wells, and collapsing the wells, and small babies were falling into the wells,” she says.

“Poaching has reduced in Kenya and it’s actually reducing across the continent – but the biggest threat now is human-elephant conflict. And this comes from  elephants that crop raid, and they get shot or speared, or elephants that fall into wells, or elephants that come into contact with herders. They’re all competing for space, for food, for water. It’s the new threat, and when times are tough in a drought and resources are low, there is definitely going to be conflict.

“That is the threat we are trying to tackle.”

A baby elephant with its mother. Photo: Jane Wynyard
A baby elephant with its mother. Photo: Jane Wynyard

Telling stories that drive change

Jane Wynyard’s mother is English; her father was descended from Robert Henry Wynyard, who served briefly as Lieutenant-Governor of New Zealand, gave his name to the Wynyard Quarter, and was a leader of the troops that stormed Ruapekapeka in one of the colonial regiments’ particularly inglorious encounters in the New Zealand Wars.

Growing up and going to school in Taranaki, she became fascinated with wildlife, especially protecting the kōkako, and orca up and down the coast, and telling their stories. She dreamed of working for National Geographic. “I was always writing stories even when I was really young, even when I was kneehigh to a grasshopper, and apparently when I was seven I told my mum that I was going to work for the BBC, to be a war correspondent, to have houses in London and New York and New Zealand, and to buy her a Lamborghini. So I’ve always told stories!”

But there is more meaningful strand to her storytelling: “I’ve always wanted to inspire people, to help them get excited about their lives and where we live and what we’re doing.”

As a 17-year-old cadet reporter at the Taranaki Daily News, she covered crime, she had a pop music column – and she was assigned the conservation round. “Kokako are more elusive than elephants!”

She’s now staying with her mother in Taranaki – but there’s no Lamborghini in the garage. “It didn’t happen, not yet. Mum keeps reminding me, where’s my Lamborghini?”

She did, however, move to London and work for the BBC. That led into roles in other media, at Hearst Magazines and Net-a-Porter. It was a long way from tracking kōkako. Working on the events and PR side, she threw big celebrity parties like Harper’s Bazaar Woman of the Year, attended by the likes of actors Posh and Becks, Gwen Stefani, Idris Elba, Kate Winslet and Jared Leto. With a little persuasion, she reveals some of the photos.

Jane Wynyard with Hollywood actor Jared Leto at one of the countless VIP parties she attended and often organised, in London. Photo: Dave Benett

She wore Alexander McQueen dresses and Christian Louboutin shoes. She still has her Miu Miu and Jimmy Choo bags and other belongings in storage in London. “My job was about promoting inspiring women, but it was also about shoes, about bags. I was surrounded by beautiful things, and I think Western culture is very focused on things – the next computer, the next phone, the next coffee maker.”

She’s uncomfortable talking about all that. “It wasn’t all fashion and glamour,” she insists. “There were strong campaigning stories, there were strong stories empowering women. Inspiration and empowerment is something I love to write about, and I worked with some amazing editors, some amazing journalists.”

“Living in the bush, I don’t need all those ‘things’. Just my camera gear and my computer. I can buy clothes from secondhand shops. I live in flip-flops and shorts and tshirts. I have very basic needs.”

In 2013, shaken by the death of her brother Marc, she began learning photography and making more trips to Kenya where she’d been visiting since 2005. “I just felt, life is so short and it can end in an instant. And I really wanted to get back to nature – I don’t know where it came from, it just hit me.

“Living in the bush, I don’t need all those ‘things’. Just my camera gear and my computer. I can buy clothes from secondhand shops. I live in flip-flops and shorts and t-shirts. I have very basic needs.”

So she started studying photography more seriously, throwing herself into it, going to the Cotswolds to photograph birds – all with the goal of photographing wildlife in Africa. The day she resigned from Net-A-Porter, she was shortlisted for a Daily Telegraph photography award, and things moved quickly from there.

In 2017, Save the Elephants invited her to spend two weeks photographing the great animals in Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, seven hours’ rugged drive north of Nairobi. “Africa really got under my skin.”

