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.

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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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(Ambo)ele image


Once every few years a group of Tsavo eles journeys to Amboseli. Recently, we did the same. We flew into the late afternoon sun, away from the ochre dusts, towards Kilimanjaro. Ever since I was a child in Cornwall, I have loved traveling west – it’s always felt like going home, with the added gift of another minute or two of light at the end of the day.

This was no different – we flew past the cliffs of Kichwa Tembo, tracking the Tsavo river. We passed over an old friend of a fig tree we had filmed for ‘The Queen of Trees’ ( We were well above bird watching height, but I knew the shapes streaming from its canopy would be green pigeons – just as I knew their presence meant the tree must be fruiting.

Then on to Mzima – in the late light, the water looked dark and mysterious – it still held secrets, but there was not a hippo in sight. Before the last drought, there had been sixty. They’d been our noisy neighbours for almost five years – now they are gone, and the ecosystem their dung supported, has largely collapsed.  When we’d last been there, we’d found that the hippos were starving – but because they weren’t dying in the water, the first deaths went unnoticed. Emergency supplemental feeding, a ‘care package’ of alfalfa and hay, prooved too little, too late. Today, Mzima is a silent spring.

When we lived there, I’d have laughed at the suggestion that, within a decade, the film we’d made would become an historical document. Even now, I find it hard to believe.

Mzima B+W

We flew on, chasing the light, with the green-soft curves of the Chyulu Hills on one side and the foothills of Kilimanjaro on the other. It felt as if we’d entered a broad valley – at its apex was Amboseli.  We could see it from thirty miles away – the wind whipping up the dust on the dry lake bed made it look like the land was on fire.

Even from the air, Amboseli’s elephants felt different to Tsavo’s. As we came in to land, families, heading for higher ground for the night, didn’t glance up or change pace – they walked in calm, orderly lines. On the ground, the difference was more marked. The elephants didn’t move from beside the track, as we passed. Throughout their lives, they’ve been habituated to researchers and tourists – they have personal histories and names. There is so little poaching, that inside the park they know they are safe, and respond by being approachable and trusting.

Having been around Tsavo’s feisty elephants for the last few years, a trip to Amboseli felt like visiting a finishing school. The elephants are genteel, the pace relaxed, movements considered and minimal. If caught by surprise, rather than charge, they will step out of your way – almost apologetically.

My first impression was that the elephants looked ‘clean’, but it took me until the next day to realize why. It wasn’t the washed ‘clean’ that hours in the swamp produces, it was that their flanks had no wounds. In Tsavo, many elephants have abscesses as a result of poisoned arrows. In Amboseli, I’ve not seen one.

Despite it being the end of the dry season, the elephants looked well, the babies playful and plump. The last time I’d been there was at the height of the 2009 drought – the worst since 1961. The elephants were emaciated, dull-eyed and listless – their trunks dragged in the dust. That year, almost all the babies had died.

Ironically, there was no shortage of water as the park’s famous springs never stopped flowing. Instead, Amboseli’s herbivores were dying of starvation. That September, I’d filmed the death of an elephant calf for the BBC. I had expected the rains to break shortly afterwards, but they never did. Within a few weeks, what had been a crisis developed into a catastrophe.

We decided to go back. I was shocked at the change. Animals were dying in their thousands. The stench pervaded the park. It was impossible to escape it, or wash it from my clothes. Skeletal wildebeest and zebra now stood foursquare and shaking – their withered muscles spasming – for if they ever lay down, they’d be unlikely to stand again. The full horror wasn’t apparent until, one evening shortly after arrival, I climbed onto the land-rover roof and counted over 500 carcasses within a mile.

In the days that followed, I saw life leave the eyes of zebra and wildebeest. But amidst all the death, I never once saw an animal fall, which made me wonder about those final moments.

starving wildebeest

Early one morning, I found a particularly emaciated wildebeest. I decided to stay with it. I thought I should film it collapse – it would be a moment, I felt, that encapsulated the three years of failed rains, and the terrible consequences for the grazers.

