"Secrets of the Elephants" reveals their uncanny ability to grieve and empathize

Salon spoke with Dr Paula Kahumbu, star of Disney+'s "Secrets of the Elephants," about her close encounters

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published April 23, 2023 3:59PM (EDT)

An adult elephant sprays water from its trunk after taking a drink in a watering hole. (National Geographic for Disney/Robbie Labanowski)
An adult elephant sprays water from its trunk after taking a drink in a watering hole. (National Geographic for Disney/Robbie Labanowski)

Tolstoy used to be a formidable elephant: Massive in size, revered by the young bulls, and with tusks so long they touched the ground. When he was alive, Tolstoy had been more than just some random animal. He was a beloved member of a close-knit community filled with colorful personalities.

That is why when he died – the victim of a spear wound inflicted while he had been innocently searching for food — other elephants visited his body to pay their respects. The pachyderm rituals would not have seemed out of place at a human funeral: Some stood in quiet order while observing Tolstoy's remains, and others gently touched his body with their trunks.

"There was a really strong feminine energy in how we told the stories, how we leaned into the emotions of elephants in a way that's rarely done in wildlife documentary filmmaking."

Quiet scenes like this are peppered throughout "Secrets of the Elephants," a Disney+ series produced by "Avatar" director James Cameron that premieres on Earth Day (April 22). While it is not the first documentary series to profile elephants, it is certainly one of the most visually spectacular. With gorgeous cinematography and the guiding presence of narrator Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman, the four-part series travels from the Savannahs of Africa to dense Asian metropolises to chronicle how elephants think, feel and communicate with one another.

Dr. Paula Kahumbu, who is also the CEO of the charitable organization Wildlife Direct, is the secondary star of the series — one of the world's foremost elephant experts, and an on-the-ground researcher who has spent years studying elephants in the wild. Kahumbu is the kind of elephant authority whose voice fills up with emotion as she describes an individual elephant who she drew to admire almost as a friend; not surprisingly, Kahumbu drops terms like "Big Tusker" and "Super Tusker" quite casually in conversations. (Big Tuskers are elephants so old that their tusks grew all the way to the ground; Super Tuskers have even larger tusks.) Salon spoke with Kahumbu about the filming process, elephant emotions and what she's learned after observing elephants for decades.

The following interview has been edited for length, clarity and context.

I was very upset when Tolstoy the elephant died. In the show, you observed that his loss would profoundly affect the entire community of elephants, and especially the youth he was mentoring. Can you elaborate a little on who Tolstoy was as an individual and why you felt that way after his passing? 

I knew Tolstoy for many, many years and filmed with him. He's one of the few Big Tuskers that we call a Super Tusker. They are bigger than an ordinary Big Tuskers, which are very large, full-grown adult elephants with very large tusks. His tusks were so long, they grew all the way down to the ground, and it's very rare for elephants to get to that size. His nature was very calm, very relaxed and very patient and wise. He was an elephant who was always surrounded by other bulls... and that's because of the role he played in his elephant society. Basically the Super Tuskers are the bulls that younger bulls would hang out with to learn because the Super Tuskers have had so many years of experience and knowledge. They know how to navigate difficult terrain or how to navigate human-dominated landscapes and other dangers and threats to them. He was a bull whose role in the society of elephants was to educate the youngsters, keep them in tow, because young elephants can be very boisterous. They can be very dangerous. And without doing anything that looks outwardly obvious to us, elephants speak in a language that we can't hear. Tolstoy could manage the other younger bulls and make sure that they don't do anything troublesome.

How did he communicate with them, though? I'm fascinated by this because you say in the documentary that they talk to each other and what they say clearly has meaning. How can you as an observer discern that meaning? 

Elephants have been recorded! You can use infrasonic recorders to capture what they're saying, the actual sounds that they're making, and you can actually play them back and you can see how they behave when you play back the sounds. You can also record the sounds and their body language and see what do they do and how they act when they make certain sounds. For example, sometimes elephants will be walking along and then they will all suddenly freeze. They'll just be all still as statues, and one might wave its ears or something.

