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.