Unforgettable Elephants

NATURE chronicles African elephants’ families through stunning film and still photos in Unforgettable Elephants.

We have seen them dressed in costumes and dancing at circuses, living solitary lives at zoos or giving our children a thrill with a ride on their back. But the largest land animals live a life that is completely foreign to us when left to their own in the wild — one complete with battles and births, kidnappings and camaraderie. More than fifteen years ago, Martyn Colbeck began to document in film and photos the lives of African elephants. For the better part of two decades, he has grown particularly close to the elephant matriarch, Echo, and her close-knit family, who have never failed to astonish, amuse, and inspire him.

The family seems to accept Colbeck into their world, and perhaps even considers him one of their own. The result is that he can record unimpeded the gentle love, and tight bonds that elephants feel for each other. Colbeck’s film gives us a glimpse into the complex world of elephant society. We meet Echo and begin to understand the importance of such a majestic matriarch to her devoted clan. He shows us their language and ways of communication. And he captures remarkable scenes such as the rare birth of a crippled calf that the family desperately and collectively tries to help to its feet. The film causes us to question if this could be about more than simply survival. Is there a deeper emotion we have just been privileged enough to witness through Colbeck’s lens?

In scene after moving scene, Colbeck makes us fall in love with Echo, Erin, Enid, Ely, and the rest of this loving family. He conveys through his film and in a special interview with NATURE what complicated, powerful, tender, funny — and, yes, unforgettable — creatures elephants are.

To order a copy of Unforgettable Elephants, please visit the NATURE Shop.

Online content for Unforgettable Elephants was originally posted April 2007.

  • Cheryl D. Banks

    I have seen this documentary and am enthralled with it. I find elephants fascinating and intelligent. That their way of life is threatened makes me emotional. I have tried several times to order the DVD (just now again–hoping against hope) but because I live in Canada, I cannot get it. If you can only ship in the United States, why do you list all the countries of the world on your site for orders? I do get frustrated.

    Cheryl D. Banks

  • staci

    I don’t watch a lot of television but happened to be clicking through the channels and a scene in this film caught my eye. I had to continue to watch and was captivated. I have never really given much thought to elephants, but they seem to be truely majestic.

  • Wayne

    I am very disappointed in the direction nature documentaries are heading on PBS, and this one exemplifies the problem. PBS shows used to stimulate thought not do our thinking for us. I think the filming and photography were great. The narrative was far too anthropomorphic and subjective. I don’t want to be told what elephants are thinking. He doesnt know and neither do I. I want to see scenes and events depicted and be allowed to make my own interpretation. I don’t care about the filmmaker’s feelings. Please spare me the “I was saddened by…” editorials. Please, inform me about the animals and their habits and habitats and threats facing them. Please don’t give me nature shows that document the emotional journey of the film maker as this one does, or their attempts at animal mind-reading. I have watched PBS nature documentaries for 30 years and the quality has gone down dramatically because of this trend in the last few years. Inform me. Educate me. Don’t think or feel for me. Please. This could have been a good show.

  • Marcie

    I beg to disagree with Wayne, respectfully. I know nothing about elephants and just happened upon this show – and I was happy to hear the insights of an elephant expert because he certainly knows more about them than the common person. There is always National Geographic if you don’t want the commentary. Thanks!

  • Tim Greer

    To Cheryl D. Banks of Canada … I was looking too to purchase this video. The “Shop Thirteen” store on the site indicates it is available for sale on January 20, 2009. Cheers … Tim, Salem, Oregon

  • Janet Planet

    I’ve loved elephants for a long time and Unforgettable Elephants was a wonderfully moving experience.

  • Ann

    Wayne makes a valid point about the focus on Martyn Colbeck’s interpretations and feelings. Indeed, the documentary may have been even better without this sort of commentary. Nevertheless, Amboseli with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background and other elephant environments were beautiful. And being able to see these remarkable elephants – their sense of family, their sensitivity, their competitiveness, and their playfulness — was engaging and educational. Further, perhaps the film benefits, on an unscientific basis, from Colbeck’s observations, which are reflections of his passion and love for elephants. Admittedly, I’m biased: I love elephants so any chance there is to watch them is a joy; and Martyn Colbeck’s photography does justice to these magnificent creatures.

  • Lisa

    It is our lack of anthropomorphizing that has left animals in their helpless lot. Thank goodness for non-scientific types who DO add the element of emotion to their documentaries, for all animals do possess emotions. Granted, their prefrontal cortex may not be as large and therefore, their emotional range neither. However, they do possess neurochemicals that control behavior…behavior that is driven by emotion when survival depends upon it. Science and a lack of emotion are not synonymous. Until we humans get our heads out of our butts and realize that as a “species”, we really are nothing more than animals ourselves, we’re never going to embrace and solve the empirical challenges of our planet. I say thank you to Mr. Colbeck for sharing his insight that FIFTEEN YEARS with these beautiful beasts gave him!

  • Angel LaCheur

    It’s sad to have negative comments made on the reality of wildlife need of respect and care. Mr. Colbecks work, insight, and sharing his love for elephants is edifying for me and much appreciated. It’s been a long time coming that people start recognizing animal life and needs that has obviously been lost over time. If we do any research, it can be found that wildlife is becoming extinct as well as the recognition for habits and needs of wildlife habitate. Thank God and bless you who work to portray the truths and relationships possible between man and wild life. I love elephants sense a child and realized their intelligence and abilities illustrated in just the fact that they use their trunk for feeding and other needs. I can remember before the age of five communicating intuitively with the apes, monkeys and and elephants. I’ve seen the same happen with other children and the response of animals with them. Man has lost nearly completely their ability to relate to wildlife and when people do, it’s a joy and thank you for doing your work, documentation and caring for what’s so precious and important to mankind. I believe if animals go extinct, mankind will destroy themselve and go extinct as well.