What is happening when they stop and they all stand still is they're all listening. They'll be listening with their feet. They'll be listening with their trunks, which they rest on the ground. They'll be listening with their ears. Then they will rumble. Some of their rumbles we cannot hear because it's happening in a sound frequency that we cannot detect. The matriarch or the biggest bull will make a decision about what to do next. It could be we're gonna go left, we're gonna go to that mountain, or we're gonna wait. Like, for example, if a baby elephant needs to sleep, the matriarch will make a decision: "Everybody stop! Nobody's going anywhere. You can stay where you are, feed where you are, but we're not walking anymore. The baby needs to rest."

That reminds me of the episode in the African desert. A baby fell asleep, and the mother and aunt stayed behind to protect it while the other elephants in the pack moved forward. Why did that happen, given what you just explained? 

The matriarch is also making a decision for the whole family, and the mother is having to make a decision for her baby, her newborn baby. The matriarch is having to make really difficult choices. The family has to move. They have to keep moving. The mother, who is a a new young mother, hasn't had the experience of waking up her baby on time. The matriarch is simply trying to survive. She is making sure that everybody moves, and the female who got left behind — I've seen that a lot, even in Kenya — sometimes elephants will be left behind two or three kilometers, but because they have this phenomenal ability to listen and hear several kilometers apart, you might look at elephants and think that they're disconnected and they're scattered across the landscape, but they're actually really together because they're still talking to each other. So I think that what happened in that episode is the family moved on. She said, "I'll just wait for my baby." She waited too long and then she lost track of the family, although she did find them.

"When they do die, you can clearly see that it affects the whole family... They will act as if they are so traumatized and sad about that incident. "

One of the scenes that affected me the most personally — and it's because I have a disability and I suffer from disability-related issues — was the elephant with the shortened trunk who couldn't feed himself, and one of the other elephants gave him food out of kindness. How often do you see that kind of behavior with elephants? 

It's probably something that happens from time to time. We've seen it with that baby elephant with a shortened trunk. I've seen it myself in other elephants. So it's something that if you're a scientist and you're really observing carefully, you might witness it, but it's not something that all elephants would do because they don't always need to be helped. The ability to capture that moment is another amazing thing about this particular crew. They went out to find those situations where an elephant would need help and where you're likely to see that kind of behavior.

We have even seen elephants showing kindness to other animals. They'll go down to a water hole, they'll see a turtle or a tortoise close to the water, and they won't step on it. They will just nudge it aside carefully with their foot. They won't step on, they won't hurt other animals if they don't need to.

I'm going back to when Tolstoy died, but there was the scene where you see the other elephants approach his body. For all intents and purposes, it appears that they are mourning, and in your dialogue, you refer to it as a ritual. What do we know for sure about how elephants grieve the loss of other elephants? 

Well, that's a really great question. We actually don't know very much at all. All we know that they have an incredible sense of smell. And elephants can know each other from their individual smells. They can tell who's who from their dung. They can literally sniff the dung and know who it was, who passed here, a little bit like a dog, but even better because their sense of smell is many times greater than that of a dog. So they can also detect the identity of an elephant that has died. And they often, for some reason, show a lot of interest in the tusks of dead elephants. And they will repeatedly return to dead elephants or relatives, dead relatives, and they will come towards them. They will touch them, feel them. If an elephant has recently died or is dying, they will even try to raise it, or they will stand around and just be with a dying elephant. 

Once an elephant has died, they will sometimes even cover it up with bushes. It's a really peculiar thing. We don't really understand it, to be honest. It's not something that you see every day because elephants live for a very long time, so you don't see a lot of dead elephants out there. But when they do die, you can clearly see that it affects the whole family. It affects all the relatives and the friends of that elephant. I've seen elephants standing around dead elephants, and they will stand there sometimes for days. They will act as if they are so traumatized and sad about that incident. 

What memories of your own individual encounters with elephants do you cherish the most? What are your favorite emotional memories of your experiences with elephants? 

I studied elephants for my PhD, which was incredible. I worked with elephants in the field. I think the most amazing thing with elephants is when they begin to trust you. When years and years later, I started filming elephants and I was filming Big Tuskers, including Tolstoy and his nephew Tim who was another Super Tusker they were all hanging out together with a big group of bulls. And I could see that they were tired, it was hot, it was a very humid afternoon. They'd clearly been up for hours and they needed to sleep. And mostly elephants will sleep standing up, and they will go and stand in the shade. They will basically hide out or conceal themselves somehow in the bush. 

