The Elephant Movie – the sound of it



Sound. We don’t pay enough attention to it.

We all have our favourite evocative smells – lemon verbena, petrichor, Atlantic cliff gorse on a summer afternoon… I think I can identify at least half a dozen Cornish sea fish by their smell alone.

But favourite sounds? That takes more thought. Close to the top of my list would be the sound of crab plovers – the lilting contact calls they make – that grow, then fade, as they migrate along the Indian Ocean coast on clear nights; the sound of torrential rain drumming on taught canvas; the laughing, chattering call of a chough…

Sound has the ability to enthral. I remember my delight when, as a teenager, I was first introduced to the sound of a limpet feeding, by natural historian and mentor, Roger Burrows. It was low tide, at dusk, on a beach in South Cornwall. When I lowered my ear next to a foraging limpet, I could hear, quite clearly, the tiny scraping sound that the limpet’s radula made as it rasped back and forwards at the film of algae. Try it, I guarantee it will bring a smile.

All too often though, natural sounds drift pass us, as we are too plugged in to let them in. In an urban environment the ambient noise level can be so high that only the most cacophonous and shrill force their way through.

Too often, in wildlife films, we approach the sound ‘picture’ in an ‘urban’ style – imagining that the film viewing is against background noise. In which case, we can dispense with the subtleties as we think they’ll never be heard. Besides, there is generally plenty of commentary or music to fill the spaces. As filmmakers though, those spaces should be what we glory in. They aren’t awkward silences – they are our opportunity for aural transport – to immerse the audience in the film’s location.

As part of the sound ‘picture’ in a film, we use atmosphere tracks – they are the background sounds, rich or sparse, from the film’s location. They can be very specific. An East African dawn chorus sounds very different to one from South Africa. Even within a country there will be huge differences – a recording from Tsavo, is very different to one from Amboseli – the bird and antelope species are different – and so are the amphibians. There are seasonal differences, ‘time of day’ differences, sometimes even the humidity makes a difference.

Track 1: Tsavo, the morning after the first heavy rainfall in almost a year:

Track 2: Tsavo, the same place, but twelve hours later:

Should it matter if we aren’t true to the location with the sound we use? In wildlife films, sound is not recorded at the same time as picture. Despite the use of ‘shotgun’ microphones and parabolic reflectors, there is no sound-recording equivalent to a telephoto zoom lens. Camera noise and wind combine to make synchronous sound recording impossible. Some would argue that as sound is not shot ‘sync’ then it is all artifice and why should it matter if we substitute the sound of one place for another? – or occasionally one species for another?

I suspect that even if people don’t know, then they instinctively feel what is right – an appreciation for sound is hard-wired in us. It resides in our genes. Few of us now have to worry about walking into an elephant or lion if we go out at night – but if you do, and your life depends on it, it is remarkable how that ability to really listen and discriminate natural sounds quickly returns. If you live in the bush, you need to know the sounds that will help you survive – the chirring alarm calls of ox-peckers alerting a buffalo to your presence, the calls that birds or squirrels make when mobbing a snake, the alarm calls of vervet monkeys on spotting a big cat…

If an audience feels a faint unease at a film’s sound, then they rise closer to the surface of disbelief. The suspension of disbelief is essential to the success of the film-experience – as soon as an audience starts thinking about the filming process or the crew behind it, or what is outside the frame, then they disengage from the story, and the bubble of connectivity that they reside in with the filmmaker bursts. It can be impossible to re-establish.

Before Pixar’s animated movie ‘Ratatouille’ went into production the animators spent time in restaurant kitchens – not in Los Angeles, but in Paris. The aim was that the experience should help what they created feel authentic.

I think the same applies to wildlife films. If you use sound recorded on location at the right time of day, then it feels more authentic. It happens less often than you’d imagine – a dedicated sound recordist is the first to be dropped from a filming trip. The financial savings might be translated into more ‘camera-days’, or visual effects – there are always areas of the budget that need boosting. The result is that the sound , even if recorded on location, is rarely as good. Many films rely solely on ‘library’ sound but, just as when we use pictures from a library, if we rely too much on archive sound then, however good it is, subconsciously, we begin to feel we’ve experienced it before. It nibbles away at our suspension of disbelief. Films become more homogenous, sound is less appreciated and it assumes less importance.
Specialist sound studios, like ‘Wounded Buffalo’, address this by constantly adding to their library, and recording on location, so the sound that results is  fresh, engaging and transporting.

Sound can be as difficult to record as the images – recently the wildlife sound recordist on our team, Norbert Rottcher, spent days trying to get the sound of a new-born elephant calf squealing. It only happened once or twice a day, when a herd-member inadvertently stepped on the infant. Even if Norbert was lucky enough to be able to follow the herd, and be with the baby when it happened (hard in thick bush), the timing of a squeal was impossible to predict. He had to be recording continuously, estimate the audio-level it might be, and then be constantly aware of sounds that might obscure it.Elephants have an extraordinary repertoire – from trumpets and bird-like chirps, to infrasound rumbles – you only have to go to ‘Elephant Voices’ to hear what they are capable of – such a collection reflects decades of work.
For us, it will be exciting to convey, in the cinema, the real range of elephant sounds. Up close, the deep rumbles are felt as much as they are heard. They create a frisson – they come at you through the soles of your feet, and move your whole being. Elephants have an extraordinary ability to communicate via infrasound, but most of their communications also have an audible component.
Television struggles to convey a full ‘sound picture’ but it is where cinema excels – for low frequencies need large speakers to propagate them effectively.

Traditionally, many ‘spot’ sounds for films are made in the ‘foley’ booth, by a foley artist – wildlife films are no exception. A foley booth is a child’s playground of sand boxes, buckets of water, blocks of wood, pebbles, coconut shells – anything to make the incidental sounds that are needed. All foley artists have their favourite methods, but a convention has arisen where the flap of a bird wing, or an elephant ear is depicted by the sound of an umbrella being rapidly opened and closed. A real elephant ear flap is much heavier, and scratchier, but it takes time to record – and, to get a high enough audio-level, you need to be very close. Such is the power of the convention though, that care must be taken using real ear flaps, in case they sound ‘unnatural’.

