♪♪♪♪ DERECK: They emerged from the swamps 50 million years ago and became creatures that ruled the world from coast to coast, mountains to deserts.
NARRATOR: Dereck and Beverly Joubert are many things -- award-winning filmmakers, explorers, and dedicated conservationists.
Now they've set their sights once again on the elephants of Botswana -- but from a whole new angle.
DERECK: We've lived in the wild in Botswana for 30 years, telling the stories of this place.
But we haven't seen it all.
We're still searching for something.
[ Trumpeting ] NARRATOR: Journey with the Jouberts to one of the most remote places in Africa, where they'll explore one of the last remaining herds of elephants and contemplate the inner lives of these iconic creatures.
BEVERLY: Did they know the dead elephant?
Is this a curiosity or remembrance?
What is the very soul of the elephant?
♪♪♪♪ [ Animals calling ] ♪♪♪♪ DERECK: The story of elephants is a timeless story of ghosts.
[ Elephants rumbling ] They leave us messages -- ancient footprints in the sands of time.
In some places, it's the message of extinction as 35,000 elephants are poached each year, purely for their ivory.
[ Elephant rumbles ] But in other places, there are messages of hope -- like where we live, where they are still giants.
[ Elephant rumbles ] Seven-ton giants in full sail.
Their movements are a meditation.
[ Elephant snorts ] Their eyes shine with a deep intelligence.
We've lived in the wild in Botswana for 30 years, filming, exploring, researching, telling the stories of this place.
But we haven't seen it all.
We're still searching for something.
And often, what we find surprises us.
I often think of myself as an elephant.
I try to think their thoughts, live life with their values.
BEVERLY: This all started one day while exploring the backwaters of the bush.
This place is endless.
[ Woman vocalizing ] BEVERLY: We stumbled across something intriguing -- a sun-bleached skull from a bull elephant who'd died two years earlier, but with tusks so heavy, I could barely lift them.
♪♪♪♪ It's rare to find a carcass with its ivory still intact.
What's so exciting about that is in what it represents.
It means that no one has been here for at least two years.
But something just didn't add up.
DERECK: We had too many bones for this to be from one elephant.
As we looked around, we found enough to make up two huge bull elephants, a literal killing field, but with a difference -- absolutely no sign of man.
♪♪♪♪ You can age an elephant by its molar teeth, and these bulls were old.
But still, at around 70, they had a few years left to live.
They both died in exactly the same place at the same time.
Usually, that would mean poaching.
But why would these two bulls still have their ivory?
It was a mystery that would change the course of our lives over the next few months.
We decided to reconstruct their lives.
As we left the grave site, we didn't feel sad.
Out here, you learn that a natural death like these, elephants that die with their ivory, is rare and a celebration, as it should be.
Dust to dust.
The soul of the elephant at peace.
♪♪♪♪ This is a magical place, the Selinda Spillway, a wave of rivers that snake away from the Okavango Delta and join the northern rivers in Botswana, ultimately feeding into the great Zambezi.
So, to understand the lives of the two bulls, we've decided to paddle from one end of this river to the other.
It would have been their home range from their birthplace to their final resting place.
BEVERLY: Very shallow here.
DERECK: Starting to get into that yellow water that we saw from the air.
[ Bird chirping ] We'll also survey the carcasses we find to thoroughly understand poaching levels, hunting, and other influences of man.
For the next few months, we'll paddle and walk, explore the river and its banks as it cuts through the largest elephant populations in the world.
[ Elephant trumpets ] [ Rumbling ] The mystery of the two bulls still works inside my head.
♪♪♪♪ They were born over 70 years ago into a very different world.
There would have been over 5 million elephants then.
We were waging a world war as a 250-pound baby fought his own first battle against gravity to stand and his mother diligently cleaned away the placenta to hide the scent and to protect him from lions and hyenas.
[ Elephant rumbles ] ♪♪♪♪ Each baby born then had less than a 10% chance of making it past our guns and snares to the age of the two old bulls.
But both somehow survived.