These elephants did something so unusual. They came out of the bush close to our vehicles — literally, I'm talking about two or three meters — and then they lay down in front of our vehicles and they went to sleep and they snored for two hours in front of us. And that trust that they had in us... I mean, if I was a poacher, I could have taken out eight or 10 elephants in that two hours. They just lay down, went to sleep, snored their heads off, and then later on woke up and continued grazing. It was really a very moving experience. They trusted us enough to go to sleep with us right there.

"We have even seen elephants showing kindness to other animals. They'll go down to a water hole, they'll see a turtle or a tortoise close to the water, and they won't step on it. They will just nudge it aside carefully with their foot."

I'm empathizing with the elephants because I have sleep apnea. I'm just trying to imagine the size and design of a CPAP for a snoring elephant.

(laughing) How would they get the mask over the trunk? 

You and I should corner the market on elephant CPAPs.

They make a lot of noise! What's interesting also, when they sleep like that and even when they sleep standing up, they're usually touching each other. There's very touchy-feely animals. They love and they seem to have a need to be in physical contact with each other. So one elephant will lie down and the next one will lie down, but its feet or its trunk will be touching the next elephant. When they get up, they will touch each other just very softly with their foot, almost like gently waking up someone the way you would with your hand. It's really fascinating that how gentle they are with each other. 

This documentary was executive produced by James Cameron, maker of the "Avatar" movies, and I thought I could feel his influence in the cinematography. The visuals, the clarity of detail in the images was amazing. For instance, with the elephant's skin in scenes where they're walking along landscapes, you can catch every detail. I know that you've been studying elephants for decades, but have you worked with filmmakers like James Cameron for decades? If not, how was that experience unique for you?

I'd never worked with James Cameron directly, but I'd worked with many different filmmakers on documentaries — only maybe a little bit of animation, but nothing like "Avatar." "Avatar" is extraordinary. I think they did an amazing job in the sequel of making those sea animals appear to be so much like maybe a marriage of an elephant and a whale. They seem to resonate with us. You could imagine a real animal. Working with filmmakers has been extraordinary. I'm blown away by, particularly in this series, the crews were not just people who are on a job and have got five days to do something. These are crews who committed months of their year to spend time in some of the most inhospitable places.

"While I thought Kenyan elephants were in trouble, I found that they're in much more trouble in other places."

I mean, in the deserts of Namibia, they're sleeping in a tent. It's extremely hot. There is no water, and you have to get up very early and you've gotta be out on the road searching for those elephants all day long. It's physically hard. It's also emotionally draining because you're away from everybody for months at a time in the Congo. You are being eaten alive by insects. I've never experienced anything like it before. It was one of the most difficult physical environments to work in, but these crews didn't ever complain. I was blown away. And when we did see the elephants in the Namibian episode in the desert elephant episode in particular, there was such a sense of celebration that we had. We could find these elephants even though they're very difficult to find. This joy and appreciation of elephants among the crew made it a very special film to work on. I hadn't expected that. 

I thought I'm the only one who really cares about elephants and I'm crazy about elephants. But I met people who really share that. And it comes out very clearly in the way that the film was shot. I don't know if you know that quite a few of the producers — every single episode had a different producer — three of them were women, and the overall producer of the whole series was a woman. There was a really strong feminine energy in how we told the stories, how we leaned into the emotions of elephants in a way that's rarely done in wildlife documentary filmmaking. And for me that was also such a joy to do. It was really incredible. 

Is there anything that you would like to discuss that I have not broached so far through my questions? 

I studied elephants in Kenya, where I've spent my lifetime fighting to save elephants, to stop the poaching, to keep their lands open, keep their migratory corridors open and all that kind of stuff. It sometimes feels like a thankless job because it's quite hard. Human populations are growing. Elephants are encountering people increasingly. The challenges keep me very busy in Kenya. But this film forced me to go way beyond Kenya into many other countries of Africa and Asia. And what I found was that elephants are in peril everywhere. While I thought Kenyan elephants were in trouble, I found that they're in much more trouble in other places. There are only 1,500 pygmy elephants left in the Namibian desert, only 150 desert elephants remaining in the Congo. The elephants have been so persecuted by people that they're terrified and dangerous because some feel that they must retaliate against all humans. They don't have a sense that any humans are good humans. I really feel that that's a message we need to use this film, to help the people around the world to understand how amazing elephants are and that we have a big job ahead of us to save them — not not just for us, but for future generations.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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