The massive bull elephant stopped less than 3 feet away from the log behind which Dave Marshak and another wildlife photographer crouched. The 6-ton animal eyed them, swung his long trunk dismissively, turned and ambled away. Scary?
“No,” Marshak said. “Exhilarating.”
That unflappability serves him well whether he’s in the bush stalking wild animals or in a classroom facing only slightly less rambunctious high school students. Marshak balances a full-time job teaching social studies, economics and psychology at the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield, where he also coaches the girls’ varsity soccer team, with yearly expeditions to Africa, where he has earned recognition as a top wildlife photographer. He has been named one of “22 Wildlife Photographers That Work Wonders” by Nature TTL, a photography website.
His decision to become a teacher was no surprise. He was inspired by his father, a U.S. Air Force Academy instructor, who told him that “whatever the problem, education is the silver bullet.”
His passion for wildlife photography, however, came about in a less conventional way — an electric moment with a lioness that sounds a lot like falling in love at first sight.
In 2012, as part of Holy Angels’ soccer program, Marshak took eight players on a service trip to Tanzania. They capped the week with a safari in Mikumi National Park, during which their guide maneuvered their Land Rover within 15 feet of a pride of lions.
“I know this might sound corny,” said Marshak, 36, “but I had this very intimate moment in which I locked eyes with this lioness and something in me just clicked. I felt I have to do something to make sure that these animals that are disappearing are going to be here after I’m not. It was like a calling.”
While studying a photograph he’d taken of the lioness, it occurred to him that telling stories through pictures might be the best way he could educate people about poaching and wildlife loss. But to do so, he knew that his photography skills would have to get a lot better. So he began booking safaris with experienced Africa wildlife photographers — commitments made easier, he acknowledges, by the fact that he is single and has no children.
On six safaris, across four countries and over four years, Marshak learned the essentials.
Rule No. 1: Don’t agitate or disturb the animals. Wildlife photography “looks romantic in the photographs, but you spend a lot of time doing nothing at all. I’ve sat with my camera [a Nikon D810 with telephoto lenses] pressed against my face for five hours waiting for a lion to wake up and roll over,” Marshak said.
Rule No. 2: Don’t run. Prey run, and you don’t want the animals mistaking you for prey.
There are safety precautions in place. Many African countries require wildlife photographers to get a government permit in order to leave their vehicles to get closer to wildlife than tourists can. In addition, most of the photographers travel with what is, in effect, an armed guard ready to shoot at a charging animal should such a drastic step be necessary.
But their definition of “necessary” might not always mesh with the photograher’s. When a lion ran full speed toward a group Marshak was with in Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe, the guard, reading the animal’s body language, decided that it was a mock charge and simply raised his rifle overhead and yelled, “Stop, you naughty, cheeky beast!” It worked, much to the photographers’ relief.
Marshak’s close elephant encounter occurred with Marlon du Toit, a former wildlife tour guide who works with Wild Eye, a photography safari company. The two crawled for 20 minutes to a log near a watering hole where the bull was drinking, hoping it might walk past.
After it came close enough to almost touch, Marshak can be heard exclaiming on a video of the event posted on his Facebook page, “Thank God I get to do this. That was awesome!”
His adventures have produced photographs that conservation groups — including the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, an orphan-elephant rescue program, and the RUAHE Carnivore Project, which focuses on lions and other big cats — are using to help promote their causes.
Marshak uses proceeds from the sale of his photographs, featured on a Facebook page that tops 75,000 followers, to recoup trip costs and then donates the rest to the two conservation groups.
Posters the groups have made from his images line the walls of Marshak’s classroom.
“Mr. Marshak is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had,” said Cynthia Mathenge, a junior in the fall who took Marshak’s world history class as a freshman. Although her family emigrated here from Kenya, Mathenge said she had no idea how bad the elephant poaching problem was until Marshak wove it into a chapter on African imperialism.
“He makes it interesting, and you can really tell how passionate he is about the subjects he teaches,” she said.
When Shuxin Yang Xi’an, a student from China, learned in Marshak’s economics class that most ivory sold in her homeland comes from poaching, not from already dead animals as is widely believed, she joined Marshak in a social media project. Marshak posts anti-poaching messages on his Facebook page. Shuxin translated them into Chinese and then reposted them on social media platforms in China.
“I tell my classes that it’s simple supply and demand,” Marshak said. “China is the No. 1 market for ivory. The U.S. is No. 2. If people stop buying ivory, the poaching will stop.”
With school out for summer, Marshak has more time to spend honing his photography skills. To broaden his repertoire, this summer he plans to track black bears and wolves in northern Minnesota, experiment with underwater images of game fish and try to photograph wild black-footed ferrets, one of North America’s most endangered mammals, in Badlands National Park in southwestern South Dakota.
But thoughts of Africa and plans to return are never far away. “I feel like it’s important work,” he said. “I’m privileged to be able to share something I truly love.”