A wildlife sound recordist, besides needing a discerning ear and good technical ability, has to be a good naturalist. They need to log their recordings and identify the animals and behaviour. A Tsavo dawn chorus may have a dozen or more species calling.


An expert naturalist/sound recordist can also reveal gems. Recently Norbert heard tiny squeaks when recording elephants. They were infrequent – sometimes a day went by before he heard another. I suspect nobody else would have noticed it or, if they did, assumed it came from something small and crepuscular, like a reed frog. When he played it to us,  we thought it sounded like the contact call that a baby crocodile makes to attract the attention of its mother. Norbert identified it, eventually, as coming from an elephant calf. In four years of filming, we’d never noticed it before.

Why aspire to put so much emphasis on natural sound, when surely movies are about emotion and nothing evokes emotion better than music? It’s true, but we’ve all sat in films where we feel it’s been overdone, where our emotions have been manipulated by relentless music. Where we have left, emotionally drained and feeling slightly cheated – any sense of appreciation for story, place or character, long subsumed by auditory overload.

Natural sounds have an ability to evoke a emotional response that is just as powerful. Unlike music, they are cross-cultural. Listen to a lion roaring close-by and, wherever you are from, it evokes a hair-raising, spine-tingling, primal response.
It is why we have put such an emphasis on recording in the field – Norbert has dedicated the last six months to it, and has recorded hundreds of hours. Before him, it was the responsibility of long-term team member, Pete Cayless.

Track 3: Lion duet


Natural sounds can be used in different ways. For a scene in our current film ( we are investigating using the animal ‘voices’, that Norbert and Pete have recorded, as if they were instruments.

Natural sounds can also impart mood. I remember a sound, in a film by Alan and Joan Root, that I thought was made by a wooden percussion instrument – it set up a feeling of tension. Later, Alan told us it was the staccato rhythm of a hammering grey woodpecker. We shamelessly borrowed the idea and used it in a scene where giant crocodiles stalked drinking wildebeest in ‘The Tides of Kirawira’ (

Ultimately, every film needs a balance of music and natural sound. The aim of the filmmaker is to transport the audience to the location, and then immerse them emotionally in character and story. Natural sound can play an important role in that.

There is no formula to getting the right balance – what works well in one film, can fail in the next.

It just adds to the alchemy – the heady mix of terror, excitement and serendipity that making a film is all about.




Photo: Etienne Oliff. Sound recordings: Norbert Rottcher – 

© Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.




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Satao – the enigma

obeisance with fb tag


Alive, Satao was almost unknown; dead, he became legend.

How did it happen?

A year ago, Satao fell to a poacher’s poisoned arrow in a remote corner of Tsavo East National Park. When news of his death became known early in June 2014, it circled the globe at a speed any publicity agent would have been proud of. The international press, from Le Monde to The New York Times carried news of his death. It generated millions of tweets and Facebook page reads. There were YouTube tributes, news reports, articles, blog posts… two online petitions signed by 180,000 called for presidential protection for the remaining Tsavo tuskers. A week later, a tribute released on YouTube by the Great Elephant Census – created from the last footage we filmed of Satao, was seen by 135,000. ( ) News of his death went viral in a way normally reserved only for pop stars and royalty.

Satao would have been just another poaching statistic, but for his tusks. When he died, he had possibly the largest tusks in the world.
Kruger National Park, once famed for its giant tuskers, lost the last of its ‘Magnificent Seven’ thirty years ago. In January, just four months before Satao was killed, a bull named Isilo, said to have the largest tusks in the world, died in Tembe elephant park in South Africa. His tusks were never recovered. It left the claim for the world title open.

The irony was that Satao was almost unknown. Unlike Isilo, he didn’t have a FaceBook page with thousands of followers. He’d lived forty nine of his fifty years in obscurity in a remote corner of Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park. He was unknown to the park authorities, even to researchers – some of whom had worked there for decades. Until a few months before his death, he didn’t even have a name – he had only a number: SA1

That he was unknown is not as surprising as it sounds. Tsavo is vast, the same size as Massachusetts. Much of it is difficult to access. Recently, a bridge over the Galana River has been built – previously, heavy rainfall meant that half the park could be cut off for weeks at a time.

Satao’s tusks weren’t huge by historical standards, they were just very large. Look at almost any photograph of Mombasa’s ivory room from the last century, and you’ll see tusks the same size. At about 50kg a side, Satao was easily a fabled ‘hundred pounder’ but what made him special was that somehow he had survived the decades of poaching that had cut down larger tuskers, until he was the largest left standing.

His death could have gone unremarked, like other huge Tsavo tuskers before him – witnessed only by those behind the guns and the bows – but for the fact that he was known and his body was found and identified.

In the aftermath of the shock that such a magnificent elephant had been poached, I had wondered what it was about the death of Satao that caught the public imagination – that caused people to care, to want to know more, and to act. A year has passed since he died – what has the publicity, and collective outpouring of grief, achieved?

I think Satao assumed such stature, as he showed, in a very visual and visceral way, just what we are losing. He was the most magnificent individual of his species, but he died just like hundreds of thousands of other elephants – in pain and fear, attacked and slaughtered by our kind. Many people thought that elephant poaching had been brought under control in the 90’s, when Richard Leakey was head of Kenya Wildlife Service ( KWS) and were shocked at its obvious resurgence.
His death became a rallying point to publicise what was, if left unchecked, becoming the elephants’ slide to extinction.
Tuskers of Satao’s size hark back to an earlier era. That his ivory probably ended up as trinkets or chopsticks in the Far East, made his death all the more obscene. News of his death prompted questions and concern that spread as far as China – and it had an impact.
For many it was further evidence that to ensure a future for elephants we must have a complete and permanent ban on any trade in ivory. For us, it confirmed that education is a crucial part of the process. As a process, education might be slow, but it endures.
Chinese ‘consumers’ have to learn that an elephant’s tusks don’t just fall off and re grow like a deer’s antlers. They have to learn that every year, their desire for ivory trinkets results in the cruel death of over thirty thousand elephants. They have to learn about the ecological impact that the loss of elephants has on ecosystems. They have to learn what sentient, wonderful creatures elephants are and learn to respect them – as much as they do their own pandas. It is why we have been making ‘The Elephant Movie’ ( for the past four years.

