A herd of African elephants stands above a cliff nearly 600 feet tall in the first episode of the new documentary series Secrets of the Elephants. After a brutal dry season in Zimbabwe, an elephant matriarch must guide her herd down the cliff in search of water. Their enormous three-to-four-ton bodies are not built for this kind of expedition—they use their trunks to test the ground. To complicate the descent, they must be mindful of the younger elephants, and reassure and soothe the babies with their tails along the way. Everyone is tense as they navigate the steep path of the gorge, including the wildlife experts and filmmakers watching from the sidelines.
“It was amazing, even for me, to see that,” veteran conservationist and elephant advocate Paula Kahumbu tells PopSci during a recent interview. In the 30-something years she’s studied African elephants, Kahumbu had never seen them inching down a cliff this way. In the documentary, she described how just watching the process made her legs feel weak and her body unsteady, and couldn’t imagine what it must be like for these giants of the savanna.
Broken into four episodes—Savanna, Desert, Rainforest, and Asia—Secrets of the Elephants presents the lives and issues that elephants face as incredibly nuanced and interconnected. Human-caused climate change and decades of ivory poaching have taken its toll, but beneath that lies the more complex and interwoven problems of disappearing elephant range, fences that impede their movements, and culling individuals who encroach on farmland. When people are killed or injured by the powerful mammals, Kahumbu says governments are then forced to take actions due to the loss of property or life.
“Retaliation and intolerance towards elephants is now by far, the number one threat to elephants across east Africa” says Kahumbu. Most of Africa’s elephants live in the eastern and southern part 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 forest elephants fell by more than 86 percent over the last 31 years, and the population of African savanna elephants decreased by at least 60 percent over the last 50 years. Their Asian relatives are listed as endangered, with an estimated 48,000 to 50,000 left in the wild.
The series explores this tension between two incredibly smart terrestrial mammals, elephants and humans—but more importantly, the striking similarities between them. Their parallel existence goes back millennia, as both humans and elephants evolved out of Africa at the same time. Elephants are incredible problem solvers and mirror human adaptability so well that they can typically figure out any deterrent or barrier that communities devise to keep them out. The elephants then pass the knowledge down generations.
Their innate intelligence and ability to pass down survival skills can also benefit conservation efforts. As an example, Kahumbu cites successful elephant underpasses that help link one group of elephants found near Mount Kenya with their relatives in the forests, plains, and the Aberdares Mountains, while keeping them away from the area’s enormous wheat farms. “Once the elephants figured out that that’s the safe way to get from this mountain to the other mountain, they started not only using it, but teaching each other to use it. There are very few animals which will teach each other and elephants are one of them,” she explains.
Despite being one of the most studied animals on the planet, elephants keep surprising experts with their unique features and complex behaviors. They rarely get sick, with less than five percent getting cancer compared to about 25 percent of humans, and are even known to self medicate with 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 orca whales. Kahumbu describes elephant matriarchs as the knowledge keepers: They know where to eat and find water, where to rest, and even keep internal maps of the vast landscapes they traverse.
The series depicts the female elephants’ ability to take generational insights and adapt it to the constant challenges and changes, sometimes with bizarre results. In one rare case, an elephant in Zimbabwe named Nzou who lost her entire family to poachers when she was two years old now finds herself the matriarch to a herd of buffalo at age 50. “It’s very hard to say much because it’s just such a one-off strange thing that happened,” Kahumbu explains. “We’re increasingly seeing unusual wild animal behaviors. Adopting buffaloes is kind of funny, and it’s also quite sad.”
She didn’t fit in with other groups of elephants when rescuers tried to rehome her, but she found her place among a more unique family. Now, she has to figure out how to manage an unusual herd without the benefit of the years of living among older female elephants—but her instinct to lead is still strong.
“In a way, it teaches us that just like humans, there are certain needs we all have, and we’re going to have to get them somehow,” says Kahumbu.
Another central theme of the four-part series is the value that local people’s wisdom holds for both conservation and science communication. Experts from Namibia in southern Africa and Borneo in southeast Asia made the documentary possible through their historic observations of elephants and guidance. “A lot of things which we filmed have never been filmed or seen on camera before, but actually, a lot of it has been known by local people on the ground for a very long time,” says Kahumbu. “We are asking people for local knowledge, but we’re involving them in the series and getting them on camera as well.”
Engaging communities on the ground and connecting the rest of the world with their stories through film could be a big step in further protecting elephants. Reaching younger and wider audiences, particularly in Africa, is part of why Kahumbu has seamlessly moved from the research space into more policy, advising, and education in an effort to save elephant lives.
“What’s shifted for me dramatically is this realization that we’re running out of time,” says Kahumbu. “I think that unleashing young people with their own creativity to identify how they can help is what I’d love to see happen as a result of this TV series. That connection is very powerful and very important.”
Secrets of the Elephants premieres on Friday, April 21 on National Geographic. All four episodes will stream on Earth Day (April 22) on Disney+ and Hulu.