BEVERLY: I've also been thinking about those first steps.
Soon after birth, a mother takes her newborn into the herd.
The family gently adjusts pace for the smallest, shortest, newest legs.
Within hours, he is their much-celebrated new baby that everyone wants to greet and to get to know and to protect.
♪♪♪♪ This social world he is introduced to will help him develop into one of the most intelligent and sensitive beings on the planet.
[ Rumbling ] ♪♪♪♪ [ Rumbles ] [ Bird chirping ] The pace of a herd is misleadingly slow.
They cover huge distances at an apparent stroll.
But a quick nap while standing up disorientates him.
[ Birds calling ] That's the time to panic.
[ Adult rumbling ] [ Rumbling continues ] He's a miniature elephant in a world of giants and on strange, slippery terrain.
[ Adult rumbles ] Even at his age, days old, he would have understood the ways of elephants, to recover from any indignity with aggression.
[ Adult rumbling ] Charge at egrets, charge at shadows, but charge whenever you can.
[ Trumpets ] ♪♪♪♪ [ Rumbling ] At his mother's side, an amazing lesson begins.
He wants milk now, having survived his near-death experience with shadows and demons, but she withholds his privileges.
♪♪♪♪ He needs to strengthen his bond with her.
And with elephants, that early imprinting is vital.
He is frustrated.
He wants that milk.
But colossal legs outsmart his every move.
It's only when his temper tantrum passes that he is allowed in.
His constant pounding away yields results, and milk squirts out.
These are the intimate lives of elephants we often forget about when we see them just as falling numbers on a chart.
The water's deep enough for the hippo here.
DERECK: It's on the next bend.
BEVERLY: It's two weeks in, and we have a problem already.
We know enough from 30 years of filming them exactly what is going on.
DERECK: There, up ahead -- hippos fighting.
BEVERLY: This narrow channel is not big enough for us and angry hippos.
Better go around them.
It's time to get out of the deep water.
Dereck is always keen to give it a try.
But it really is time to find an alternative route.
Our reluctant captain checks the GPS and plots another course, except there isn't really an alternative but to pull our canoe and gear through the backwaters and shallows, where we can, at least, see hippos coming.
Very shallow here.
DERECK: So much for paddling down the river.
BEVERLY: If anything goes wrong, we'll need to be airlifted by helicopter from here.
It's over five days' drive to the nearest town.
DERECK: All right, well done.
BEVERLY: All right.
DERECK: In the backwaters, we find another skull.
A submerged skull gives us very little to go on.
It's like coaxing stories out of spirits.
But the clues are all there.
The lower jaw indicates it was only about 25 years old.
We always replace each bone exactly as we find it, out of respect.
The sloping forehead tells us it was a young bull.
The tusks have not been chopped out.
We write it up as another natural death in a watery grave.
There is a richness to life here, but none quite as dramatic as what we finally come across downstream.
♪♪♪♪ Just ahead, we see our first living elephants in weeks.
The phantoms of this expedition are actually real at last.
♪♪♪♪ We also get a rare private view of wild elephants.
A little like looking in through a bedroom window.
[ Elephant snoring ] And actually, elephants do snore.
The wind changes, swirling our scent towards them, and it seems they know that smell.
[ Trumpets ] [ Rumbling ] Our only defense in this shallow water is to keep dead still.
[ Elephant trumpets ] And perfectly quiet.
[ Rumbling ] [ Trumpets ] There's always a heavy sleeper.
Caught off guard, they're the most dangerous -- more prone to panic and to charge.
[ Trumpets ] ♪♪♪♪ Now, these are moments I love.
There is something hypnotic about being in the path of a charging elephant -- something dangerous, but peaceful, beautiful.
You focus on the dance of their ears.
And sound dulls because you believe he'll stop, but you don't know it for sure.
It's strange that you feel most alive when you face death.
[ Rumbles ] [ Rumbling ] And when it's over, I find myself strangely relaxed, privileged at having been face-to-face with an elephant.