Filming Satao

Satao was an individual that people could identify with – that helped. He had a story ( albeit from the few months that he was known. I have no doubt that he hid his tusks from humans. For our team, it further demonstrated the sentience and intelligence of elephants. In the short time Satao was known, he survived at least one attempt on his life. Having a ‘story’ helped build empathy and bring character to an individual who might otherwise have been a statistic.

Perhaps the biggest impact his death had was in Kenya. Satao was compared to Ahmed, the famous giant tusker from Marsabit who was granted presidential protection by Jomo Kenyatta. A generation on, Satao assumed Ahmed’s mantle. This past year, there has been a growing call for Uhuru Kenyatta to act like his father and grant presidential protection to the remaining tuskers.

Satao became the ‘poster boy’ for the ‘Hands off our Elephants’ campaign led by Paula Kahumbu, CEO of Wildlife Direct ( ). It brought the plight of Kenya’s elephants to public attention.The result was an outcry over poaching, and a resurgence of national pride in Kenya’s elephants. Kenya Wildlife Service recruited 560 extra rangers, and received an extra $20M in government funding.

Shortly after Satao’s death a seizure of over two tons of ivory in Mombasa, most of it from Tsavo elephants, led to the arrest of alleged ivory ‘kingpin’, Feizal Ali Mohamed. It was the most important arrest related to elephant poaching in Kenya for fifty years. That he is still in jail, pending trial, reflects the public awareness and anger at what is happening to Kenya’s elephants.

Wildlife crime intelligence has improved. KWS has just opened a forensic laboratory, so DNA evidence can be submitted in cases of wildlife crime. Across the country there has been better collaboration between KWS and elephant NGOs. Help with anti-poaching comes from a variety of organisations working in the field: Save The Elephants with its ‘Elephant Crisis Fund’, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, BigLife, the Tsavo Trust, the Milgis Trust…(see below for links).
It has made a difference – the rate of poaching in Kenya has fallen. Across the border in Tanzania, elephant populations are in free-fall. Ruaha National Park was recently reported to have lost over half its elephants in a single year. In the last five years Mozambique has lost half its elephants.

Kenya’s elephants still aren’t secure – the rate of attrition might have slowed, but while Feizal Ali Mohamed awaits trial, other ivory ‘kingpins’ are active. At the end of April, Thai customs seized three tonnes of ivory hidden in a container from Mombasa. In May another three and a half tons of ivory from Kenya was seized in Singapore. It represents the death of over a thousand elephants.

threesome with ©


Perhaps most importantly though, Satao’s death drew attention to what we still have. In Tsavo, thanks to the Tsavo Trust’s monitoring project, we know that at least eight big tuskers remain. Nowhere else in the world can compare. We need to celebrate them. If we hide them, they will be poached one by one and the world will be poorer for their loss.
Satao’s death showed that people care about elephants. Tsavo and its tuskers are part of Kenya’s extraordinary natural heritage. The genes for big tusks run through the Tsavo population – both bulls and cows carry extraordinary ivory – they are the last great tuskers. There are no other elephants quite like them.

It took the death of Satao to bring Tsavo and it’s giant tuskers to international attention. We can’t let ourselves forget just how special they are.,,,,,,,,

© Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa, 2014. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Deeble &Victoria Stone and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Satao – one year on



Recently, I flew to find Satao’s remains. The anniversary of his death was approaching and I felt compelled to visit. Besides, I rationalised, I was curious to see to what extent the nutrient overload had killed the vegetation, and how long it would take to recover. I’d always assumed it would be a year or two, but it would give me the chance to find out.

Last year, from the air, I’d marked the spot but, now on the ground, it was difficult to find. It had rained heavily an hour before – I’d seen the degrading cumulonimbus when taking off from Voi. The bush was thick – wet green lush, the tyre treads quiet in soft ochre. I knew that Etienne was flying nearby, and radioed him to see if he had more accurate coordinates – but it wasn’t until he flew over and directed me in, that I finally found the spot where Satao had fallen.
I recognised the dead Comiphora that, when I’d last been there, had been white with vulture faeces. Then, the surrounding bush had been smothered by a confetti of Ipomoea flowers. This year there were none – such is the way of Tsavo. Now it was the turn of the white Heliotropis – their compound, decurved flowers swayed in the breeze and reminded me of tongues – a chattering crowd.

As I drove up and got out, I flushed a back-backed jackal. I saw where she’d curled up against the rain at the base of a brittle Boscia bush. The hollow she’d created was still dry, the soil still warm to the backs of my fingers, a faint muskiness still present. I took it all in, putting off the moment when I’d have to look up and engage with why I’d come.




I wasn’t surprised I’d found the remains difficult to find – the bones were scattered. The huge femurs and scapulas were hidden by grass a few metres away from the site of decomposition. Nothing grew there. The dark stain of putrefaction was ringed by star-grass, creepers and Heliotropis – all pushing in, eager to get at the nutrients… still too concentrated toxic though – perhaps next wet season, or the one after, they’d be diluted enough for the plants to risk sending roots in.

Looking at the scattered bones, I began to wonder why I had come – what I’d hoped to achieve. I walked in a circle, looking for what, I wasn’t sure. Perhaps something to give my visit a focus and Satao’s death some meaning. I stopped and crouched downwind. The smell of putrefaction was still there. It had once been a tide, now it was a trickle.
Against the dark earth-stain, the bones were beginning to bleach. Hyenas had gnawed at the pelvis. Scavenger’s jaws had left sharp shards of rib. The only sign of life was down amongst the vertebrae, where brown pitted longicorn beetles fought and mated – slow-motion lives, lived in a charnel house. There was little to take inspiration from.