Jane Wynyard photographing the bull elephant Sarara in Samburu camp. Photo: Gilbert Sabinga
Jane Wynyard photographing the bull elephant Sarara in Samburu camp. Photo: Gilbert Sabinga

For the past three years, Wynyard has split her time between a hut in the research camp at Samburu, usually for about six weeks, and a guest house in Nairobi, where she can spend perhaps two weeks before she feels drawn to the long drive north to Samburu again. “I’m back and forth, living out of suitcases. I don’t really have a permanent home. Which is kinda good in some ways.”

Up to 30 people live in the conservation organisation’s camp. “Our camp is not fenced, it’s open to the elephants. Lions come through, leopards come through, we get kudu coming through.”

Some stay in tents, some in huts, some in Samburu-style clay houses. Wynyard lives in a cabin – and she’s lucky enough to have her own bathroom and long-drop toilet, too. Every evening at 5.30pm, someone brings her water to shower with, heated in the sun in a jerry can.

“It’s worrying for the survival of elephants in the future.”

She has a basic bed, and a chest of drawers, and a desk. She looks out across the river, from beneath big acacia trees crowded with moneys and hyraxes. Her secret indulgence is Netflix movies, that she’ll download onto her laptop when she’s in Nairobi, and the very occasional glass of wine at a nearby safari lodge – when it’s open. Covid has put paid to much of that.

It may sound spartan, but she says every day is different. She is learning two languages, she is working with the local community. One day she’ll be working in the office; the next she be helping to deploy tracking collars on elephants, or in a plane far to the north photographing the herds of elephants from the air.

The researchers and their camp are also in the middle of tribal conflicts; the Samburu and the Turkana raid each others’ cattle. As Wynyard describes it; livestock is the currency for these pastoralist peoples. The camp is protected from these clashes by armed rangers and the Kenya Wildlife Service; she feels safe.

But it is more the way the wildlife is caught up in the livestock disputes that most upsets her. They see elephants coming into the park with spear wounds and gun wounds. “I’ve seen elephants die in front of me, which is heartbreaking.”

Ndeke coming to investigate the dying bull on the old airstrip SNR 2020(c) Jane Wynyard
A karge bull elephant named Ndeke coming to investigate a dying bull on the old airstrip. Photo: Jane Wynyard

The elephants don’t like the lifestock and will chase them away; the herders will then fire on the elephants. Sometimes they are sprayed with shotgun pellets, sometimes with AK47 and M3 sub-machinegun rounds. 

It is from that base that Save the Elephants has done much of its scientific research on the savanna elephants that informed the species’ red-listing last week. 

Frank Pope, chief executive of Save the Elephants, says the official acknowledgement that savanna elephants and forest elephants are different species immediately shines a strong spotlight on the terrible situation they face.

“If you block them, of course they’re going to go onto farms, they’re going to come into conflict with herders and livestock. It’s really about creating space for them so they can move.”

“The great forests of central Africa have been largely emptied of elephants as a result of the ivory trade,” he says. “I hope this decision will lead to improved protection for them.”

Wynyard says the announcement provokes mixed emotions. The listing of the two species as endangered and critically endangered should help her raise awareness of their plight, she says. It will help them educate people about how important they are to the ecosystem.

But the red-listing also reveals just how much trouble the elephants are in. “It’s worrying for the survival of elephants in the future,” she says.

Save the Elephants research camp in Samburu National Reserve before a thunderstorm
Save the Elephants research camp in Samburu National Reserve before a thunderstorm. Photo: Jane Wynyard

Some of the most important work Wynyard is involved in is working with local women to identify, communicate and protect the elephant corridors. Save the Elephants has identified two major routes, crossing busy roads, that the elephants walk in search of food and water. “Save the Elephants has worked really hard to identify these corridors and keep them open, and the next step is to gazette them in law.”

Save the Elephants has hired and trained these women to use GPS coordinates and track elephant footprints. They are called the Mama Tembos – “Tembos” means elephants in Swahili. “They’ve become real wildlife ambassadors for the local areas, and they are doing amazing work.