[ Rumbling ] Any disturbance ripples through the herds, and they stop as one in what we call a freeze.
[ Insects chirping ] The leader gives an order and releases them with another ultrasonic call to move on.
[ Trumpets ] That order sends them back our way.
[ Trumpets ] [ Rumbling ] [ Trumpets ] But it breaks our hearts to see each herd we approach disappear like ghosts before we can even get to know them or even count them.
♪♪♪♪ [ Mooing ] Perhaps it isn't entirely our fault.
Within minutes, we find out that the animals here may be upset for a different reason.
There are lions hunting in the dusk.
[ Mooing ] [ Lion growling ] [ Mooing ] Lions are unafraid of the most dangerous of prey and the largest.
But old bull elephants are the true omnipotent rulers of the savannas, not even pausing to look at the carnage.
Certainly it wasn't lions that brought down the two old bulls we found over a month ago now.
♪♪♪♪ [ Elephant rumbles ] Our nights under a flimsy tent are filled with sounds that light up the imagination.
[ Various animal calls ] We dream of giants moving as silently as ghost ships under sail.
[ Animals calling ] BEVERLY: Looks like there's a skull over there.
The skull of an elephant. Looks typical.
DERECK: Yeah, let's go down there.
BEVERLY: We heard them calling all night, and now we understand why.
It's one of those gatherings we think are like burial rituals or wakes.
DERECK: Let's see what happens here.
That looks like the -- over there 'cause there are all those females next to it.
[ Rumbling ] ♪♪♪♪ BEVERLY: We want to be quiet, respectful, but we still feel like intruders on a family in mourning.
When she lifts the body, she may be looking, searching for the cause of death.
[ Elephant exhales ] So much attention is given to the ivory, as if it is the very symbol of that elephant -- the embodiment of an elephant's soul.
♪♪♪♪ Their brains are almost five times the size of ours.
There is no doubt that they are feeling emotions, and I wonder what information they are getting as their trunks delicately hover over the remains.
♪♪♪♪ Did they know the dead elephant?
Was it a family member?
Is this curiosity or remembrance?
[ Rumbling ] As we intrude just a little longer, we can see that it was a young bull.
Cause of death could have been just like many a young bull -- raging testosterone.
[ Trumpeting ] [ Rumbling ] DERECK: There is a saying in Africa that when two elephants fight, it's the ground beneath them that suffers the most.
[ Trumpeting continues ] But a misplaced tusk, a broken leg, and either young bull will end up as bleached skin and bones under the harsh African sky.
[ Trumpeting continues ] ♪♪♪♪ [ Rumbling ] [ Trumpeting ] The threats are not just from humans.
As we leave, we understand that for our two old bulls to have survived, they would have had to also make it through this intense phase of their lives.
It's sizzling hot now -- over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
That should make everyone lethargic.
Or so you'd think.
In some cases, it just makes them cranky.
When elephants really mean to attack, they approach with a side-on strut and then dip their heads for the charge.
[ Trumpeting ] While they're flapping ears and trumpeting, we're okay.
It's when they go quiet and drop that head that it could go either way.
[ Trumpeting ] There is a subtle language to all of this.
[ Trumpets ] BEVERLY: Gotta be careful if we're underneath the bird's perch -- like that one.
DERECK: You see that under my feet.
We're drifting over a submerged acacia tree.
[ Branches snapping ] It breaks the silence.
The herd's suddenly wary.
We can't backpedal without becoming even more obvious to them.
♪♪♪♪ Beverly's instinct is to crouch down and record the sound of the bulls coming in 'cause she knows this is gonna be very loud.
[ Trumpeting ] ♪♪♪♪ Too close.
[ Trumpeting ] There's only one thing to do... stare him down.
Elephants are so used to being dominant that when something doesn't run off, they sometimes feel intimidated, unsettled.
Confidence is the only weapon we have.
[ Rumbling ] These elephants are wild and angry, unlike earlier ones that just disappeared.
[ Trumpeting ] They're charging like crazy from every direction, around every bend in the river.