It was late in the afternoon and I had to get back before dark, but I was loathe to leave. It started to rain. I hunkered down beneath the Boscia bush and remembered Satao.

I remembered how we’d first found him – the months of fruitless searching for a giant tusker for our film ( ) then the change of tactic – the wait.
The month spent baking in a cramped metal box, dug into the ground at the edge of a remote waterhole, hoping that a giant tusker would materialise – not knowing whether we were wasting our time.

I remembered how he had first appeared as a mirage from the Taru desert, sun glinting off incredible tusks – and our delight that such a giant still existed.

I remembered trying to discover if anything was known of him – we’d checked through boxes of photo-ID cards with elephant researcher, Barbara McKnight; I’d corresponded with Janet Goss who’d known and photographed elephants there for over a decade; we’d sent his details and photograph to the Tsavo Trust, who had just started a ‘large elephant’ monitoring project.

All drew a blank.

I loved that Tsavo was so vast that such an impressive bull could have gone unknown for so long.
In the weeks that followed, we filmed him on a number of occasions – but never far from the waterhole. His visits were irregular – as if he didn’t want to build a pattern. He’d drink, hang out with other elephants and then leave with his askaris – the bulls that accompanied him. When they set off into the Taru desert evening, we’d break off. We would have loved to have followed, but we couldn’t risk drawing attention to him.

At that time, late in 2013, the poaching pressure on Tsavo’s elephants was at its peak. It was probably the only waterhole where he’d felt safe. He’d not been alone. Sometimes hundreds of elephants gathered with him.

Then it rained. The herds vanished, and with them went Satao. We heard nothing more until we had a call, four months later. Satao had been spotted from the air during the ‘great elephant census’ ( ) and Mike Chase, its director, had thought he might be wounded. We were part of a team that went to check, and film him. He had been hit by a poisoned arrow, but it hadn’t penetrated far enough to be life-threatening – and he hadn’t needed treating.

It meant though, that poachers had got close enough to wound him. Next time he might not be so lucky.

He wasn’t.

Two months later on May 30th Satao fell and died just a couple of meters from where I now crouched, hunched against the rain. A similar rainstorm, with its promise of lush vegetation and brimming waterholes, had drawn him right to the boundary of the park in an area notorious for poaching. Elephant movements are so dependent on rainfall that the poachers would have known that after such a deluge they could just wait for the elephants to arrive. This time, the poison arrow had driven through into his body cavity. Where Satao fell is no more than a few hundred yards from the boundary of the park.

The rain eased and I stood and stretched. I could hear distant goats – I couldn’t help but feel that humanity was pushing in on elephants. Beyond the fence had once been some of the best elephant country in Africa, but we’d not seen a single elephant out there in the three years we’d flown it, only the smudge of illegal charcoal kilns, as every year there were fewer trees.

As the sun tried to push through the clouds, and I looked around and prepared to leave, a pair of butterflies alighted – their folded lime-white underwings somehow perfect against the dark stain that had once been Africa’s most magnificent elephant. As they uncurled their probosces and started to suck minerals, I thought of how Satao was returning to the ecosystem that produced him – sip by tiny sip.




It was enough. I climbed back into the battered land-cruiser. The butterflies took wing, and they were replaced by a small flock of superb starlings, who descended into the chaff of larval skins and beetles – a vocal flurry of chestnut and turquoise electric.
Close to the airstrip, I came across a herd of elephants. The moment they turned away from me, I suspected I knew who they were. I knew that trying to photograph them would be futile, but just to prove it to myself, I angled gently around. As a herd, they swung their heads away and headed slowly for thick bush. I let them be.




Minutes later and airborne, it needed only a glance down to confirm that they were the same fifteen magnificent bulls that I’d seen a year ago, heading towards the carcass of Satao.

Then, I’d thought that they were heading for the killing fields. On that flight home, I had wept.
Now, almost a year later, and setting the same course, I allowed myself a faint smile. Despite the depredations of the last twelve months, that herd is still intact –  and there is hope.





Aerial photo: Pete Cayless  –

© Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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The Elephant Movie – the beginning


Film eles with crane


Together with a small team, we are making a film about elephants.  It will have taken over five years by the time we finish – but the research phase will have taken almost thirty. The idea has arisen from a slow accumulation of elephant experiences, conversations, observations – resulting from decades of living in the bush, and having elephants as neighbours. Elephants are complex, sentient creatures and the years taken getting to know and appreciate them feel like time well-spent.

Behind it all, is an intense curiosity about elephants and the animals that share their lives. No animals live in a vacuum, least of all elephants, and the more we see of them and their ‘companions’, then the more we are intrigued and the more questions we have.

Sometimes the questions take an embarrassingly long time to surface. It was years before I asked myself why I’d never seen elephants host ox-peckers, and only recently that I thought I had the answer. They are the only large African mammal that tick birds seem to shun. Everything else, from warthog to giraffe, seems to host them. I wondered if perhaps elephants’ mudding and dusting kept them tick-free – but, when I looked closely, I saw plenty of ticks – in creases in the skin, behind the ears… so there was no shortage of food.

More recently, I watched an elephant use it’s tail as a switch to remove a grass-hopper that had landed on its back. I was intrigued that an animal renowned for having such thick skin should have noticed it. It was the proximity of the two observations that made me rethink the question, and conclude that there is almost nowhere on an elephant’s body that it can’t reach with either its trunk or its tail.

Tick birds are annoying. They’ve needle-sharp claws and, besides eating ticks, they like to keep wounds open to drink blood. I imagine that they’ve learnt that a trunk-swat would flatten them. Such an absence of behaviour doesn’t make for compelling film-making, but the realisation was another brick in the wall towards our understanding of elephants.

There have been great films about elephants made by excellent filmmakers working with eminent researchers – we had no desire to tread the same ground so, for many years, we parked any thought of an elephant film.