I thought it would be easy.

I followed the wildebeest at a distance for I didn’t want my presence to tip the balance against it.  After an hour I was amazed that it was still upright. It walked in a daze, as if it had retreated somewhere deep inside itself. Its hips were sharp and angular, its head looked disproportionately large, its eyelashes caked with fine dust. It occasionally stopped, head hanging, legs wobbling. It seemed to sleep, standing up. As it shook more, I’d start filming, but it never fell. Sometimes it would open its eyes wide, as if surprised at where it found itself.

At others, it would lurch forward as if going down, but the momentum would somehow get turned into a step, and then another…and it would start walking again. I followed it for hours. It never let up. By midday, I was hot and frustrated that it was taking so long. I’d planned to look for elephants. My time in the park was limited and I was questioning the wisdom of my decision. I considered changing subjects, but I thought the wildebeest was close to death and by now, it paid no attention to the vehicle, so I decided to stay with it.

As the day wore on though my feelings started to change. I still wanted to film its collapse, but I started to admire its tenacity. I still wanted it to end quickly, but now, it was as much for the wildebeest’s sake, as for mine.

There was no single point that the situation reversed, but ever so gradually, over the course of the afternoon I came to realize that what I wished for had changed. I no longer cared whether I’d film it, I just wanted that individual to survive. I’d followed it for almost twelve hours. I was hot and thirsty, and tired. It was nothing compared to how the wildebeest must have felt. Now, when it staggered and kept going, I gave a silent cheer. As the light faded, and it lurched off into the darkness and dust – I just hoped it would survive.

I learnt from that day – that instead of trying to impose my will, I should have observed and listened. More importantly, I learnt about determination and hope. I drove back to camp in awe of that wildebeest, and the power of its life-force – of its determination to stagger on, in the hope of finding a small patch of grass, that might sustain it a few more hours, another day…

dusty zebras

Today, in Amboseli, there are thousands of wildebeest and the population is recovering. I like to think the individual I followed five years ago, might be among them. They all look dusty-sleek, and there are hundreds of calves. They have the energy to canter, and head-twist their way across the plains.

Two years after the drought, there was an elephant baby-boom. The boomers are now mischievous, tail-pulling toddlers – shadowing their mothers on the daily trek to the swamp. Grass grows through old zebra skulls, and the herds walk past them as they file in to drink. There is little to remind us of how desperate it was – only five years ago.



Hippos B&W


Yesterday evening, as we flew back to Tsavo, I looked down on Mzima and saw a lone hippo leaving the water. It will take a long time for Mzima to recover. It might be decades before it returns to its full glory – as a fish-filled, hippo-aquarium.

I was encouraged by what I’d seen in Amboseli, for it reminded me that ecosystems have a huge capacity to heal and recover.

It will take time – but it gave me hope.





© 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 Amboseli | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Raindrops in the dust

Wide ele bull in rain


Yesterday it rained in Tsavo. It was the first time in months. It wasn’t a downpour, but was enough to fill the shower bucket an inch or so.
There had been signs. The evening before, we’d seen scorpions out hunting, and a solifugid which ran in manic bursts around the fire. That morning, before dawn, I’d woken to the gentle drone of bees searching out the tiny flowers in the Dobera tree above my tent. It heralded change.
It was mid morning when the fig-tops bent to the first squall. Fly sheets bounced and snapped like sails, then glistened as the rain came – not in fat drops, but driven sheets, from a rushing, cloud-low sky.
Within minutes, activity replaced dry season languor: hornbills started calling, and a pair of brown-veined white butterflies tangoed through the raindrops – taking the hits, but somehow staying airborne. I wondered where they’d come from – a hollow branch perhaps, or had they been furled tight, deep inside a caper bush?

