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.
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.
Your writing is wonderful, your stories intriguing and I can’t wait to see the film.
‘Hongera’ to you and your small team. You must have so many wonderful memories.
Thanks for keeping us connected to your life and work.
in which places will you be filming?
I am curious to know if elephants from different places will have different social life, like human traditions.
We are mainly filming in Tsavo, and the surrounding ranches / Amboseli. I think the social life is fundamentally the same, but poaching, translocations etc can have an impact – particularly if the family structure is altered. Some populations have specific traditions eg elephants on Mt Elgon visiting caves to get minerals – although they all need a source of minerals/ salts wherever they live, it is just where and how they get them that might differ.
I will be waiting for the movie I’ve heard a lot of stories about elephants and have been lucky to visit several national parks in Tanzania. I wish you success in your project.
I loved your post. Fascinating and I can wait for more. My heart is also in Africa, having spent many years in Tanzania, and I’m always finding reasons to go back!
I stand still…trying not to hold my breath,…looking forward to the unfolding of the elephant story/film…..
Reblogged this on It Is What It Is and commented:
Fascinating story …. love Mark Deeble’s posts!!
Dear Mark: Your posts are amazing to receive. You are such a beautiful writer. Keep in touch about your film and all my best to you and Vicky – Flo
Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital
1228 1/2 31st Street, NW
Washington, DC 20007
23rd Annual Festival: March 17-29, 2015
Selected for the 2012-13 Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington
I can only dream of Africa. You bring it to life.
It’s always a treat to read your blog. Lots of love to you and Vicky!
I look forward to all your writings, especially now that you will be testing your “filming skills’..How wonderful for your and your crew.
Are you funding this through kickstarter or indiegogo? Would like to know so I can contribute.
Thank you very much Delphi. We’ll be running a campaign in a few months time, and will let you know. You can follow the films progress on http://www.facebook.com/theelephantmovie, and the blog will have occasional posts.
Thank you, Mark. Looking forward to the next installment, and of course to the movie.
I do hope that your movie shows to the world why we need to respect and protect the elephant from mankinds greed and guns.
Your blogs always leave me yearning to know more. Brettie xx
Dave Thomas, Cornwall UK.
(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)
Wonderful observation of how sensitive these beautiful animals are. I’m always amazed at their care and attention for each other and how their young are so carefully watched by the other females in the herd. Thanks for your beautiful informative blog.
I can hardly wait to see the finished product. You, Sir, do awesome work. I follow every story you write. Thanks so much for sharing!! Peace ……
I agree with you and thank these people for their dedication and investment in wanting to show the world what amazing living beings elephants are and I my wish is that this exposure will prompt people to realise we need to protect these animals–not destroy them
I agree with you … they need protection. Humans are their only voice. Thx for all you do!
Awaiting with anticipation for your film. We should arrange a showing here in Los Angeles with the Los Angeles World Affairs Council ( lawac.org ).
I absolutely love your way of writing Mark, and I look forward to reading your every post. I can’t wait to see the move you produce. I’m sure it will reflect the mystery and the majesty of elephants like nobody else can. You have such a deep knowledge of Africa, and yet are so humble in acknowledging that there is yet still so much more to learn….
I agree with Lyn’s words—–Mark does demonstrate a unique understanding of the elephant and does not impinge on their world.Maybe this is his way of letting the world know that we have a duty of care to protect these magnificent living beings whilst sharing the beauty and wonderment of the elephants habitat and their ties of kinship and loyalty .
I am a Bachelor of Arts Undergraduate at The University of Central Lancashire, Liverpool studying Visual Merchandising and Promotional Design, embarking on the final year of my Degree (due for completion June 2015).
My project is based on emotional brand attachment combined with personal motivations – one of which is animal welfare and conservation.
Due to the emotional factor in my project following my dissertation, I felt elephants would be a perfect fit as they are considered emotional, complex mammals. On researching these amazing creatures, I was shocked to discover approx 100,000 elephants have been killed by poachers for their ivory in just three years, in carefully planned and targeted attacks and on a mass scale, such as the 2012 Cameroon attack.
I then came across Satao and his terrible fate. This really struck a chord with me personally, and further reading lead me to your blog, specifically your post when you first got a glimpse of Satao from the ‘hot-box’. This affected me tremendously, reading of his attempts in which to hide his tusks, something which he should be proud of and free to in fact parade rather than conceal.
Therefore, I endeavour to tell Satao’s story through my project. I am hoping this will act as beacon to raise awareness of the slaughtering and indeed the illegal ivory trade itself.
As your story is such a pivotal influence on my project, I would like to ask permission to re-produce an extract of it in a printed, tangible format. This will probably be in a poster or booklet format, for exhibition purposes (4th-6th June).
If you require any more details please feel free to ask. Also, If you have any other information which you think could benefit my project, please do let me know. Can I also commend you on the work you do, I am completely in awe of your efforts and wish you the best of luck.
Looking forward to your response.
Hi Lindsey, that sounds great and we would love to help. I’ll forward your email address to Vicky who will be in contact. We look forward to seeing what you produce – perhaps if you have a link to the final piece you could post it here. Best wishes, Mark
Thanks very much Mark, and for the speedy response!
Of course, hoping it will spark some interest and highlight some serious issues… Along with the great work you do! Very happy to have your support! Thanks again, Lindsey
Beautiful post, very moving writing and such a great read!!Thanks for sharing!!
Mark – when will the movie be released? Have you just started filming or are you almost finished.
Judy – filming ends shortly and the film will be finished 2016. We don’t yet have a release date.
Hi, just seen your interview on NTV the local network and i heard you mention about mentoring the youth in wild life documentary filming and i was interested in becoming part of your crew and learning something or two if it is possible.
Hello Leteipan – we have finished filming and are now editing. Please keep in contact and we’ll let you know when we are back filming. We also plan to organise a filming ‘camp’ after the edit, which we will advertise via Paula Kahumbu.You can keep track of the film’s progress at http://www.facebook.com/theelephantmovie.
Okay, am looking forward to it.