February 03, 1997 12:00 PM

Though best known as a fashion photographer whose work often appears in such glossy magazines as Vogue and Esquire, Peter Beard has for years been a passionate defender of Africa’s endangered wildlife. His 1965 book The End of the Game powerfully documented the starvation of thousands of elephants due to misguided conservation efforts in a Kenyan game reserve.

So it is not without some irony that last Sept. 9, while on assignment in the African bush, Beard, 59, was attacked and nearly killed by an elephant, one of the very creatures he has devoted so much of his life to preserving. “It was like a subway train coming down on me, “Beard says of the encounter. “But I never thought of dying.”

Once married to model Cheryl Tiegs, Beard, a native New Yorker, has made his home in Kenya since 1961, living just outside Nairobi. In Paris for a major retrospective of his work, he described his near-death experience to correspondent Cathy Nolan.

I WAS ON THE KENYAN-TANZANIAN border with my great friend Calvin Cottar, who had asked me to photograph his new safari operation. All told, there were seven in our party, going on a picnic. Calvin and I had just gotten out of the car, and we were looking at this elephant. There were about 15 elephants 150 yards from us, ambling away. Typically, this matriarch turned around and gave us a demonstration charge—a warning. But her head was a little down, which was unusual. We ran back 50 to 100 feet just to make sure that a safe distance of around 150 yards was kept. We weren’t even thinking. We were on automatic.

The moment the matriarch ended her demonstration charge, she turned around and rejoined the herd. We stopped and saw that everything was okay. Then she turned around and started coming at us. So we started running again, looking over our shoulders, and then it became obvious she was just not going to stop.

There was no cover. I headed for an anthill, which was about three feet high, and I threw myself behind it. She was breathing down my neck. I think the anthill saved me. She came around it and I was very lucky. I managed to grab onto her left front leg. She did a couple of spins to knock me off. We’re doing this little dance, and there were so many things going on that I don’t really know what happened, but I think she pinned me against the anthill. Because her tusk went right through my left thigh, there’s a hole as big as my hand where it went in, but the hole on the other side is only about four inches. So I think the tusk went into the anthill, which is very hard, and that stopped it. Then she just crushed me with her head.

It was just a steady crunching. Crrrrr! Crrrrr! Broke my ribs. I was totally conscious. I could feel the whole pelvis going. It’s like an elevator or a freight train coming down on you. Huge pressure, incredible pressure. And I lost my eyesight.

Then the rest of the herd came around. It was an unbelievably mysterious thing. I lay there like a lump of flesh. I didn’t move. She gave me this squish for maybe three to five seconds. I just felt everything go pop, crunch, pop. I could hear all their feet. They usually trample you and make a grease spot out of you. But they just totally left me alone—maybe because we had run so far away that they sensed we weren’t their enemy.

About 10 seconds after they shuffled off, the car drove up and Calvin came running over to me screaming, “Take off your pants!” because he could see this huge hole. I thought it was a joke because I didn’t feel the tusk, just the squeezing. I said, “Listen, Calvin, not now. Not in front of all these people.” It was noon, and I couldn’t see anything. It was completely black. I guess after about five minutes, it was like a satellite dish, I just got these little codes, little cellular beepings, like when the storm’s over and you get the movie back. My right eye cleared, then my left. Dink, dink, dink. It was like being a robot, actually. Incredible.

I said to Calvin, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to sue.” I was joking the whole time because I could tell by his voice he was really panicked. Then when I got my vision back and saw the hole in my leg, I was shocked. But my artery was totally untouched.

Then we had one hell of a drive—three hours over rough Kenyan bush. We were on the radio all the time trying to get help. We went about 20 miles to an airstrip at Keekorock. Luckily, we made radio contact with some people who got through to Nairobi. A medical plane came very quickly. Then I got a morphine shot, and that was the end of my real pain. I arrived completely bled out because your pelvis has so many vessels, and it was cracked open and just kept bleeding. I had no pulse when I reached the hospital. It took four hours from when I was hit to get me to Nairobi Hospital. I went right into the operating room. I had to have a lot of blood, six to eight pints. It was an “open book” fracture—my pelvis was split like you’d open a book—with about eight breaks all around. Dr. David Stewart, a surgeon there, saved my life. He put in pins, drilled through the skin and attached them to an external steel scaffolding, a frame to hold everything together.

After a second operation to clean out the wound, they flew me via London to New York on Sept. 20. I was operated on again in St. Vincent’s Hospital and Medical Center, where they took off the scaffolding and put in titanium plates and screws. That operation—about three weeks after the accident—lasted almost nine hours. I did a lot of physical therapy in New York with a therapist, Christine Di Lorenzo, who is really good, almost like a healer. She reworks the injury with things like deep tissue massage, which was quite painful, but had amazing results. I got out Oct. 20, about two weeks early, to come to Paris.

I’m a quick healer, and I never really worried about being okay. What can you do except joke about what happened to me? After all these years, to have something like that happen. Now I can walk and just about run. There’s no permanent damage, but I do have to do a lot of therapy or I’ll probably have arthritis in my pelvis and hips. And I’ve got a problem with the nerves in my left arm, which is painful.

I’m not a sentimentalist—I’m a dedicated fatalist—but I do feel I was very lucky. I have no problem with that elephant hitting me. I just thank God it didn’t do a better job. Elephants are like humans. They are very smart, very logical. She owed human beings a real heavy debt, and she paid it to me.

No elephant attacks like that unless it’s been shot at, or seen other elephants shot. It’s just total human pressure—density and stress. I’m learning that human pressure on wildlife is becoming increasingly dangerous. You’ve got to be more alert, because more animals have been pushed around, wounded, subjected to human harassment, ambushed, all kinds of stress. When they attack, it’s totally predictable.

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