“And it’s good because the Samburu is a very male-dominated society, so we’re empowering these women, giving them jobs, so they can look after their families and their children. And they’re doing amazing work for Save the Elephants.”

Sometimes there will be cases where houses or villages have popped up across the corridors. As soon as they see something like that, they will warn Save the Elephants who can often get the nomadic villages to move on from the ancestral pathways that the elephants have followed for hundreds of years. “If you block them, of course they’re going to go onto farms, they’re going to come into conflict with herders and livestock. It’s really about creating space for them so they can move.”

Jane Wynyard with friend Mpayon, from whom she has been learning the Maa and Swahili languages, beadwork, and about life in the nomadic camps. Photo: Jane Wynyard
Jane Wynyard with friend Mpayon, from whom she has been learning the Maa and Swahili languages, beadwork, and about life in the pastoralist camps. Photo: Jane Wynyard

Wynyard has become friends with one of the Mama Tembos, a young mother of three named Mpayon. Wynyard has been learning the Maa and Swahili languages, beadwork, and about life in the pastoralist camps. About how they can break camp and move on with barely any notice, as they take their livestock to follow the grasses and the water.

“We just became friends,”

They are both singers; they are both story-tellers. “I’m fascinated by the Samburu culture, so I’ve spent time in her village and she’s taught me about her culture. And I get on very well with her young children – we just bonded.”

Returning home through Covid quarantine

Over the past year, as Nairobi and the rest of the world locked down, she based herself in remote Samburu for months to continue doing her fieldwork. “We’re quite isolated. And elephants don’t know there’s a pandemic. They carry on doing what they’re doing.”

But this year, she decided it was time to return home to New Zealand to be close to friends and family for a while. That road home has been a difficult one.

Kenya has reported 131,000 Covid cases, and more than 2,100 deaths. In Nairobi, the rates are the worst. It’s rife. And just the day before she was to fly out, Wynyard was feeling unwell. Her symptoms were those of Covid. And so, she was told she could not board her flight the next day – Kenya authorities put her in a quarantine apartment instead.

Two weeks later, and feeling recovered, she embarked on the 23-hour trip from Nairobi to Dubai, then Kuala Lumpur, then Auckland. The planes were half-empty. She was able to stretch out on a row of seats to sleep.

But in Auckland, too, she was quarantined with the Covid-infected travellers at Jet Park Hotel as a precaution. 

“When I first arrived I was so discombobulated, because I’d just come off a 23-hour flight and all of a sudden I was in this hotel room and, what happens now? It took me a while to get my head around it, but it was so nice to be back in New Zealand. I could look out and I could see palm trees, I could see Mt Mangere.”

Surviving managed quarantine must be about perspective. Because many people find it difficult – but Wynyard says she really enjoyed it. “I had the most amazing food! If that food had been coming into camp, I would have just been ecstatic!

“The Samburu don’t eat fish, and we don’t get fresh fish in Nairobi very often. It’s quite a delicacy. So I had a lot of fish in Jet Park, it was amazing. The food was so well done, really fresh, really different from what I’m used to.

“I ended up saying, listen, just give me one meal a day, I can’t eat it all, and I feel like I’m wasting food.”

“And the staff were fantastic. They were just so supportive and wonderful. And I was able to go out and exercise very day, walking around the carpark. Being from the bush and suddenly ending up inside a hotel room for four weeks was quite tough but the staff made it so much easier. It was a really good system – everything was run so well.”

She is meant to return to Nairobi on April 25, Anzac Day, but the city has just gone into a new lockdown. On March 26, the government announced further restrictions primarily focused on the five counties of Nairobi, Kajiado, Machakos, Kiambu, and Nakuru.  

Everything is uncertain. “I’ve got friends in Europe who really struggle to get anywhere, and there’s a third wave that is scary,” she says. “Travel is so hard now, you just take one day at a time.”

* You can support the work to protect African elephants at Save the Elephants.

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

Leave a comment