Although we dropped the idea, the curiosity remained – and the stories and observations kept coming…

I remember in Mzima when, after weeks of rain, delicate white toadstools emerged from almost every heap of elephant dung – I wondered what the story was. I was contemplating if they were edible when I saw a vervet monkey pluck one and eat it. I squashed one and rubbed it on my gums to see if it would provoke a reaction. It didn’t, but when we returned the next morning to film them, they’d all withered and with them went their story.

Alan Root told us of an occasion in Central Africa when he’d seen piapiacs ( a magpie like bird ) perched in rows, riding on the tusks of huge tuskers. They’d drop down to snatch insects disturbed by the elephant’s feet in the grass, and then take their position again. I enjoyed the mental image of them shuffling patiently up the tusk to get to the head of the queue.
The tuskers are long gone – the birds are still there, but nowadays, rather than riding with royalty, they are more likely to be found bouncing around on the back of a cow.

At a camp we had in Serengeti, an elephant knocked over an acacia.  A pair of dikdiks ( tiny, knee-high antelope) feasted on the leaves for weeks. It was in the centre of their territory and, but for the elephant’s largesse, destined to stay forever out of reach.

The more we looked, the more we realised that there were associations and beneficiaries that we’d never appreciated – quite apart from what was going on with the elephants themselves.

Birds at ele feet


For years, I’d shied away from filming animals whose emotions were too easy to read – animals that seemed almost human. We’d once lived alongside chimps, on a remote beach on Lake Tanganyika. We were fully aware of their gang warfare, their monkey hunts, their political alliances – it was like holding a mirror to our own species, and I found it uncomfortable. In the two years we filmed there, we never turned the cameras on them.

I wondered if elephants might be like chimps. I needn’t have worried.

There is mystery to elephants.

For such dominant, social animals, fights are very rare. More often, big bulls will posture – sizing each other up, exchanging subtle cues as to power and dominance. Sometimes walking parallel, sometimes just to and fro. It can go on for hours, and then they’ll part, heading in different directions, decision made, no physical contact, but with their virtual ‘duel’ concluded. Sometimes, they’ll gently touch tusks and then insert the tip of their trunk into the others mouth – tasting, smelling… assessing.

It was an incident at Amboseli that finally provided the mental ‘green light’ for the film.  We’d waited days for a family to cross a dry lakebed. We knew their routine – every few days they would cross the flats to drink at the swamp. On the third day, from our vantage point on a rise, we saw the family picking their way down the hillside, giving wide berth to the Maasai manyattas. As they descended, they formed a line and picked up pace, following a path deeply inscribed in the dust. They were about a hundred yards out and we were about to reposition, when they stopped still. It was so abrupt that I smiled – it brought to mind the elephant march in the film of ‘The Jungle Book’ – only these elephants didn’t bump into each other and embarrass the ‘colonel’,  they simply all stopped walking at exactly the same time and let their trunks extend to the ground.

They stayed like that, as if frozen.

We looked with binoculars, to try to see what had caused it – nothing. We couldn’t see another elephant, and there were no other animals within half a mile.

All had their trunks on the ground, all were immobile – even the babies. They must have been breathing, but beyond that, they were still. Not an ear flapped.

I looked all around and saw nothing out of the ordinary – life went on, wooden cattle bells clanked from high on the hill-side, an augur buzzard rode a thermal, a tiny dust-devil drifted down-wind. It was the start of a normal day in Amboseli, except that out on the lakebed it looked as if a herd of elephants had been turned to stone.

It lasted several minutes – then the matriarch lifted her head, as if from a dream, and shook dust from her ears. She wheeled through 90 degrees and they all walked off in a new direction.

Something had happened. That I was sure of, but I had no idea what it was.

I loved the mystery and I was intrigued. For me, the experience confirmed how fascinating elephants are, and just how much there is waiting to be discovered.

Finally, it felt like the time was right to make the film – to tell a story that shares our passion for elephants and the ‘circle of life’, of which they are the centre.



photo: Pete Cayless © Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa, 2014. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Deeble and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Ndume : the story of an elephant

freezeframe of Ndume-1_2


It reads like environmental pulp fiction:

A tribal family’s ancestral forest home is surrounded and cutoff from the main forest by illegal loggers and slash-and-burn farmers. When they eventually break out to try to rejoin the main tribe, they are discovered at dawn and set upon by a violent mob – the family is split, some run for the safety of the trees, others are hacked to death with machetes. In the fighting, one infant receives such a blow to the head that he’s knocked unconscious. On the verge of being killed, he is rescued from the mob by forest guards, and flown to a distant city. He wakes up in an orphanage, and screams for his mother. Ripped from his friends, his family, his mother, he has nightmares for months. 

As the years pass, he slowly makes new friends, and with them he is moved to a ‘halfway’ house, hundreds of miles away from his forest home. Like many youngsters, he gets into trouble. He becomes a ringleader, others follow – they raid farms to steal food, damage planes at a local airfield, and are finally set upon and wounded by vigilantes. Fearing that he’ll be killed, his foster parents arrange for him and two friends to move a hundred miles away, to start a new life far from civilisation, where nobody knows them. The foster parents hear nothing, but a month later, he appears alone –  he is only 11 years old, but he’s walked 100 miles undetected, crossed roads, railway lines, rivers… He’s welcomed home, of course, but the experience has changed him – he wanders off more, returns less frequently.  Sometimes he brings friends, sometimes he’s alone. Then at the age of sixteen he vanishes into the wilderness …and isn’t seen again.

That’s the story of Ndume – Ndume is an elephant.

That was as far as it went, until last year, when a mature bull elephant wandered into our filming camp and made himself at home. ( )

At the time I wrote, we wondered where he’d come from – was he a wild bull? Was he an ex-orphan?

We contacted the Sheldrick Trust (  and arranged that the next time we saw the bull, we’d call their head keeper, Joseph, and that he’d come out to check.

In the meantime, we’d named our guest ‘Chota’ (lit. ‘sucking-one’) for his predilection for emptying our water tank. Weeks past, but we could never get the two together. Chota would come, we’d call Joseph and when he arrived, Chota would be gone. Then the rains came, the river rose, and camp was cut off for days at a time. Chota disappeared, and with him went the possibility of discovering his identity.

