“Secrets of the Elephants” reveals the intricate social relations between different elephants.

The Secrets of the Elephants Earth Day premiere debuts on National Geographic on Friday, April 21. Executive produced by James Cameron, an Academy Award®-winning filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer-at-Large, and narrated by Natalie Portman, an Academy Award®-winning actress, all episodes will stream on Disney+ and Hulu on April 22.

Secrets of… series returns with its latest installment, Secrets of the Elephants, which delves into the profound mysteries of these intelligent, compassionate, and sagacious creatures. The series explores the intricate strategies, intricate emotions, and sophisticated communication systems of elephants, shaping a one-of-a-kind and dynamic culture. With the guidance of renowned National Geographic Explorer and elephant expert, Dr. Paula Kahumbu, this four-part series not only illuminates the extraordinary lives of various elephant families but also showcases their striking similarities to human beings. Secrets of the Elephants will revolutionize your perception of these majestic animals forever.

Scientific Inquirer spoke with Paula Kahumbu, the conservationist featured throughout the series.

What was it like working with the National Geographic on the service?

It was phenomenal. My dream really. I think everyone’s dream is to do something like this. Elephants are an extraordinary topic which I’m very familiar with. Working with the world’s best crews and storytellers was a dream come true

Was it difficult tracking down the elephants?

In Borneo, we went out in a boat to look for the elephants and on the first day, we saw them, just like that, and I thought, “Ah, so easy. They’re just around. Great.”

Then the next day, no elephants. Day after that, no elephants. Day after that, no elephants. I was beginning to sweat. I thought, we’re never gonna get the sequences we need because there are no elephants around. It took several days of going back and forth. All you can do is go up and down rivers, hoping that there will be elephants around because you can’t really see them when they are inside the forest. 

Finally, on the last day – literally the last day of the shoot – this huge number of elephants just showed up and they were running around and trumpeting and playing. It was hilarious because we were like, “Oh, film those elephants over there. No. Oh, there’s a whole bunch coming up ahead.” Nobody knew which elephants to film. We ended up splitting up on two different boats so that we had crews filming elephants from different places.

Elephants of the savannah are your area of expertise. With this project, you got the opportunity to observe other types of African Asian elephants up close, African horse elephants. What was that experience like?

I expected the elephants to all be the same as the ones I was used to in savannas. The first group of elephants that I met with the desert elephants, and I was really blown away from the get go, how different they are to Savanna elephants in East Africa. They are the same species. Initially, we first saw bulls – solitary, very tall, and just walking, constantly walking. When we saw the families, there was no playing going on and all the things we’re so used to with their family groups in Kenya. 

When we went to the rainforest next I expected again, that we’d see something familiar. I didn’t expect the elephants to be so shy. They were very difficult to observe. The moment they caught wind of my presence they would disappear. These elephants are truly adapted to forests, their diets. They live in tiny family groups, just sometimes a female and her two or three little babies. They felt very mysterious. Actually in the forests, they felt very mysterious. They look totally different. They don’t really even look like the savanna elephants. I didn’t expect that. I thought they would just look like normal Savanna elephants living in the forest. 

The Asian elephants were the most different. They are unusual. Even their body shape is so unusual. They love being in the water. They love swimming. I found that really surprising. They have this incredibly long tail. There were so many things about them that just made me realize that actually while most of the books tell you that an elephant is an elephant, they’re not. They are different physically; they are different biologically; and they are different behaviorally.

There’s a lot of variation between elephants, but one of the things that stuck out about elephants was that their ear size tends to vary. For example, desert elephants had big ears while forest elephants had rounder smaller years. Is there a reason why there’s variation does it serve a purpose or the customer?

While their ears are in part used for listening, they’re mostly an elephant’s air conditioning system. You can imagine if your desert elephant, you’re going to need really good air conditioning. What they do is they splash water behind the ears and then they flap their ears and it cools them down. It didn’t surprise me that much that the desert elephants have big ears. The ear size of the desert elephant and the savanna elephant is probably going to be more or less the same. 

With the forest elephant, there are many things different. It’s hot in the rainforest. It doesn’t matter how much flapping your ears do, you’re not going to cool down much. The only way to cool down is to get in the water. Those elephants are probably less dependent on their ears and they’re more used for for them in terms of listening. 

When they’re in the forest, they need to be able to hear each other because the families are tiny and they’re all dispersed around the forest. So listening becomes very, very important

It seems like more often than not the elephants break into groups according to gender. Why does that happen? Is there some sort of evolutionary advantage? Is it instinctive or did they learn from each other as generations passed on?

It’s a fundamental to elephant biology. The families are made up of related females, so any boy child has to leave home. He cannot stay. Otherwise there will be inbreeding. All the young males have to leave when they’re still only in their teens. They’re probably only sometimes 12, 13, 14 when they leave home. They don’t become sexually active until they’re in their 30s, but they have to leave home when they’re very young. That’s why you see all female groups, because not there aren’t even teenage boys around. The boys will go and hang out with other boys because of safety numbers.

And there’s no chance of them running into their own sort of family members? 

Well, these animals have memories that are 10 times better than ours. They know who’s who out there.

Water seems to play a big role in the series. How do elephants know where to find water? Do they learn how and where to find water from each other?

Elephants can smell water, and they can smell water very far away. In some cases, they say even 20 kilometers away. They can smell water even when it’s underground. 

That’s just the benefit of that trunk. They have phenomenal sense of smell. That’s really what it is. Water is really vital for them, in part because they have such big bodied animals, but especially the females. They cannot produce milk obviously without water, so females need to drink every single day. Bulls need to drink every few days but the females must drink every single day to produce milk for those babies.

Okay, so it’s not sort of a learned behavior. It’s something that they think it’s instinctive. 

Yes, for sure.

Another thing that stuck out was that elephants seem to love salt. Can you explain why that is and what lengths they would go to get transplants?

It’s funny because there’s lots of evidence that elephants will actually pick up salt even in other places like in caves. They will even take soil for the salt. They do that in Kenya, for example. They’ll make huge gains just digging and eating soil. This is because they need those minerals for their bones, because they have such big boned animals and also for their tusks. Their tusks are obviously taking up a lot of minerals. That’s why salts are so important to these animals. 

Most animals tend to be social. Elephants seem to be to be super social. Is there anything that you learned about elephants social behaviors that you didn’t know prior to filming?

I saw things which were very interesting and surprising. For example, in Zimbabwe, when the elephants were coming down the cliff, they would all group together and somebody would make a decision and they will start going down those cliffs. They would organize themselves in such a way that the elephant in charge was checking the ground in front and making sure that it was safe and every elephant’s tail was behind and touching. Its maybe behind it or sticking out vertically or horizontally. And making sure that no elephant came too close. These animals really like to be touching each other all the time, but when they’re going downhill, they’re on a steep cliff. They don’t want to be too close to each other. And it really I found it very interesting that they, as a species, they have found the solutions. They figured them out. They use them and develop them, improve them and refine them and they convey them from generation to generation. Just seeing that in action was really fascinating.

IMAGE CREDIT: Katunyuta Oshea; Kalyan Varma; Cede Prudente; Jasper Schofield.

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