[ Trumpeting ] [ Trumpets ] BEVERLY: Whew, that was close.
DERECK: Not far downstream, we understand exactly why.
Piles of skulls lie scattered all around.
BEVERLY: Look at this -- from the teeth, it doesn't look very old.
DERECK: This one's got lots of teeth.
BEVERLY: Look. Look at this one, too, this... Wow.
He was shot... DERECK: Until 2014, hunting of elephants was legal here.
Have been in here.
Hunters were only allowed to shoot males, but we uncover female skulls as well.
Given what we now know, it must be deeply traumatic for elephants when they stumble across these piles of discarded bones.
BEVERLY: This is a killing field.
DERECK: It explains why at the start of each hunting season, elephants would leave hunting areas.
They must know what we do to them.
♪♪♪♪ The two old bulls were lucky to escape this era as well.
♪♪♪♪ It feels like we're in hostile territory.
[ Hippo calling ] We decide to quietly follow the family just ahead.
If the Egyptian geese can navigate hippo waters, so can we.
[ Hippos calling ] Hippos tend to go to the deep water... ...and then come up anywhere.
It's like walking through a mine field.
We both silently push back the words swirling around in our heads... [ Hippo calling ] ...that hippos kill more people in Africa than other animal.
Staying calm is our best weapon.
We try not to look into the black water for monsters that may not even be there.
But this river is full of surprises.
♪♪♪♪ They emerged from the swamps 50 million years ago and became creatures that ruled the world from Africa to Asia, and even into the Americas, from coast to coast, mountains to deserts.
♪♪♪♪ And today, they are as at home in the water as ever.
These water dances are playful games, but with an undercurrent of testing wits and strengths.
[ Rumbling ] ♪♪♪♪ They're not used to people approaching on water, so we decide to drift in while they're distracted by the calm bulls playing nearby.
[ Rumbling ] The story of elephants is also the story of water.
Botswana has over one-third of the world's elephants today, thriving here for many reasons.
Abundant water may be the most important of them.
Even the big males barely give us a second glance as they glide by.
♪♪♪♪ And as the heat relaxes its grip on everything, we sit silently, reluctant to return to normal, and realize that what we've been affected by all of this as well.
[ Animals calling ] BEVERLY: Oh, this will guide us in.
DERECK: This is bliss.
BEVERLY: Truly, yes.
DERECK: Our camp tonight will be under the full moon and in the company of magical beasts in fairy tale moonbeams -- remnants of a time past, perhaps.
[ Rumbling ] We realize that we have tapped in to that ancient heartbeat of the elephant, the very soul of who they are.
[ Rumbling ] And we definitely know that when we spend time with elephants, we come away somehow better.
♪♪♪♪ [ Birds calling ] Go forward on your side?
BEVERLY: It's hard to see. The water's so black.
BEVERLY: We're driven by the hope that today will be at least as good as yesterday.
So no dawn is left to rise without us.
[ Rumbling ] We're more than a month in.
From early morning through the midday heat and until late at night, the river is packed with elephants.
As we drift alongside them now day after day, we seem to have cracked some kind of elephant code, and we can get in close.
[ Rumbling ] We can see details we didn't before.
We soak up the closeness, the smell, the trust, and feel the beat of their silent calls in our chests.
It's euphoric being in the accepting presence of these animals.
[ Rumbling ] With the elephants this calm, Dereck wants to experience that closeness even more.
The more we do this, the more we embed ourselves into their culture, we imagine for a moment that we thoroughly understand them.
And then, for some reason, they all suddenly head away from the river at this point.
♪♪♪♪ DERECK: We're now close enough to get our plane to get an overview and find out exactly why.
Floating over Botswana is magical.
I love Africa from the air.
What looks like random paths from the ground magically form into well-organized patterns from the air.
Ancient networks of paths once connected water holes across the continent.
They lead elephants out across the grasslands, herd after herd following behind their mothers and the memories of their ancestors in the never-ending search that drives elephants.