Rain is so sporadic here, that for most animals, the immediate imperative is to find a mate, and get a head-start on raising a family. Be too early though, before the rains set in, and the expected flush of vegetation and insects may never materialize. Too late, and the competition is intense and the predators will have their young to feed. Timing is everything.

As dusk fell and the drops turned to drizzle, a white-tailed paradise flycatcher flew up to snatch termite aylates from the air – we watched until all we could see was its disembodied tail fluttering in the twilight.
I was surprised that the rain hadn’t been enough to get the frogs going – not one had called. High in the branches above the equipment tent, a grey tree frog merely raised his head. He hadn’t moved from his perch all dry season. I like to think he might have stretched a leg, or opened his mouth to drink, but we saw him do neither.

The next morning I drove out, expectant. Rinsed of its ochre dust, Tsavo was palpably sharper and more vibrant.
I’ve always loved the change that rain brings – but, that morning, I felt something was missing. I couldn’t work out what it was, so I ignored it – thinking that, in time, it would reveal itself. I delighted in small detail: a terrapin, woken by the rain, and in search of a waterhole, scuttled along the track. As I passed, it withdrew into the protection of its shell. I was reflecting on how different defensive behaviour might evolve (some urban hedgehogs, when approached by a car, now tend to run instead of roll), but I didn’t need to go far to see the benefits of both. Around the next bend, a tawny eagle stood in the track, crouched over a terrapin. I’ve seen other raptors, especially fish eagles, chip away until they break through the carapace. It looked like the same would eventually happen, but as I braked, the eagle looked up and relaxed its grip, the terrapin’s head and legs shot out, and it dashed away to cover.

As I meandered along the tracks, I looked for signs of change – behaviour or activity that was the direct result of the rain. They were there, but they were subtle. When I drew close to a dark stain on the ochre track, it became animated. What had looked, at a distance, like a patch of damp soil turned out to be a raiding party of ponerine ants, hundreds strong. I’ve always thought that, on the move, they look a disciplined force, armed with powerful stings, always on the lookout for prey. When I stepped out to get down on their level, they sensed the vibrations and immediately went into defensive mode – the column scattered and they rushed around, stridulating loudly, searching for something to sting. I smiled at the sound they made – like a tiny, manic crowd, communicating in high-pitched whispers. I left them in peace.

I stopped next for a tiny leopard tortoise. It had fallen into a shallow wheel rut and couldn’t escape. It was exquisite – a miniature replica of an adult, but only the size of a lime. Its shell had the same pitted and glossy patina. It was still slightly soft, and rounded from months of being curled inside a shell. The underside had an umbilical scar that hadn’t quite closed – it could only have been a few hours old. I moved it to the side of the road – it looked at me briefly, lurched to the left and, seeing no threat, scuttled into cover. I enjoyed the thought that only a day ago, somewhere close by and hidden underground, a clutch of tortoise eggs had hatched. The moisture seeping down would have stimulated them to break out and dig towards the surface. Once started, there would have been no turning back, as they would have been packed head to tail, inside a tunnel, digging in the dark, eyes closed – driven only by instinct. I would have loved to have seen them break through, blinking in the sunlight, trying to assimilate such a colourful new world.

Baby leopard tortoise


I decided to return to camp by a different route. The early morning gloss was starting to fade; that delight that begins anew every day at dawn, that by 8am has started to ebb away, the shadows to shorten…

Already there was a hint of breeze and as the ground warmed and the moisture wicked away, the tiny spatter-craters the rain had made started to collapse and erode. By the end of the day, what little rain had fallen, would be just a memory – the frogs had been right.

It was when I saw the elephant that I suddenly realized what I’d been missing. The day before, we’d flown to try to find the matriarch we’d last filmed months ago. We’d followed up on the ground, checking each family, but without any luck.
Within a few miles of camp there had been over a hundred elephant, not an exceptional number, but enough for them to be the dominant presence in the landscape. This morning, I’d driven perhaps fifty miles, and not seen one. I couldn’t explain why I hadn’t noticed their absence before.

