The Smell of Elephants: A Filmmaker's Journal

In November of 2013, Off The Fence producers Emre Izat and Kate Bradbury hunkered down at Abu Camp in the legendary Okavango Delta, waiting to film the birth of a baby elephant at the camp's adjacent elephant sanctuary and rehabilitation center. Their experience among the Abu Herd and filming the birth of the baby elephant, Naledi, stayed with them long after their time in Botswana, and in 2016, the two welcomed their own baby into the world.

They named her Omey Leyla Naledi. 

Emre's Film Journal, November 24, 2013

(Two days before Naledi’s birth)

It’s my first time in the legendary Okavango Delta, and being here is an incredible experience, though not quite the 3-day shoot we thought we were being hired for. We’re now 17 days in, and this shoot is starting to become a real test of will and endurance. It’s late in the dry season, so the days are incredibly hot, but the nights are starting to have occasional short rains. I’m sitting outside under a metal roof that covers three research containers, so the slightest drizzle sounds like a thunderstorm and an actual thunderstorm sounds like the apocalypse. Often the vervet monkeys that live here will run across the roof in a big messy startling group. But it doesn’t matter, it’s not as if Kate or I are getting much sleep anyway. We’re lucky if we get 2-3 hours across any 24-hour period, because we’re here for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. About 150 steps in front of us are 6 sleeping elephants, one of whom has an unborn infant in her womb.
We waited for weeks in order to capture the labor on film. 

We waited for weeks in order to capture the labor on film. 

My path to sleepless nights waiting for the birth of Naledi, now the star of the upcoming film Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale, was a winding one. My life and production partner Kate Bradbury and I had been on the road nonstop for almost two months, along with wildlife cameraman and close friend Bob Poole. We had mostly been in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, filming for a PBS series with Bob’s sister Joyce Poole, the world renowned elephant expert.

Joyce is one of my science heroes; she discovered musth in elephants and has spent countless years decoding elephant vocal and gestural language. The elephants of Gorongosa are a unique population - they have been witness to and are survivors of decades of violence – and somewhere along the way they learned to bunch together in big groups and charge at humans en masse. It's a mysterious behavior, and Joyce has been studying these elephants, recording and decoding how elephants make decisions and coordinate behavior. Our long conversations about elephant cultural adaptations to poaching would form the core idea behind another elephant film we are working on with Vulcan Productions, National Geographic, and ZDF, called Mind of a Giant, premiering on NatGeo Wild Channel on June 18th. 

Mind of a Giant explores the incredibly complex elephant brain, and exposes some intriguing new learnings about their sentience. 

Mind of a Giant explores the incredibly complex elephant brain, and exposes some intriguing new learnings about their sentience. 

While in Mozambique, during a break from shooting we received a call from our friends at Vulcan Productions, who were searching for a nearby crew to film the pending birth of one of the elephants living at the Abu Camp, a safari lodge and elephant sanctuary in the Okavango Delta of Botswana. We jumped at the chance to film such a unique experience, and hopped on a plane.

While waiting for the birth we got to know Mike Chase, the scientist who runs a wildlife research station at Abu Camp, as he prepared to begin the Great Elephant Census. Mike offered to show me and Bob the wild elephants he has dedicated his life to studying. The elephants of the Okavango are a staggering contrast to the Gorongosa elephants. All hunting is illegal in Botswana, and anti-poaching is a high priority. Botswana is home to one of the largest elephant populations on the continent. In Gorongosa, Joyce exposed us to an elephant population in survival mode, terrified of all humans. In the Okavango, Mike introduced us to the Okavango wild herds he studies, who regularly intermingle with the Abu Herd from the sanctuary as they free range in their natural habitat all day. The wild herds don't mind people at all, it’s difficult express the feeling this stark contrast produces. I’m simultaneously filled with worry and sorrow for the hundreds of thousands of elephants that live in danger every day, and hope that comes from seeing elephants who live a safe and happy life, like the do in Botswana.

Dr. Mike Chase was the principal investigator for the Great Elephant Census and flew surveys in Botswana, Kenya, Ethiopia and Angola. 

Dr. Mike Chase was the principal investigator for the Great Elephant Census and flew surveys in Botswana, Kenya, Ethiopia and Angola. 