When the dry season returned, Chota reappeared – but only at night. By dawn, he was nowhere to be seen. We were running out of hope. Our description of meeting Chota had resulted in emails from around the world – the correspondents all hopeful that he was an ex-orphan. We’d promised to follow up, but it now looked like his identity was mired in ambiguity. We’d taken photographs and video to Joseph and Mishak, a keeper who’s been with the orphans since the 80’s, but they couldn’t identify him. They wondered if he might be one of Daphne Sheldrick’s original bull orphans that were trucked down from Nairobi more than twenty years ago – perhaps he was Dika from Amboseli, or Ndume – a victim of human-wildlife conflict from Imenti.

They needed to see Chota, to talk to him, and that was the problem.

Last week, that changed. Chota re-emerged and strode straight into camp – in daylight. He presented his profile, and confidently walked from one end of camp to the other – then he stood looking straight at us. It felt like he was auditioning for a part in the elephant movie we are making . His first visit was brief, but as days passed, he hung around for longer and made himself at home. Drinking from the shower buckets had always been more preferable to ambling 200m to dig in the dry river bed. Once we saw his behaviour start to develop a similar pattern as before, we called Joseph.

When the DSWT pick-up arrived with Joseph and Mishak, Chota was nowhere to be seen – but we’d predicted that.  This time, one of our team had followed with a radio. We finally caught up with him a mile away in thick bush. He’d joined a family and was checking out the females. Even then, neither Joseph or Mishak could be sure he was an ex-orphan. Nine years is a long time in the development of a young bull – physically they change – tusks grow, sometimes they get broken, ears get ripped – they ‘grow into their genes’. What doesn’t change is their memory.

When Chota heard Joseph and Mishak’s voices, he stilled. Then, he lifted his head and wandered slowly over.

If he was surprised to see them, he didn’t show it – he gave a gentle contact rumble and then stood, quietly – just looking.

Who knows what was going through his head. Did he remember the years of walking out with them, as surrogate parents, around Masinga Hill?

Did he remember the cold nights in Nairobi when, at 3 months old, he’d woken terrified and screaming – when Mishak had rearranged his blankets, curled up beside him, given him a bottle, and his calm voice had lulled him to sleep again. I like to think that he did.

Nume through the years

Ndume’s ( pronounced: n’doo-may) early years are well documented. Even before his reappearance, the Sheldrick Trust considered his reintroduction a success. That he is here today, a mature bull, is testament to the trust’s methods. It is far easier for them to monitor female ex-orphans – they form herds, they visit. Bulls are much more difficult – they disappear. Their natural behaviour is to leave their natal herd and spend years in the wilderness. They join all-bull groups and wander huge distances.

Ndume’s reappearance is extraordinary. That he is fully-integrated is unquestionable – occasionally he turns up with two other bulls, older and more battle worn – but it is clear that he leads them. We’ve seen him mating. He is in great physical condition. His tusks are wide-set and sweeping. He carries no scars from poachers’ arrows. He is unmarked.

Mishak and Joseph told us of his early days, and of his translocation – how he’d been sedated and enclosed, and driven a hundred miles to Ngulia Valley – only to remarkably find his way home to his keeper’s door a month later. I went back to DSWT’s online archives to read Ndume’s story. It was all there – the attack on his family, his rescue, the nightmares. 

Then I thought of the glorious bull that wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for the Sheldrick Trust, and its supporters. Ndume might have lost his family, but around the world, he has gained a large number of friends.

I think of children saving their pocket money, as I did, to donate it to a good cause. I think of people going without, and putting a little money aside each week – until they have raised enough to ‘adopt’ an orphan. Many of them will never have the opportunity to travel to Kenya to see the results of their kindness – yet they continue to help.

Last week, as we flew north to the Milgis, we passed over the Imenti forest where Ndume had been born. It’s a relict of the massive forest that once covered the eastern slopes of Mt Kenya. Its stands of cedars, clear streams and grassy glades, are far from Tsavo’s arid ochre. As we looked down, I imagined the scene that had played out 25 years ago – the excited shouts, the terrified bellows – the babies’ screams.

As we continued north, I reflected on how a story that started with human violence, had been turned around by human kindness and generosity.

The image that stays with me though, is that of Mishak and Joseph when Ndume raised his head and walked slowly towards them – of the tears that welled up, and the smiles that just grew and grew.





photo: Pete Cayless

© Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blogs author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Hope for elephants – one woman’s passion


There is a lot of news about elephants, and a lot of noise about them. I subscribe to forums, and newsletters from elephant-centric NGOs, and sometimes it can be hard to remain positive. Every day we get email alerts highlighting yet another atrocity. If elephants aren’t having their faces hacked off, or their babies kidnapped, then they are being shot from helicopter gun-ships, poisoned, or slowly fenced out of their former range. Bad news makes headlines and, to stand out, the headlines and images compete with each other to be the most graphic, the most violent. The clamour for our attention and our funds can be deafening.

By the end of 2014, I was starting to find it overwhelming. We were tired. Filming had been going well, but we’d been running at full-throttle for over two years – so we decided to take a rare break. It was a family decision – to leave behind the media, and the commercialisation of the holiday season, and go for a walk.

We’ve done it almost every year since our sons were small boys. It’s now over a decade that we’ve walked with Helen Dufresne, and her partner Pete Ilsley, in Kenya’s Northern Frontier District – with a train of camels, accompanied by her Samburu crew of elders and warriors. With each walk lasting a week or so, we have probably covered over a thousand kilometers.

There is no set route, just the daily routine – starting with the dawn coffee pot on the embers of the previous nights fire, and the knowledge that we’ll walk for the next six or eight hours until the camels, that carry the camp, catch up with us. Then there’s a search for good shade and a sandy lugga where we can dig for water, or a spring fed-pool where we can soak away the afternoon.