♪♪♪♪ [ Rumbling ] We can now recognize individual elephants, like this one-tusker and her family, as they etch their own stories into the paths with their feet.
[ Rumbling ] Botswana's elephants have very small tusks.
The water here has little mineral value, so tusks are brittle.
It may be a saving grace.
[ Birds chirping ] [ Rumbling ] Being a tuskless elephant may actually be an advantage in the future.
Virtually every family here has at least one tuskless female.
They leave the rivers here for something other than water -- salt.
Elephants need almost a quarter-pound of salt every day, and this is the only place to find it.
They probe and prospect for tiny crystals, an almost impossible task without fingers, you would think.
But with at least 60,000 muscles in their trunks, elephants can pick out a crystal and work it loose.
If need be, they use heavier equipment.
Then they just work whole clods into their mouths to swallow, and rely on efficient stomachs to filter out the good stuff.
The trunk defines elephants.
It's their tool for digging, breaking, smelling, investigating -- always alive, always moving... just like them.
♪♪♪♪ We can sense the two bulls leaving these ancient digs.
20 years ago, they would have been in search of something even more important than salt to securing their future.
To mate, both males and females need to be in sync.
The male musth happens once a year.
The tiny tuskless calf is also in heat, and he's not about to let her get away.
[ Trumpets ] 22 months from now, he could have an heir.
She may still be a teenager, but she knows how to send secret messages of seduction.
The only clues are in her soundless open mouth and flapping ears.
[ Rumbling ] A series of six calls, so low in frequency we can't normally hear them.
[ Rumbling ] This will attract every mating male within 10 miles of here to contest for the right to pass his genes on to the next generation of Selinda elephants.
[ Birds chirping ] Elephants create a ripple effect of advantage to others.
A pied kingfisher finds them useful as a perch.
[ Rumbling ] She's watching out for small fish, but elephants have sensitive skins.
They hate biting flies... and, apparently, the feel of a kingfisher.
There is a time for babies to just follow along and a time for them to play and enjoy the slippery feeling of fine mud under their feet.
But this is not one of them.
We know from working with lions just how quickly the see an opportunity and react.
The baby is down, floundering, drowning.
[ Trumpeting ] ♪♪♪♪ The lions are waiting here.
They know the hazards.
[ Trumpeting ] And these lions are not afraid of water.
♪♪♪♪ Lions don't give up easily.
They'll circle back to this crossing point later.
Despite the swirling scent of lions, the calm crossings are methodical.
Elephants just don't like congestion, stress.
Each herd leaves enough space ahead and behind.
♪♪♪♪ These gatherings and long lines of elephant families, floating across the landscape in and out of the sparkling floodplains, are very typical of the freedom of Botswana for elephants... the freedom to come and go almost endlessly, to feel the weightlessness of their huge bodies in water.
This opportunity gives us a rare chance to see them at play, but from inside their world as swamp creatures.
They always maintain the integrity of their family groups, keeping separate by just enough so their young don't mingle and get lost, and yet close enough to stay in touch as a herd -- as a clan of elephants.
At times, these clans will gather at crossings in numbers of well over 400 elephants along the Selinda Spillway.
♪♪♪♪ Keeping those families intact in a huge herd like this can be a challenge.
[ Rumbling ] A cow has lost her calf right at the vulnerable crossing point.
After doing the very first studies and films on lions attacking elephants, we can virtually replay it from memory.
First, a lost calf panics and calls out.
[ Calf trumpets ] [ Adult trumpets ] The lions respond.
They circle and attack from behind.
[ Calf trumpets ] The mother, just like this one today, goes frantic.
It only adds to the confusion.
And confusion is exactly what lions want.
[ Trumpeting ] [ Growling ] Today, it is different.
[ Trumpeting ] And the nightmare is prevented when the mother gets there just in time to mount a daring rescue.
[ Trumpeting ] [ Trumpeting ] [ Trumpeting ] [ Trumpeting continues ] With the rescued calf in tow, she now has to make up ground to join the rest of the herd.