But our main and singular task is to keep watch on the expecting mother, a big, gentle matriarch named Kitimetse, or Kiti for short. The last crew who tried to film a birth here missed it while getting some shots of a fish eagle. The pressure to deliver is high, but Kiti makes the job easy. What a privilege it is to spend all day and night concerned with every movement of such a sweet and motherly being. Kiti has two daughters - one biological and one adopted, and she's a great mom. The little girls, Lorato and Paseka are 4 and 3 respectively, and they are a joy to watch. Abu Camp is a halfway house for elephants, the original herd were former actors and circus elephants, or come here because they were injured, abandoned or lost. They stay long enough to form new relationships and family units, and when they don't want to be here anymore they wander off (there are no fences or chains, except the sleeping enclosures at night for their own safety) and are reintegrated into the wild, sometimes joining other herds. But the reintroduced elephants often don't lose their bonds with the ones that stay, and on some day walks the Abu Herd will run into an old friend. The reintroduced elephants have been a long way away most of the time we've been here. A couple of them wear satellite tags for research, so Mike Chase and his team can keep an eye on their movements and learn about how reintroduced elephants acclimate into wild herds.

Emre's film journal, November 25, 2013

(one day before Naledi’s birth)

A few days ago some former members of the Abu Herd, including Kiti’s friends Gikka, Naya, and Nandipa, traveled 15,000 kilometers to come visit Kiti. One of them had just had a calf, and she came right up to Kiti's boma to introduce her child. We sat in awe as we listened to the old friends speak with greeting rumbles all around, and everyone here was so excited to see the returning herd. Many thought they came to give Kiti some support for her birth, but who knows? I like to think they knew, somehow, that she was expecting and wanted to wish her luck. An elephant baby shower, of sorts.
At night, when Kiti and the herd return to the boma, and Kate and I assume night watch duty. The nights are a constant game of light management; we really don’t want to disturb the elephants ever, but remaining incognito is especially important at night, when we want Kiti to feel as safe and private as possible. We wear headlamps in the dark, but keep them on the dim red setting, undetectable to the animals, as a bright white light disturbs the elephants and attracts bugs. We rigged two big infrared lights powered by car batteries, keeping a constant eye on Kiti through the tiny LCD of a nightvision camera.
Our two infrared lights are not quite large enough to illuminate the entire boma, so they are on manual swivel heads, the bigger one mounted atop a metal platform to mimic moonlight. Our seats are about 150 steps away from these lights, so when Kiti walks around the boma she often wanders into the dark patches on screen (the IR light is also invisible to Kiti, she has no way of knowing if she's in the light or dark). When she moves into shadow, I have to jump up and tiptoe to the platform, climb as quietly as possible with my camera in hand, then pan the swivel light until she's revealed on my screen once more.
Catching some sleep before a night shift. 

Catching some sleep before a night shift. 

Our body rhythms are slaves to Kiti's schedule. After a few days, our friends Lee and Seb had to leave, so Kate and I now rotate through days and nights in shifts, taking turns napping on a Kalahari Kanvas bedroll on top of a wooden table. When Kiti is awake, our eyes are glued to the screen. When she falls asleep, that's the time to go to the toilet or make coffee, and even that is rushed as you never know if she'll sleep for minutes or hours. We typically end up getting about two to three hours of sleep a night, and most of our days are devoted to more filming, media management, and reviewing footage. Despite the lack of sleep, I love watching the elephants at night.
Lorato teaches Paseka little tricks and games in the night, as sisters who share a room do. Sometimes their wrestling gets a little too rough, and Kiti has to step between them and push them apart. The three of them sleep in 1-2 hour chunks, always in a bunch, sometimes laying on each other. I've spent some nights taking IR and color long-exposure portraits of the sleeping elephants, sometimes I just watch them and think about how human-like they are, others I leave the monitor on next to my face as I chat with my friend and accomplished poet, Cynthia Loetze, to keep me awake.
"The three of them sleep in 1-2 hour chunks, always in a bunch, sometimes laying on each other."

"The three of them sleep in 1-2 hour chunks, always in a bunch, sometimes laying on each other."

The highlight of every day comes just after sunrise, when we hug Kiti hello. She's an unbelievably sweet and gentle elephant. She lets me wrap my arm around her leg and feel the super soft skin hidden at the top of her thigh. I touch her enormous baby bump and today she let Kate rest her head on the baby, listening to the little one. The closeness and connection I feel to Kiti and her unborn baby are a result of spending 20 hours a day with them.
We watch her every move, every time she kicks or shakes we think it's time, and every time she walks behind a bush or around a corner we panic that she will give birth and we will miss it.
And as we wait, with every breath I inhale the smell of elephants, a leathery, dusty, sunny smell that makes me feel completely connected to the Earth and to these magnificent beings. There is no place on the planet I'd rather be.

Read part two of this blog here

You can watch Naledi's journey at the Seattle International Film Festival in the film premier of Naledi: A Baby Elephant's Tale.