On those first walks we never saw elephants north of the Milgis lugga – they had been first hunted, and then poached out of the Ndotos over twenty years previously. A generation of Samburu had grown up without them. Old traditions remained, such as using dry elephant dung to make the first fire in a new homestead, but they were forced to travel thirty miles to find it.

Along with the elephants went the waterholes they kept open, and the paths that they made. Once the elephant paths disappeared, the herders were unable to walk their livestock to grazing  on the mountains, so they started fires to clear the bush. It was the first step along a path whose enevitable conclusion would be deforestation, erosion, dry watercourses,…

Helen sensed the decline. She had the respect of the Samburu community – earned by living alongside them, sharing droughts, rains, learning, helping…  She held meetings, but the community now lived apart from what they saw as ‘Helen’s elephants’. They feared them, they saw no reason to encourage them back. Without the support of the community, there was a limit to what Helen could do.

It was the death of a bull elephant that was the catalyst for change.

In 2004, we had been walking with Helen when we came across the tracks of a large bull in the lugga. We’d followed, picking up on her excitement that a lone bull had come into an area that had not seen elephants for decades. Our euphoria quickly changed to concern though, when it was apparent from the spoor, that the bull was dragging a leg. When we caught up with him, we found his femur smashed by a bullet. The area is so remote, that despite radio calls to vets and KWS, Helen was unable to get anyone up to treat him. The bull died two days later – in agony and alone – slumped in a grove of tamarisk. It was heartbreaking.

The thought that a trusting old bull, scouting territory that he’d last fled from as a calf, should come to such an end was the turning point for Helen – for he had not been poached, he been shot out of fear, by a herder. The death galvanised Helen and Pete to set up The Milgis Trust ( ). Their friend and conservationist, Halvor Astrup, promised funds, and made it possible. Their aim was simple – to promote the harmonious coexistence of elephants and pastoralist Samburu, and to encourage elephants back to their former stronghold.

Helen’s dream was that one day elephants would return to Mt Nyiru – the sacred mountain of the Samburu, a remote forested citadel that arises from the desert haze.

In the years that followed, the trust employed community scouts, built schools, put in boreholes, funded eye clinics…but behind it all, was the drive to welcome back the elephants. Elephants know where they are safe. Gradually, on our walks, we started seeing bulls, then eventually, cows with their families.


Now here we were ten years later, standing on the summit of Upé, looking down on the forested slopes – the beard moss-strewn cedars, the secret glades of cycads, with flitting sunbirds and tree ferns.

It was a privilege to walk the wind-whipped spine of the Ndotos, and feel so mentally and physically removed from the rest of the world. A week in, we saw a distant plane – but it couldn’t pierce the bubble we walked in, for our attention immediately switched to a pair of fan-tailed ravens – delighting in their acrobatic barrel rolls and side-slips. Most days, after sunrise, these accompanying court jesters were momentarily displaced by their monarchs, a pair of Verreaux eagles who patrolled the ridge – stately, windward and shadow-sliding.

Little by little, like water trickling between stones, a sense of renewal seeped in – filling the voids created by ‘headlines’, ‘commentary’ and ‘issues’.  They’d been important, and would be again, but for a glorious ten days they were meaningless. Without thought and context, they simply ceased to exist.

Below us was the lugga where the bull had died. He’d not been forgotten. Some years ago, we’d walked past his pitted skull, sprigged with tamarisk – left as a sign of respect by passing warriors.

The difference now, was that the slopes beneath us were alive with elephants. Every day we were treated to tantalising glimpses of their grey backs sliding through the vegetation – then every now and again one would step out into a clearing and we’d smile.

Compared to their ‘flat earth’ Tsavo cousins, Ndoto elephants are mountaineers.

It was hard to imagine how they negotiated the steep hillsides. On gradients which required hand-holds, we’d suddenly come across an elephant path, which we would follow to the very top of the ridge. A decade before, we couldn’t have reached it without days of cutting.

As elephants have reopened paths, there has been less need for herders to burn, and mountain fires are now rare.

Helen estimates there are about six hundred elephants now, and the Milgis Trust scouts and her network of informers are so effective, that in recent years only a handful have been poached. It’s an achievement that is probably unequalled in Kenya.

Besides a pilot’s licence, Helen doesn’t have a qualification to her name. She doesn’t do publicity, nor does she take a shilling for administering the money she raises. She doesn’t attend fundraisers and cocktail parties – she simply gets on quietly, life-dedicated, with what she believes in.

That the elephants have returned should be tribute enough. What makes Helen light-up though, is when she describes how it’s happened with the encouragement and the blessing of the community. A new generation is growing up with elephants as neighbours. In conversation today, the Samburu refer to the elephants, not as ‘Helen’s elephants’, but as ‘our elephants’. Now, to bless the hearth of a new homestead, rather than walk thirty miles to find elephant dung, they simply look down at their feet.

Recently, a family of elephants returned to Mt Nyiru for the first time in decades. People were so excited that they turned out in their hundreds to see them, and the elephants became nervous and fled. Helen was thrilled that they had retraced their ancestral paths, but moreso that they hadn’t been chased away. As she said, “Elephants don’t forget, they’ll be back.”

We climbed down from the ridge on the eve of the new year – reluctant to leave the forest-shade cool for sunlit slopes, and re-engage with the world. We need not have worried.  Herb-fragrant meadows eased our passage and fan tailed ravens followed us down.

That night we camped next to an extraordinary gathering of rocks. I wrote recently about an elephant rubbing rock. It is single rock. That last night we camped in the Keno valley, where there was a herd of them.

They sit in a glade of acacia and figs, on a smooth granite dome. Nearby, a clear stream. They are not worn by water, for only their outer-flanks are burnished – rubbed smooth by elephants. The history they exude is almost intimidating. I found it hard to imagine the elephant gatherings that the rocks must have witnessed.

Elephants have found them again – there were footprints in the sand, dung beside the stream – the rocks shone from rubbing.


We sat amongst them as the sun set on the old year. I felt stronger and re-centered. I felt grateful that our sons, now 19 and 22 still chose to see in the new year with us, in this place, and this way.

