How to find an Elephant

by Robert Waldron

It was a baking midday on the Chobe river floodplain in northern Botswana.

We were in the throes of making our first film on elephants, *’The  Time of The Elephants’, and visitied to shoot supplementary footage here for this film, which was actually set in Kruger National Park. We later returned to shoot ‘Chobe; Lifeblood of the Sands’ which featured the dramatic cycle of life the elephants faced at Chobe.

If you’re going to film elephants, Chobe National Park in Botswana is certainly one of the best places to do it.It has the largest population of elephants on the planet, over 50,000. I’d been to Chobe before, but my new production assistant, Ellie Mthanda, a Zulu homeboy from Soweto, had hardly been outside Johannesburg.

As we drove out on the dry fringes of the floodplain, we made towards two large herds of elephants at water on the edges of the cool blue Chobe. Both herds had drunk and splashed their fill, and started making their way back into the bush, on the long trek to find food. The grass and browse near the river had been stripped long ago, and the elephants were moving in a constant cycle between the only water, and grazing which was often over thirty kilometres away.

The one herd set out and left just before the other, passing just behind our vehicle. Ellie was absorbed watching them, not only seeing elephants for the first time, but much closer than he ever dreamed.

I was watching the other herd, which left a little later, and was now on a course to cross just in front of us. The matriarch was moving determinedly towards us, and kept the herd behind her. Just by her body language, with a slightly hunched back, a stiff tail that curled upwards, and a lofty tilt to the head, I knew we had trouble. There was nothing we could do, with all routes closed to us, so I didn’t bother letting Ellie know, as he was turned backwards, watching the herd cross behind us.

The protective matriarch bore down on us steadily, and all I could do was watch and hope. She stopped right in front of the bumper of our Landcruiser, and then pushed her body forward, her massive head right over the hood of the truck, and her small brown eyes peering down into the cabin, as if seeking for any false move. Just at that moment, Ellie turned around, and got a windscreen full of elephant. ‘Oh!’ he gasped, surprisingly softly under the circumstances.

The matriarch still glowered down at us, I honestly got the feeling that she was checking if we were good enough people to be near her family. Then, without the usual shake of the head and smack of ears, she glided away, still watching us for a time. If you haven’t seen elephants before, like Ellie, this was the way to find an elephant.

So, some takeout from this is. If you’re specializing in a particular animal, put yourself in the best place to see that animal. Either geographically, or by working with scientists who can consistently find tagged animals.

I’m confident that we would never have acquired the abundance of elephant footage and behaviour we did anywhere else in Africa. Respect the animal, and help it to respect you. We did nothing to harm or scare the elephants, no revving of the engine, or playing chicken with the truck vs the animal.

Come from a good place. In our two years of filming in Chobe, we were never seriously threatened by an elephant. We faced a few mock charges, and now and then some irritation at our presence, but nothing really dangerous. I believe that this is due partly to us respecting the elephants at all times, never pushing them, and working hard to understand them. A little love also helps. Elllie and I both love these giant pachyderms, and in our time there, witnessed nuances of behaviour and intelligence that were revelatory.

I believe elephants are clever enough to pick up on who you are, and what your motives are. See the big picture. Sure we would get great footage every day when the herds cam in their thousands to drink and cool down by the Chobe. But then, the next day, until about noon, there wouldn’t be an elephant anywhere to be seen. Not one.

We started to follow their daily lives, and so followed them up to 40 kilometres inland from the river, to where they could find grass and leaves. Most of the vegetation between there and the river had already been eaten, particularly in the dry season. These journeys across the Kalahari sands were tough on the elephant babies, and they would often sit or lie down en route, exhausted. Sometimes, their mothers had to leave them, so that they themselves would survive.

Seeing this bigger picture of the unrelenting cycle created by the need for water and the need for food, we could understand them better, and build up a better picture of their lives. Leave the animal in a good space. It’s possible to drive up to elephants, and provoke them to charge, and play the fool with them enough to get some really dramatic action, and then leave with this so called exciting footage. They’re so good natured that they probably won’t even kill you.

But they might harm the next people who come along.Perhaps a family who just wants to enjoy a closer look at these massive animals in the wild, and to cherish that experience for the rest of their lives.

Instead what they encounter is a confused, angry animal that has lost his or her trust in humans thanks to the previous humans.

I’ve seen this type of thing occur once or twice. The next time you read about an animal charging without provocation, and it’s not wounded or with young, it might be that the provocation happened courtesy of its previous human encounter.

If you’re into wildlife film making, my guess is that you love the wild and the things in it, that it gives you something beautiful beyond yourself. I’ve sacrificed many shots because of that love. I believe it to be a level better than sacrificing the animal for the shot.

* View a clip from ‘ Time Of The Elephants

Rob Waldron portrait

© Copyright 2012 Robert Charles Waldron. All rights reserved.

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