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

Film captures animals' expressing maternal love, grief and other emotions.

May 13, 2010, 12:35 PM

May 14, 2010 — -- 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."

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.

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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.

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.

"This is where we start seeing what we call empathy or compassion in elephants," said Hamilton. "And that's a very human quality that very few other animals possess."

The outpouring of emotion is all part of what researchers can see. But the group from Save the Elephants is also interested in what they cannot see.

"We have it down to a fine art by now, where I think we can get a collar on an elephant in about four minutes, from darting to the antidote being given and the animal then gets up," Hamilton said.

The team carefully collars and tracks elephants, using satellite technology. The collars show the team where the elephants go and how they migrate. They also tell the team when the elephants come in contact with humans.

"It's extraordinary to think that an animal that is so big and powerful as an elephant is actually under threat, but elephants are facing an uncertain future," said Hamilton. One of the most ominous threats is this enormous growing human population, which is constantly encroaching into elephant habitat and coming into conflict with elephants. Elephants need huge amounts of space to survive. The other thing that is beginning to raise its head again now is ivory poaching."

Kenya Elephants: Fixing a Broken Leg

One of the largest elephants in the herd, Mungu --which means "god" in Swahili-- was killed by poachers. They wanted his giant tusks, which could sell in Japan and China for $250 a pound. And the demand seems to be growing.

Hamilton and her team can't save every elephant from hunters, but occasionally they can make an immediate difference.

The team decided to help one young elephant with a broken leg. First they had to sedate the mother, which would never have let the team get close. It was a harrowing moment.

After being hit with the sedative, the mother looked as if she might fall on her own chest -- possibly crushing her lungs under her own weight. The researchers moved fast and frantically to roll her over.

Then they gave the young elephant antibiotics. The calf's leg would be saved. But the real moment of success was the reunion between mother and daughter, both in good health.

"I just feel very connected to the earth when I'm with them," said Hamilton. "I feel very small and insignificant and human. And it makes me realize what we are on this planet.

"I think the delight of little elephants is that they are filled with so much sort of joie de vivre and joy, and they have just so much energy and they're just exploring the world. So you have this, I don't know you, you just feel so ... I think you start seeing the world through their eyes, really."

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