Elephants and humans share striking similarities. A new documentary series takes a deep dive into that relationship.

A herd of African elephants stands on top of a nearly 600-foot-high cliff in the first episode of the new documentary series. elephant secrets. After a brutal dry season in Zimbabwe, an elephant matriarch must lead her herd over the cliff in search of water. Their huge three to four ton bodies are not built for this type of expedition: they use their trunks to test the ground for the To complicate the descent, they must account for the younger elephants and soothe and calm the babies with their tails. in the path. Everyone is tense as they navigate the steep gorge path, including wildlife experts and filmmakers watching from the side.

“It was incredible, even for me, to see that,” says veteran conservationist and elephant advocate Paula Kahumbu. pop science during a recent interview. In the thirty-odd years that he has studied African elephants, Kahumbu had never seen them descend a cliff like this. In the documentary, he described how just watching the process made his legs feel weak and his body unsteady, and he couldn’t imagine what it would be like for these giants of the savannah.

The iconic Chilojo Cliffs can be seen in the distance in the remote Gonarezhou National Park, Zimbabwe. National Geographic for Disney/Freddie Claire.

Divided into four episodes: Savannah, Desert, Rainforest, and Asia.elephant secrets it presents the lives and issues facing elephants as incredibly nuanced and interconnected. Human-caused climate change and decades of ivory poaching have taken their toll, but underlying that lie the more complex and interrelated issues of the disappearance of elephants’ range, the fencing that prevents their movements, and the selective killing of individuals that invade farmland. When powerful mammals kill or injure people, Kahumbu says governments are forced to take action due to loss of property or life.

“Retaliation and intolerance towards elephants is now by far the number one threat to elephants in East Africa,” says Kahumbu. Most of the elephants in Africa live in the eastern and southern parts of the continent in various habitats. Both species of African elephants are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature; their latest assessment found that the number of African jungle elephants has declined by more than 86% in the past 31 years, and the population of African savannah elephants has declined by at least 60% in the past 50 years. Their Asian relatives are listed as endangered, with an estimated 48,000 to 50,000 in the wild.

The series explores this tension between two incredibly intelligent land mammals, elephants and humans, but more importantly, the striking similarities between them. Their parallel existence dates back millennia, as both humans and elephants evolved out of Africa at the same time. Elephants are amazing problem solvers, reflecting human adaptability so well that they can usually figure out whatever deterrents or barriers communities devise to keep them out. The elephants then pass on the knowledge from generation to generation.

Their innate intelligence and ability to pass on survival skills can also benefit conservation efforts. As an example, Kahumbu cites successful elephant underpasses that help connect a group of elephants near Mount Kenya with their relatives in the forests, plains and Aberdares Mountains, while keeping them away from huge farms. of wheat in the area. “Once the elephants realized that this was the safe way to get from one mountain to another, they started not only using it, but teaching each other how to use it. There are very few animals that teach each other and elephants are one of them,” he explains.

[Related: Ivory poaching has triggered a surge in elephants born without tusks.]

Despite being one of the most studied animals on the planet, elephants continue to amaze experts with their unique characteristics and complex behaviors. They rarely get sick, with less than five percent getting cancer compared to about 25 percent of humans, and have even been known to self-medicate from the plants around them. Female elephants also do not fade into obscurity or die once they are unable to reproduce. In both African and Asian species, they likely play an integral grandmother role similar to that of humans and possibly killer whales. Kahumbu describes elephant matriarchs as keepers of knowledge: they know where to eat and find water, where to rest, and even carry internal maps of the vast landscapes they traverse.

An African elephant with a calf in the savannah
A family of elephants roams the Kimana Sanctuary, a crucial corridor linking Amboseli National Park with the Chyulu Hills and Tsavo protected areas in Kenya. National Geographic for Disney/Nichole Sobecki.

The series depicts the female elephants’ ability to take generational ideas and adapt them to constant challenges and changes, sometimes with bizarre results. In a rare case, a Zimbabwean elephant named Nzou, who lost her entire family to poachers when she was two, now becomes the matriarch of a buffalo herd at age 50. a strange thing happened,” Kahumbu explains. “We are seeing more and more unusual behavior from wild animals. Adopting buffaloes is fun and also quite sad.”

She didn’t fit in with other groups of elephants when rescuers tried to relocate her, but she found her place among a more unique family. Now, he has to figure out how to manage an unusual herd without the benefit of years of living among older female elephants, but his leadership instincts are still strong.

“In a way, it teaches us that just like humans, there are certain needs that we all have, and we’re going to have to meet them somehow,” says Kahumbu.

[Related: Elephants and monkeys are fighting climate change in ways humans can’t.]

Another central theme of the four-part series is the value of local people’s wisdom for both conservation and scientific communication. Experts from Namibia in southern Africa and Borneo in southeast Asia made the documentary possible through their historical elephant observations and guidance. “A lot of the stuff we filmed has never been filmed or seen on camera before, but in reality, a lot of it has been known to local people for a long time,” says Kahumbu. “We are asking people for their local knowledge, but we are also involving them in the series and putting them in front of the camera.”

Elephant ecologist wearing a white scarf talking to the camera
Farina Othman is an elephant ecologist whose study focuses on reducing human-elephant conflict. National Geographic for Disney/Cede Prudente.

Engaging communities on the ground and connecting the rest of the world to their stories through film could go a long way to further protect elephants. Reaching out to younger and broader audiences, particularly in Africa, is part of why Kahumbu has moved seamlessly from the research space to more policy, advice and education in an effort to save elephant lives.

“What has changed dramatically for me is the realization that we are running out of time,” says Kahumbu. “I think unleashing young people with their own creativity to identify how they can help is what I would love to see happen as a result of this television series. That connection is very powerful and very important.”

elephant secrets premieres Friday, April 21 on National Geographic. All four episodes will stream on Earth Day (April 22) on Disney+ and Hulu.

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