Motionless, the water sparkles in dappled patterns where the sun strikes the surface. Ever so slowly, it begins to shift and separate. I watch, riveted to the screen. The music swells and a massive black head breaks through the spray. First, a giant ear, a web of shallow veins catching the light, then a rounded brow. A bright amber eye follows as a tell-tale trunk gracefully unfurls beneath a shower of droplets that rain down like diamonds. My heart stops.
It’s less than a week since my return from Kenya and I’m still smarting from the separation. I’m back in New York City watching The Soul of the Elephant, a film by world-renowned filmmakers and conservationists Dereck and Beverly Joubert, and instantly it sends me back to the high grass. I settle into my seat to drink it in.
Filmed in the marshy waters of the Okavango Delta in Botswana, Soul of the Elephant begins with the Jouberts’ discovery of two bull elephant skulls, their tusks intact. The ivory indicates that the bulls died of natural causes and, fortunately, not from a poacher’s bullet. But two elephants dying in the same place at the same time is an unlikely coincidence. What happened?
It would take over two years for the Joubert’s to unravel the mystery.
Narrated by and starring the filmmakers, the Jouberts embark upon a journey of discovery from one end of a remote river to the other in the Selinda Reserve, paddling their canoe through countless herds of elephants, piecing together the path the two bulls might have followed.
At first the goliaths shy away or aggressively charge the pair, but over time they accept the Jouberts’ benign presence and the duo are able to film within a few feet of the herds to capture some extraordinary footage. Moments that offer a glimpse into the complex and emotional lives of the elephants as well as the hearts and minds of the film’s storytellers.
The room bursts out laughing as we watch a hungry calf have a meltdown, hilariously bumping and shoving its way between his mother’s legs, desperate to latch on to a teat. Unwilling to accept such behavior, the mother thwarts his attempts. As soon as the calf calms down she allows it to suckle. Lesson learned.
Later, herd after herd stop to explore and caress the bones of several elephants killed by hunters (Botswana banned hunting in 2014), as if paying their respects. Are they mourning? “Are they remembering a friend?” The Jouberts ask. Do they feel that kind of emotion? The Joubert’s believe they do, and by the end of the film you will too.
“We wanted to give insight into the special hidden lives of elephants, the empathy, the compassion, the trust, the language, the morning rituals, the soul of the elephant” says Dereck Joubert in a post screening Q & A.
While the film does not contain an overt call to action, the Jouberts explain that the film is an ode to the gentle giants, a way to celebrate their lives and share their story globally, especially with those countries that still use ivory. On a recent trip to Beijing, the couple were surprised to learn that many people had no idea that elephants were killed for their ivory. It’s due to this lack of understanding that the film was created. The hope is that once informed, there will be a demand for change.
“The plight of the elephant in Africa is dire,” says Beverly Joubert. “Elephants are being killed for their ivory at an alarming rate. And if we don’t manage to stop it, your children, your grandchildren, might never see elephants.”
I’m back in my seat. A calf, separated from its mother, runs panicked through the marsh, a lion glued to its hind end plunges its incisors into the baby’s back. I flinch. The calf’s mother rages toward the cat, ears straight out, tusks up, chasing the lion off but only by a few feet. She charges again and the lion moves back a little more, but obviously still hanging on to the hope of reaching the calf. Incensed, she charges again, head shaking from side to side in fury. This time the lion understands, there’s no meal here and slinks off, body low to the ground in submission.
One calf saved, but will the world be able to save the elephants?
You can watch the full episode here…