The next day we’d disperse – back to Tsavo, to England… but for that moment, we were all together, and nothing else mattered.

The rocks remain. More elephants will find them this year, and re-establish an ancient relationship. That they have the opportunity, is testament to the work of a remarkable woman.

Thanks to Helen Dufresne, a small corner of Kenya is a better, more hopeful place.

I know of no greater accolade.




Photos: Freddy & Jacca Deeble

 © Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Deeble and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Posted in Northern Kenya | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

Elephant Rock

Kopjes in the mist

There is a rock at the end of Kivuko kopje that has intrigued me ever since I first walked past it.

Three years ago, we refurbished an abandoned cattle camp at Kivuko as a base for filming. We cut an airstrip and put up thatched shelters for tents. The area is classic elephant country – thick bush, scattered waterholes, and the occasional granite hill (kopje) – each a perfect poacher’s lookout. For most of the year it silver-grey shimmers in the heat.

From the air, the kopje emerges from a rolling sea of Commiphora like a whale’s back. I’ve always imagined it as a leviathan traveling south, leaving eddies in its wake, grass rippling down its flanks – stopping still for a moment on the surface, before it sounds again.

Each time we fly in, I am slightly taken aback to see it’s still there.

Compared to the kopje, the boulder that rises just a few feet from the ground at the southern end is insignificant – it is part of the kopje, yet somehow apart from it.

Each time I’ve passed it though, my step has slowed. Sometimes, in silent appreciation, I stretch my hand out and run my fingers over its contours. It has an uncanny power to attract. For the past four years, a pair of Von der Deckens hornbills has nested in a Commiphora just yards away. Doves like to rest there. More often than not, in walking past, I’ve put up a mixed flock of Namaqua and Mourning doves.

Thousands of years under a tropical sun has produced classic onion-skin erosion. The incremental accumulation of millions of tiny expansion-contraction cycles periodically causes the surface granite to crack away and reveal another layer. A Russian-Doll exposé of the earth’s igneous crust. It has not happened recently though, evidenced by the boulder’s smooth surface.

It’s a warm-coloured granite, not silver-flaked like Cornish cliffs – but with hints of soft ochre, black-stained with lichen, tight-crystalled – waterproof. The cliff above it is similar, but white-streaked with ‘hyracium’ – centuries-old accumulations of uric acid from rock hyrax latrines.

The boulder has no deep fissures that hyrax could shelter in, its contours are too exposed to their predators.

Instead, it is burnished like no other rock on the kopje.

It has a patina that cries out to be touched. Its brilliance is enhanced by veins of pale quartz that meander from the surface to carry light down to its interior, and give it a smoky, translucent quality.

Its polish follows the contours – more on the peaks, less in the valleys – as far from a milled granite counter-top as it is possible to imagine. When we fly into Kivuko, if altitude and sun are aligned, its beacon-glint can be seen from miles away.

rubbing rock

I thought I knew what had caused it, but my suspicions weren’t confirmed until early one morning in the wet season, a few months after we’d started filming. Elephants had passed by in the night – we’d heard them rumbling at the waterhole. They provided the base track to a cacophany of frogs, from bubbling Kassinas, to trilling Banded Rubber frogs.

After drinking and ‘mudding’, the elephants had visited the rock – at its base were puddled footprints. Its normal glint was hidden by a crust of ochre mud – evidence that the rock was an elephant ‘rubbing rock’.

Over thousands of years it has been polished by elephants, stopping and stooping to rub. I had wondered why that rock in particular?

We often see elephants scratching themselves, particularly after a visit to a waterhole. They have favoured scratching posts. Around Kivuko, they prefer dead Spinosa trees – the wood of the stumps is hard and brittle. Initially, its jagged edges attract the interest of elephants – but within a few years it becomes sanded and polished – but by then it’s become a habit.
Perhaps it was the same for the rock, but played out over millennia.

Perhaps it was down to opportunity and statistics – the number of elephants that passed, and the rock’s key position. Tsavo elephants would rather walk around a hill than over it. From the air, we often see elephant paths converge at the apex of a kopje, and fan out again afterwards. Any rock at the end of a kopje sees a lot of passing traffic.

Perhaps it was a combination of ‘intangibles’ that interacted to create its appeal.

There seemed to be no way of knowing, and I’d left it at that.



I’d not been to Kivuko for over a year, but I was reminded of it recently when we returned to film for a few days. I’d walked past the ‘rubbing rock’ just after dark, deep in thought, but had been pulled up short by a sudden change in temperature. The rock was radiating heat – the stored heat of the day, that could be felt more than a meter away.

I stopped and backed up against it, reveling in the heat.

That moment of relaxing, with the heat at my back, unlocked a memory. It transported me back to being a small boy at boarding school on Dartmoor – of leaning against a heavy cast-iron radiator. Even on winter days it was turned off in the afternoon, but the residual heat lasted until after dormitory lights-out. In those days, the privilege of leaning against the radiator was subject to an arcane schoolboy hierarchy. Forty years later, as I looked out over the moonlit landscape towards Mt. Kasigau, I smiled at the thought.

I wondered if the possibility of a warm back-rub on a cool evening was what made it so attractive to elephants. I checked the rocks around – none was as warm as the ‘rubbing rock’.

The next day, I had to pass the rock countless times and I noticed that the rock received more sun than others. In its exposed position at the southern end, it was lit from dawn until dusk. It explained why it was warmer.

That evening the clouds started to build and we decided to head back to Tsavo. As we flew past our old camp, a small patch of light touched the southern end of the kopje and the ‘rubbing rock’ glinted briefly.

As I set course for Voi, I reflected I’d probably never really know exactly what made the rock so attractive to elephants – but I felt that I might have added another piece to the jigsaw.

I suspect that animals appreciate natural radiators. The heat emanating from the rock for an hour or two after sunset, had stopped me and caused me to linger.

It might well do the same for an elephant – after all, we are not so very different.


© Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Deeble and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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