The Magical -- and Threatened -- Lives of Kenya's Elephants

It's one of the most incredible scenes in nature: a mother elephant helping her new calf to its feet.

"When a baby elephant is born, it's probably one of the most exciting events that happens in an elephant's life," said Saba-Douglas Hamilton, a Kenyan conservationist.

"There is such tenderness in the way that elephants will touch their young. When they try to lift it up, the trunk comes underneath the baby and will raise it off the ground so it can actually start to find a way of balancing on its legs."

Elephants: The African Gentle Giants
Elephants: The African Gentle Giants

Hamilton is one of the human subjects in a new film that isn't much about humans at all. Produced by the BBC, "The Secret Life of Elephants" follows some 900 elephants that roam Kenya's National Samburu Reserve.

Watch the full story tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET

In one scene, a mother elephant gives her new calf, a beautiful, 250-pound baby known to researchers as "Breeze," a special hug with her trunk that lifts the baby to its feet.

"I think it's always so emotional to see new baby elephants, because you can see the emotions in the adult females," said Hamilton.

Say Cheese! A Western Lowland Gorilla Smiles for the Camera
Say Cheese! A Western Lowland Gorilla Smiles for the Camera

Hamilton grew up on the Samburu Reserve. With her father, she helps run Save the Elephants, a foundation to study and preserve these majestic creatures.

"We study them on a day-to-day basis," said Hamilton. "We know every single one of them. ... They are the biggest, boldest, most beautiful land mammal to walk the earth. How can you not be completely bowled over in awe when you are close to them? I have a semi-religious experience when I'm with elephants, I think."

Kenya Elephants: A Type of Consciousness

The animals' giant tusks and ears and trunks are impressive enough. But it is their sense of feeling, Hamilton said, that makes them so fascinating

"They are sentient creatures. They share many emotions with us, and we believe very strongly that they have a certain type of consciousness," she said.

The elephants share family bonds, apparent when an elephant cow dotes on a calf with a hurt leg. There are also family fights.

"[Breeze's] brother, Buster, is a bit of a pain in the butt, basically," said Hamilton. "He's a very, if you put it in human terms, he's quite a spoiled young elephant. ... There is an interesting part in the film where his mother actually has to put him back in line and just say, 'Listen, enough is enough, you stop pushing your young sister around and you just stay away from me.'"

Like human siblings, elephants can forgive and make up. When cameras caught the siblings a year after their squabble in the film, young Breeze was sprinting to be at the side of her older brother.

There is another emotion that sets elephants apart: grief.

"For me, one of the most interesting things about elephants is they have this sense of their own mortality, and they react very strongly to dead or dying elephants," Hamilton said. "Even if they are completely unrelated."

The film captures two young elephants standing by their dead mother -- and then other, unrelated elephants join the moment.

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