On the grassy Kenya savannah beneath the snowy peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, filmmaker Martyn Colbeck has filmed and photographed elephants for nearly 20 years. He patiently earned the trust of a matriarch named Echo and her offspring and, with that trust, privileged glimpses into the most intimate moments of their lives.Colbeck has captured nothing less than a stirring family saga spanning generations, including poignant births and deaths, carefree play and ferocious fights, reluctant partings and joyous reunions — even every mother’s worst nightmare, the kidnapping of her baby. Narrated by Colbeck, NATURE “Unforgettable Elephants” airs Sunday, April 1, at 7 p.m. on KUED-Channel 7.
Along with his captivating footage and stills, Colbeck shares his insights into elephants’ advanced social development — their ability to communicate and cooperate, their complex emotions and strong loyalty to one another.
“I’ve witnessed the most incredible scenes: terrifying battles for supremacy, emotional births and even the callous kidnapping of a youngster,” he says. “Unexpectedly, these fascinating animals hijacked my life, and capturing them on film became my passion.”
Colbeck’s visually striking journey also takes viewers to Namibia, where he spies a creature so rarely seen as to be almost mythical — the desert elephant. In one of the film’s most arresting sequences, he captures a group’s march across a sea of undulating, arid dunes for a precious drink of water. They need 70 to 90 liters of water a day, and Colbeck believes they must have powerful mental maps of the area’s few-and-far-between water holes.
Traveling to the Congo rainforest, Colbeck documents the equally elusive jungle elephant. Only a fraction of the size of their savannah cousins, these small elephants and their small families congregate in scores near water holes, enjoying each other’s company.
Back at Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, Colbeck resumes his time with Echo and her family, which has grown from 14 to 30 members in the years that he has been documenting them.
Among the many poignant scenes he records are the days-long struggle of Echo’s newborn calf, Ely, to fully straighten his front legs — the first time such a condition was caught on film. He captures a family’s raucous greeting ceremony after time spent apart and the deafening chorus of snores from an elephant slumber party 15 strong. And, in a gripping scene, he films Grace, a new mother in another family, tenderly using her trunk and sole tusk to move her prematurely born calf out of the blistering sun.
After determining that Echo is once again pregnant and waiting through her 22-month gestation period, Colbeck is allowed a privileged, close-up vantage point to film the nighttime birth of her calf, Ebony. Later, Ebony would be kidnapped by a rival family trying to assert its place in the elephant hierarchy, only to be rescued by a show of brute force by Echo and the other large females in her family.
Echo is now 60 years old, yet recently bore her eighth calf, a baby girl named Esprit, who may come to be a matriarch herself generations hence.
NATURE “Unforgettable Elephants” airs Sunday, April 1, at 7 p.m., on KUED-Channel 7.# # #
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