Almost Earth Dayand to commemorate the occasion, National Geographic and Disney+ released a new documentary series titled Elephant Secrets. The four-part series is sort of a sequel to the wonderful 2021 documentary. Secrets of whalesnarrated by Sigourney Weaver and produced by James Cameron.
NatGeo and Disney+ hope to bring back some of the same magic with Elephant Secrets. Cameron again produced and Natalie Portman took over as narrator. According to the official premise, “The series travels the world – from the savannahs of Africa to the cityscapes of Asia – to discover the strategic thinking, complex emotions and complex language of elephants, shaping a unique and dynamic culture.”
Each episode follows elephant populations in different environments – desert, rainforest, Asia, and the African savannah – and highlights the unique changes that take place in each environment and the ways elephants have adapted to survive there. For example, a female desert elephant giving birth in harsh conditions devastated by drought, taking a refreshing shower after giving birth is the first time such behavior has been caught on camera. (Mud baths are more common, providing a natural form of sunscreen for desert elephants.)
Elephants in African rainforests are much more elusive; they are afraid of humans due to years of poaching for their tusks, which are denser than other elephants. (Ivory is easier to cut and therefore more desirable.) Bush elephants must climb the treacherous Chiloho cliffs in Zimbabwe to reach life-saving water. The cameras captured how they test the strength of the soil at every turn – another first documentary. In Kenya, we meet a Savannah elephant named Long’uro who lost his trunk during a hyena attack.
One of the scientists represented is Paula Cahumbu, conservationist and CEO WildlifeDirect; she is known for her efforts to end the illegal ivory trade, among other things. Kahumbu grew up in Kenya and showed an early interest in research and conservation. In graduate school, the famous paleoanthropologist and conservationist. Richard Leakey sent it to Amboseli in Kenya, where the world’s oldest research project on elephants. She spent two weeks internship with two Maasai women who were conservation research assistants. Cynthia Mossdirector of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, drives around in a Land Rover to “roll call” the local population of elephants.
“My initial thought was, ‘Oh, this is going to be one of those really boring research projects where you just add datasheets and datasheets,'” Kahumbu told Ars. “But it was these amazing women from the local community that everyone knew. Separate elephant by name. By their nature, they could tell who was who. The elephants heard their voices and walked towards the car. It was like meeting friends with old friends and that’s what won me over. I just fell in love with elephants.”
Ars spoke to Kahumbu to find out more.
Ars Technica: one of the topics Elephant Secrets how the environment shapes behavior. Therefore, abrupt changes in the environment cause the necessary adaptations and behavior. It seems that every species of elephant featured in the docu-series has adapted its behavior. Did it surprise you?
Paula Cahumbu: Yes, it’s funny because we know that elephants are very smart and we know that they have thrived on this planet for as long as they have been due to their incredible adaptability. But it’s another thing to see it happen in front of your eyes, and to know that they didn’t just solve problems, they passed on this knowledge – they created a whole culture.
For example, when elephants descended a steep slope in Zimbabwe, one could watch their progress and be surprised. But then you look closely and see how they hit the ground in front of them with their trunk to determine if it is hard enough to put a foot on. This inspires awe. It was also quite shocking to watch them in the rainforest, where they were completely silent. You can’t hear anything, and you can just see the tusk’s shine to know it’s there. In Borneo they are noisy because they are very excited. They learned that the sound of a certain threshing machine means that there is plenty of food, and they rally with each other. It was almost like they were at a sugar high.
I am so used to East African elephants and their habitat. I studied elephants in the forests of Kenya and saw how they changed their behavior, their family structure. But it was at the extreme level of adaptation.