In his monumental 1945 monograph on mammal classification, paleontologist G.G. Simpson appraised the living species of elephants to be “relicts of a dying group.” The living African (Loxodonta) and Asian (Elephas) elephants were all that remained of the past diversity of proboscideans, and human activities put even these large mammals at risk of extinction. Poaching and human development on land bordering game preserves continue to put elephants at risk, and the two-hour BBC special The Secret Life of Elephants, airing this Sunday on Animal Planet in the US, tells the story of one organization’s struggle to protect these behemoths.
Set in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve, The Secret Life of Elephants centers around the activities of Save the Elephants and stars organization members Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Saba Douglas-Hamilton, David Daballen, and Onesmas Kahindi. The group has been continuously observing the elephants since 1997, and this long-term understanding of the various herds in the park allowed the filmmakers to follow the stories of particular members of family groups. There is not very much that is new in terms of elephant behavior in the show – you will see the standard vignettes of baby elephants playing, new mothers caring for their infants, herds interacting with dead individuals, &c. – but the most interesting parts of the program involve the efforts of the Save the Elephants team to protect the Samburu herds.
Throughout the documentary the Save the Elephants team uses an array of high-tech tools to help them keep track of the park’s pachyderms, including collars which send text messages when elephants reach certain areas, but all of these gadgets are no substitute for the cooperation of the local people. The elephants pay no heed to the park boundaries, and while the people who live around the park do not wish the elephants to be eliminated the large mammals are dangerous and can easily lay waste to local farmland. In order to help ease these tensions, the conservationists have done things like install beehives around farms to scare off the elephants and diverted traveling bull elephants around villages, and their investment in the area is repaid by people who provide information about what elephants have been seen in the area and when poachers have been spotted in the area.
For me, at least, the “behind-the-scenes” angle was the most interesting part of the entire show. Many documentaries have been made about African elephants, and even though I am enthralled by them I have to admit that the portions of the show which focused on the elephants themselves were a little stale. Likewise, the portions of the show about the lives of the elephants were interwoven with scenes featuring the Save the Elephants team and this prevented the show from forming a strong narrative – it felt like one long string of vignettes without any clear direction. Added to the length of the documentary (2 hours), this approach caused the show the drag by the second half, and I think it would have been better to keep the focus on the Save the Elephants team and use their experiences to branch out into the aspects of elephant behavior the filmmakers wanted to describe.
For frequent viewers of elephant documentaries, The Secret Life of Elephants will probably not live up to its title. Much of the information about elephant behavior has been covered before in other shows such as Coming of Age With Elephants (which, despite being 13 years old, boasts superior cinematography) and the more recent Planet Earth and Life series. What is unique about the show is its focus on Samburu National Reserve and the various ways in which conservationists are working with local people to ensure the survival of the elephants. We cannot hope to save elephants if we do not also care for the people who live alongside them, and if the show had slightly shifted its focus to this point it could have been a much more compelling program.
The Secret Life of Elephants will premiere this Sunday on Animal Planet. Thanks to NPPR for providing a screener copy of the show.