[ Rumbling ] But elephants are nothing if not compassionate and understanding.
The herd has waited for her to resolve her problem and sets off again.
[ Rumbling ] BEVERLY: After the excitement with the lions, there is a palpable change in atmosphere, as if the herd understands the need for balance.
It goes from high stress to a little fun.
Of course, it's about covering themselves against biting flies and cooling.
But from down here, it looks almost tempting and definitely fun.
There is not much of the world left that can make you feel like this at this relaxed place where elephants are what they have always been on their terms.
[ Trumpets ] [ Trumpets ] A coating of dust dries the mud.
When it cracks and falls off, it takes the ticks and other parasites along with it.
[ Rumbling ] [ Trumpets ] The security of being in the fold once again allows the calf to shake off his encounter with the lions and cover his superficial wounds.
DERECK: Following that unending cycle of dust to dust, one day we find some elephants veering off track.
The leaders pad across country with purpose.
[ Rumbling ] Her soul long departed, she lies as a gentle reminder to her clan of who she was, her long life, her successes, her rescues, her compassion, and the days spent together in the mud and the dust.
[ Rumbling ] ♪♪♪♪ How she died, we'll never know.
Perhaps she just ran out of time.
As they bob and weave around her, we're reminded that they are sentient beings, thinking thoughts, having ideas.
Touch, smell, remember, think.
All you ever need to know to be inside of an elephant's head at these moments.
♪♪♪♪ Herd after herd come in, with just enough time between each wave for us to place some cameras and to disguise our scent.
[ Elephant trumpets ] At the last minute, I remember that actually turning the camera on may be useful.
[ Elephant rumbles ] ♪♪♪♪ We were able to capture the most intimate views we've ever seen of an elephant wake -- so close, neither of us wants to breathe, break the spell.
[ Elephant rumbles ] ♪♪♪♪ [ Elephant rumbles ] [ Elephant rumbles ] And right here, we've seen that something special that we both love about Africa at its best, a skull with its ivory intact -- pure, the way it should be, absolutely worthless.
I like that ivory is worthless.
The only value should be as a beacon of memory to the elephant clan she was once a part of.
♪♪♪♪ [ Rumbling ] BEVERLY: What legacy is left behind?
As I stand and think about the romance of our lives, these magical moments remind me of the ripples we cause around us.
I hope that our own legacy walking in the footsteps of these bulls can make a difference.
They could have walked right by here one day, even fed on the tree I'm standing under.
After the sixth set of molars wears out, their lives are over.
As it nears that time, they pick food carefully, saving those precious teeth.
The story of elephants may be all about ivory, but it should only be about their teeth.
[ Thunder rumbling ] [ Crashing ] DERECK: The lashing rain triggers respite for elephants and their teeth.
They scoop up the soft green grass and shovel it down for 16 hours a day.
We remember the teeth of the bulls.
They still had years to go.
As we follow the elephants into the open, we have a flash of inspiration.
[ Trumpeting ] Elephants often go to water to get out of the stinging rain on their sensitive skins.
They could have been struck down instantly by lightning.
It's the best answer we can find for two bulls struck dead together with their tusks intact.
These phantoms have somehow become real to us -- no longer apparitions in the half-light.
They're living beings with full lives and even, quite possibly, souls.
It feels like we knew them as newborn babies, at play in the fields of paradise.
We've filled in the gaps of these gentle seven-ton giants' lives, companions for life.
BEVERLY: Over and over, we find the same evidence.
Botswana is one of the few places on the planet where elephants can still live out a natural life.
DERECK: We're obsessed now with coaxing these secret stories from the bones.
She was probably a matriarch with unusually long tusks.
Like others here, she enjoyed the vast freedom of a protected land in Botswana.
But we were also shocked by the fact that since you started watching this film, five elephants were killed simply for their tusks.
It's not their ivory that will enrich us.
We'll find far greater enchantment in the journey of life they will lead us on.
Whether they survive long enough for us to really get to know them depends entirely on what we can learn about the very soul of the elephant.