  • Wayne

    Some of you sound as if you think I dont respect or care for wildlife or emotion. In addition to being a poet, writer and artist who cares very much about both, I am a scientist who has worked for 20 years in endangered species research and conservation.

    Nature is a Natural History program. Natural History is scientific observation of natural life. The emotions and mind-reading of the film maker have no place in Natural History. They have a place (in art, literature, theater and other things I love also), but they dont belong in Natural History any more than religion belongs in science class.

  • don, ( tenn )

    Well it’s 5:00 am and the show about the elephants just went off,and i have to say thank you .For a man to spend 15yrs of his life only to become part of a family that most of us will never do is something that can’t be put in to words that would do it justis.Again i say thank you ( PBS ) for you helping the rest of us see life as it sould be see.

  • Lisa

    I am pursuing a third degree, a second career and spent the last semester studying elephants in captivity. Any documentary aired on public television must bear in mind who it’s audience is. Appeal to a broad mentality is imperative if we are going to appeal to the masses, intellectually and financially, both being necessary to pursue successfully the resolution of troubling ecological issues. There are many deep-pocketed folks who have never done a literature search, recorded data or even know what the meaning of anthropomorphize is. If we ask Nature to consider only the scientific among us, we exclude the majority and, I believe, do so to our own and the animals’ detriment. It is not my intention to berate anyone here but I must say I have grown weary of the mindset that you cannot place an equal value on feelings while achieving scientific goals. Why must they be mutually exclusive? Why do we have the opinion that feelings diminish the value of science? Why must we worry that the mere mention of emotions will disquality and/or discredit the work of people such as Colbeck?

  • Vince

    Thank you to the filmmaker, Nature and the Elephants…a more perfect union could not be had. Hopefully people all over the world will see this film and realize what a precious gift we have in all our animals.

  • eliza soeth

    This is the best show I have ever seen on tv, loved it, your work and filming and time and patience is to be comended, hope it airs again soon, as I have told many friends and family about it. Long live the elephant thanks and congrats eliza in Maine

  • Tami

    I saw the Martyn Colbeck show on elephants last night, and was enthralled! I’ve just spent over an hour trying to find out how to get a book of his amazing photos, or a DVD of the show…. and stumbled into this comment site. It was wonderful to read your various comments … I must side with those that appreciated Colbeck’s comments. Over 15 years, he clearly developed a relationship with Echo and her group, and sharing that with me made me feel connected to the herd in a wonderful way. It also moved me to appreciate the efforts being taken to save these great creatures, and I am now exploring the best way to contribute financially to the cause. (any ideas out there. you guys?)
    Tami in California

  • David Clawson

    The Elephant show was very touching. I havde a plan to remove some of the hardship for the desert Elephants. I own two well drillers and would be willing to drill a well in one of the migratory paths that the Elephants use. This well would be a solar well with a production of about 600 to 1000 gallons perday. It could be drilled at about halfway between on their migratory route. This would stop the high mortality rate and would be cheep to mantain. I would be
    willing to do this for cost only. I would be gratful for any information as to how to contact this Martyn Colbeck. Only he knows the exact migratory routes well enough. Dave.

  • Nancy

    Does anyone know when this will air again?

  • Corrie

    I was wondering the same thing, I only caught the last half and fell in love with Echo and her family. I’d like to see it again from the begining.

  • sacul mahned

    Let’s have a conversation about conservation. I LOVE ANIMALS!!! I also LOVE Nature, the movie(s). I am 13 years old, and I am CRAZY about becoming a conservationist when I get older.

  • Carla Poirier

    Aloha: I love elephants and this was a great show. I hope to some day buy the dvd. I am unemployed right now. It made you aware of how wonderful nature is and how wonderful elephants are. Keep up the great work. I love your shows.

  • Austin

    I love elephants when I was born. I will still love them beause, they are gentle giants. They are grey and they have long trunks. They are living after the diousors.

  • A. B.

    Excellent and informative!

  • Summer Youngblood

    Where can I access the full episode online? I’d like to show my 8th graders.

  • NATURE Online

    Summer – Unfortunately, this episode is not available for online streaming.

  • Viline

    I love elephants and almost will die to see them in action i have studied them dor 8 years and would like for you to show me more. If you can.

  • Lumpy

    I have been in love with elephants for a while now, and this documentary has a lot to do with my love-affair. I watched it a couple of years ago when it first aired and scenes from the documentary are still fresh in my mind. I remember that there were moments in the documentary where I was overwhelmed with emotion (especially the scenes with the desert elephants). Elephants are more like us than we can begin to imagine, and I wish more people would watch documentaries such as this one to get a sense of how wonderful and intelligent and social these animals are. There is another Nature documentary about Echo called “Echo of the Elephants” that I would recommend watching as well. I read somewhere that a new documentary about Echo and her death is to air on the BBC soon. I am really hoping that PBS will bring that to us here in the U.S.

  • Mani Subramanian

    My family and I recently returned from Kenya after a great 11-day safari tour of five sanctuaries. It was great to see Martyn Colbeck’s show on the Unforgettable elephants. It added an extra dimension and may be two – their social behavior and the sounds. Thanks, PBS and Martyn.

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