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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.


How Not to Film Lions

Wild Stories from the wildlife film-making front





How Not to Film Lions 

by  Robert Waldron

Lions are mostly nocturnal. So if you want to film them doing most of the things they do, you need to become nocturnal. This takes time, and often involves a lot of nodding off until you get the hang of it. It was this nodding off that caused the problem.

I and my production assistant, Ellie Mthanda, were filming a pride of lions in Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park, for our film ‘Story of the Sands’.

The lions were licking water from a puddle of fresh rainwater. It was about nine in the evening, and there was a clear Kalahari sky sparkling with stars.

We got some nice shots of the lions’ faces reflecting in the water, and noted how their tongues curled backwards, scooping up the water into their mouths. Their thirst slaked, the lions flopped down in two groups, and nodded off.

We were supposed to take turns nodding off too, so that we could react if the lions got moving. I film off a bracket mounted on our Landcruiser door, which means keeping my window open so I can have a 180 degree view of the action.

When not shooting, I unclip the camera, and cradle it (all 9 kg of it) on my lap. Sometimes, I nonchalantly rest my arm on the bracket, which protrudes outside the truck. Relaxing and watching lions doing nothing, tends to

have the same effect on me, so I do nothing and relax. And so does Ellie. In this case we both fell asleep, and, as it turns out, me with my arm resting outside on the bracket. Now I’m not much of a believer in extra sensory perception, but that night there was definitely something extra about my senses.

I woke and saw a lioness just outside the window, about to grab my hand with her paw. I quickly removed said hand, and she did an about turn so quickly that her tail whacked the door with a thump, which woke Ellie.

I guess my hand may have been moving while I was in dreamland, or the lioness just saw some movement, or smelled the remains of a supper sandwich on my fingertips.

I was very lucky. An injury caused by a playful lioness in the remoteness of the Kalahari can be fatal. We were at least three to four hours hard driving through the desert from any help. So the lesson here was, never ever take lions for granted. Always take the right precautions.

We never film the big cats from outside the vehicle, except in special circumstances(more about this later). Also, it is illegal to film outside the vehicle in most officially protected wildlife areas.

Some may think that’s a scaredy-cat approach, and that’s fine. But remember, it’s not about you. It’s about the animal. If you’re trying to prove

how close you can leopard crawl to film a lion, chances are you’re going to get footage of an agitated lion looking at you, and you might miss it getting up and doing something amazing in the next few minutes. I have encountered lions three times alone, and on foot, unarmed. Each time was different, each time I desperately wanted to run, and each time made me want it to be the last time(More of this later, too.)

As world-renowned film-maker Alan Root has said “.. these days, it seems everyone is picking up animals, prodding them and cuddling them. God forbid you should leave it alone, it might behave naturally.”

I for one am a firm adherent of that. We are not the picking up and cuddling kind of film-makers. Again, in most countries, it is illegal to remove a wild animal, for example a snake, from its natural environment, and handle it and prod t and chase it around. That is not for wildlife film-makers. That’s for so-called reality shows, which often have a habit of creating situations which are in fact, not reality.

So, back to the bracket on our vehicle. If you’re going to film wildlife from a distance, and safely, you need to keep your camera steady (we’ve all seen those shaky YouTube clips) and shoot from inside a vehicle. (The vehicle also often acts as a hide, and is good to keep the weather off your camera and you.)

To get steady shots, you’re going to need a bracket or clamp of some sort. Our bracket holds a steel bowl that has a fluid system within it (called a fluid head) which allows you to mount the camera to it with a base plate. The fluid head also has a circular level, so that the head can be levelled to the horizon at any time by centering the bubble. From this platform, you can pan, tilt and move the camera smoothly to follow the action.The fluid head you can buy from professional video production gear suppliers. Sachtler and O’Connor are good, but expensive makes. You can get similar fluid action from smaller heads, for smaller cameras, available with tripods at your local photo store. You then need a thing called a bowl holder – also from pro video gear houses. You need to then take this to your local welding shop, where they can weld you a bracket that will firmly hook over the door of your vehicle with the window down. To this, they need to weld the bowl holder.

You can now put the fluid head and bowl into the bowl holder, and clamp it down(it has a clamp under the bowl). To connect the camera to this, you will need a base plate. This plate clips into the head, and is screwed in to the tripod thread hole below the camera. It’s handy because you can clip on and clip off the camera in an instant. If all this sounds like a schlepp, I can guarantee you its more of a schlepp trying to find other  half-baked solutions , and you will be rewarded with steady, smooth shots. If you don’t have the budget for a fluid head and bracket system, make yourself a good bean bag.

Get some canvas or other hard material, and fill it with rice, and sew this up. The bag should not be tight to bursting, yet not soggy and loose either. It might take some experimenting to get the right fullness. Once you have the bag right, it should be able to rest on your vehicle window edge steadily, or even hang slightly over, without sliding off. It should cradle your camera in the dent of the bag firmly.

From this, you can shoot fairly steadily,but won’t be able to do smooth moves like panning etc, while shooting.

Have fun.

Next: How to find an Elephant

Rob Waldron portrait





© Copyright 2012 Robert Charles Waldron. All rights reserved.




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