The elephant was a bull, unmarked and beautifully dark-grey clean. The rain had transformed him. His tusks shone. He stood motionless, the Irima plains behind him, ochre mud drying at his feet. It was as if he had stepped out of his dust-red Tsavo work-clothes, straight into a morning suit.

I stopped to look. I took my time. In his isolation, and his stillness, he seemed unusually significant.
I don’t know whether it was his unexpected colour, the fact that I’d just returned to Tsavo, or that he just returned my gaze, but it produced a surge of appreciation I found almost overwhelming.

After two and a half years of filming and living with elephants, it was as if I was seeing him and his kind through fresh eyes. I felt at once humbled and privileged.

After weeks of being away, it felt like a moment of reconnection to this land and its extraordinary wildlife.

It felt good to be back.


© 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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Satao – the legacy

Satao - plain legacy

It’s been months since I was in the ‘hot-box’. The unseasonal rain that scattered Tsavo’s elephants has passed and we have seen the return of the dry season winds. In the past few weeks, they’ve wicked the moisture from the surface of the soil and the grasses have brown-withered. The days of plenty are over. Elephants can no longer rely on the seasonal waterholes and wallows, and are returning to permanent water.

In my absence, the steel filming hide we call the ‘hot-box’ had become a ‘wet-box’ – it had been submerged for months. We spent the first hour of the day bucketing out a ton of anaerobic sludge. I spent the hours afterwards, evicting toads and giant centipedes that had sought refuge in the gloomy, fetid interior.

Last year, I spent several weeks confined underground in it. In all that time, I never saw as many elephants as I did recently – more than 400 drifted in to drink. There was only a handful of big bulls though, and not one of them a ‘tusker’.

The last time I spent time in the ‘hot box’, Satao was alive, and came to drink with his four ‘askaris’.

Much of the press about the death of Satao, has mentioned how important the last remaining big tuskers are to the gene ‘pool’. The implication being that they are the last repository of ‘big tusk’ genes, and are responsible for passing them on. If we lose them, then we won’t see big tuskers in the future. Back underground again, and waiting for the ‘magic hour’ light, I wondered if that was right.

For the remaining tuskers to be passing on their ‘big tusk’ legacy, tusk size needs to be inherited, and the big tuskers sexually active.

I don’t know of any studies on the inheritability of tusk size, but what we’ve seen suggests  that tusk ‘character’ runs in families. Closely related elephants often have similar tusks eg. crossed tusks, or narrow ‘tooth picks’. Occasionally they are tusk-less. Researchers in Amboseli ( the Amboseli Elephant Project is the longest-running ‘vertical’ study of African elephants ) can sometimes place an elephant in the right family using physical traits alone – tusk ‘character’ amongst them.

If tusk size is inherited, is it passed on by males? It probably is, but in almost every animal, some genes are sex-linked. In humans, haemophilia and red-green colour blindness are sex-linked traits – carried by females, but expressed in males.

It would be ironic if we protected bulls to save the gene pool, only to find that the future of ‘big tusk’ genes lay with the cows.


Are the big tuskers passing on their genes?

Elephants grow throughout life – and so do their tusks. Bulls with the largest tusks are often the oldest. Tusks indicate age, not virility. Bulls can live to be 70, but their reproductive prime is likely to be closer to 40-45. This is when they come into musth for longer, and when they mate most.

Satao was about 50 when he died, but over the year and a half we filmed him, we never saw him mate – nor did we ever see him in musth. By that age, as a dominant bull, he had probably sired a disproportionate number of offspring. By the time he became a true tusker, he is likely to have passed on his genes many times over. Those genes are out there in the population, in his progeny – they will only ‘show’ when the cows and bulls he sired, grow older.

