One of National Geographic’s more profound and compelling ventures hits the tube as producers Dereck and Beverly Joubert follow a clan of elephants in Africa’s protected Botswana, where they carry on their ancient traditions and curious behavior. The Jouberts never intrude; they record rituals, maternal instincts, mating, dying and presumed bereavement and find that mysteries still surround what elephants think and do. The hour’s fascinating.
Program chooses one clan — females and calves move about in one cluster, male elephants go their own way. Mating season brings on some ripe prose (“A lone male suddenly feels the awakenings in his body: It is the time of his must! Like a new dawn this feeling is fresh and vital.”); pix adequately cover the subject.
The constant quest is for water, and the clan’s life revolves around it. The matriarch, who’s just calved, sets life’s pace, leading the group to water holes , finding a mineral-rich area to dig up substances, deciding when to move on to another spot. An abandoned calf attaches himself to her and earns the temporary resentment of her own calf.
Lions are a threat, and the community of elephants bands together to protect a calf or the group. They join in pulling a calf from sucking mud, make ramps in water holes for the calves to use. Males recognize the passing of an aged bull by hanging on to his tusk, feeling around his body, then his bones, with their trunks. Most important, the docu points up communication abilities among the creatures, demonstrates their capacity for memory and illustrates how they work together on a common challenge.
The mystery of the elephant remains a mystery; the program does explain away the age-old question about the elephant’s graveyard.
The camerawork is remarkable, even joining the huge mammals swimming across a river into dangerous territory. A single, older calf hangs back, trumpeting to the others, until they all swim back to safer land where there are no hunters.
A point is made several times about not knowing how or what elephants think. It doesn’t matter — their importance is in being. That’s dwindling, so the docu becomes historic as well as enriching. Lensing and editing are superior, and shots of elephants swaying as they walk along a riverbank or across a savanna are both beautiful and sad.
Here’s National Geographic at its best.