Soul of the Elephant: An Extraordinary Film by Dereck and Beverly Joubert

dereck-and-Beverly Joubert Soul of the Elephant
Filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert observing large herds of elephants in Botswana. Val Joubert/© Wildlife Films

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.

I’m 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 on the many safaris I’ve been on over the years. 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 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.

Elephants (Loxondonta Africana) charging in Botswana
Elephants (Loxondonta Africana) charging in Botswana

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 a hungry calf have a meltdown, hilariously bumping and shoving its way between his mother’s legs, desperate to latch on to a teet. 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.

Elephant (Loxondonta Africana) investigating an elephant carcas in Botswana.
Elephant (Loxondonta Africana) investigating an elephant carcas in Botswana

“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, Dereck and Beverly Joubert 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?

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An extraordinary documentary about the special, hidden lives of elephants filmed but Dereck and Beverly Joubert of Nat Geo fame. It'll melt your heart and make you think. #movie #elephants #Natgeo

30 thoughts on “Soul of the Elephant: An Extraordinary Film by Dereck and Beverly Joubert

  1. Lorenda Beumont says:

    I have not yet seen Soul of the Elephant, but will probably buy it so that I can watch if every now and again.

    I know it is not right to envy people or be jealous of them, but if there is one couple whose lifestyle I absolutely envy, ENORMOUSLY, then it is the Jouberts. Wow, what would I give to live in the middle of the bush and make wldlife documentaries!! Awesome couple and so glad they got to be on the Ellen DeGeneres show! Fabulous exposure for their cause.

  2. Robin S. Kent says:

    Thanks, Susan for a great post. You really are an excellent writer. I will definitely check out the film when it goes online since I won’t be able to see it on PBS this weekend (long story).

  3. Koos (J.J.) le Roux says:

    can you maybe tell us what is the Jouberts opinion about the countless herds of these incredible animals that is getting more and more by the day. What will this beautiful story turn into if the farmers and Wildlife had to shoot them everyday to get them out of farms and private property where they find themselves looking for food and water while destroying infrastructure and cultivated land.
    Have a nice day.

    Koos le Roux

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Dear Koos –
      I didn’t want to speak for the Jouberts so I emailed Dereck to see if he would have a moment to answer your question. Here’s what he had to say.

      ““In most places in Africa the issue is not too many elephants now but too few. When we wanted to do a film in the Selous Game Reserve in 2001 there were 120,000 elephants there, today there may be 12,000. But each case is different. In addition it is a fallacy that elephants will just breed up until we control them. They have been doing this (living, growing and falling in number) for 10 million years, so in the wild places like Botswana this ebb and flow will continue as it always has. In smaller reserves where there is conflict and flash points with Man there are different issues. One very viable method of steering elephants away from crops is actually working well in Samburu where bee hives are deployed. Elephant hate the sound of bees so move away from crops and villages. In Botswana around the villages they use chilli plants, another thing that elephants don’t like much.

      Twenty years ago we were talking about how to control the 2 million or so elephants on the planet. Today we debate how to protect the 430,000 we may have left.

      I think the answer is in education on how to live with elephants (and Nature) rather than against it. You can fight back Nature forever and lose. IF we design ways for elephants to continue on their ancestral paths and journeys and protect our crops this would be a win win, wouldn’t it?”

      All the best
      Dereck “

  4. Shawn Wilson says:

    Nice pics – I was in the North of Thailand where a Thai women was protecting elephants from being forced to walk the streets for tourists. She made some sacrifices to secure the elephants freedom. Good for her.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      I wish I could take credit for the photography, both in skill and actually having the experience, but they’re mostly Beverly Joubert. I am happy to accept your kind words about the writing. I’m glad you found it enjoyable I hope you take a look at the film. 🙂

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