In the big tusk gene ‘pool’ it is possible that the very biggest tuskers are a quiet ‘back-water’ – their genes already passed on, their ability to reproduce slowly waning. They are the ‘elder statesmen’ of elephant society.

Perhaps more important to the survival of ‘big tusk’ genes are the bulls and cows that carry disproportionately large tusks, yet are still in their reproductive prime.

If they live long enough, their tusks will grow and they’ll earn the accolade ‘big tusker’ (for a bull this reflects tusks over 45kg). For now, they are doing the essential work of passing on the ‘big tusk’ genes.

Satao - cu

In the long term, I suspect that the survival of ‘big tusk’ genes depends more on what is happening at the population level, rather than at the individual – and there, the outlook is less encouraging.

Tsavo’s elephants have been slaughtered for their tusks for hundreds of years. Swahili merchants, Arab traders, colonial hunters, now poachers – the onslaught has ramped up in the last few years. They have all targeted elephants with the largest tusks – it’s a strong selection pressure, and the result is the evolution of elephants with smaller tusks. Today, Africa’s elephants have tusks half the size of their forebears.

The same pressure is probably driving up the proportion of tusk-less elephants.

Tusks are not essential, but there is no doubt they make life easier. I once saw Satao asleep, leaning slightly forward, his huge tusks propping up his head. Besides being used as a headrest, we’ve seen them used as weapons, or for digging up tubers, prising bark from trees, or excavating for minerals and water. Bulls don’t need tusks to mate, or for cows to find them attractive – sheer physical size is more important. A huge, tusk-less Tsavo bull named ‘Thunder’ is testament to that. Like a small percentage of the population, he is genetically tusk-less.

In China and Uganda, poaching has caused a gene responsible for tusk-lessness to spread. I think it is very likely that the same is happening in Tsavo and that the proportion of tusk-less elephants is increasing.

If poaching continues, it seems inevitable that we will continue to see a gradual decline in tusk size, and fewer elephants with tusks.


So what of Satao’s fellow big tuskers – the surviving incumbents…?

I think they are very important. We should be cautious of assuming, however, that their protection is all that is needed to ensure the survival of ‘big tusk’ genes.

As a group, they are the finest bulls left in Africa – the last of an unbroken line of magnificent ‘big tuskers’, that has trodden Tsavo’s red soil for thousands of years.

They are the current poster boys for their species, and a visible rallying point. The international outcry that followed the death of Satao, is testament to this.

Their potential for generating tourist dollars for National Parks is unrivaled.

Above all else, in a world of shifting baselines, they show Tsavo as it was – and what it could be again.


Recently, we returned to Satao. It was a month since his death, but the grass was still tinged green from the rainstorm that drew him there; the vegetation still strewn with Ipomoea flowers. A dead Comiphora nearby had collapsed under the weight of vultures. A tuber he’d been digging up was still exposed, but had sprouted soft, green, downy leaves.

Satao had always belonged to Tsavo’s soil and, slowly, he’s returning to it – fly and beetle larvae have worked their magic. Their dry pupal cases swirled, chaff-like, in the wind – they had collected in the lee of his skull. A brown-veined white butterfly rocked to and fro in the grass. Despite the wind, there was a stillness there.

It will take a year or two for Satao to be subsumed and for the grass to grow again – when it does it will be lush-green vivid. Each season, its fresh growth will mark where he lies – then, perhaps a decade hence, the nutrients exhausted, its colour will fade back to Tsavo.


baby ele in dust


I think a lot about Satao – but what brings a smile, is the thought that somewhere out there, unknown and unnoticed, is a young elephant, whose tiny tusks are an inch or two longer than others in his age group.

We’ve probably driven past him countless times, seeing him merely as a calf in a female herd.

We may not notice him for another three decades, but there will come a time when his tusks, like those of his father, start to glint through the heat haze – and mark him out as a future giant ‘tusker’. I just hope that his world will be a safer place.



© 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 Tsavo | Tagged , , , , , , , | 28 Comments