From BBC Wildlife Magazine
For the new BBC1 series ‘The Secret Life of Elephants’ we’ve revealed the elephant’s hidden world - the depth of their emotions, their remarkable intelligence, and the intimate complexities of their family life. We spent three months in Kenya, filming the elephants and following the work of Iain Douglas-Hamilton and the Save the Elephants research team. We wanted to tell the stories of individual elephants, which meant we spent every hour from dawn till dusk finding and following our stars across the Samburu reserve. We focussed on the most dramatic moments in their lives – a calf from the day of her birth, a bull using tactics to win a mate, a matriarch making decisions to protect her family. We followed the research team on missions across northern Kenya to protect the elephants; we see them helping a community terrorised by crop raiding bulls, uncovering an outbreak of poaching which killed two of their best known elephants, and tracing the new dangers on ancient elephant migration routes.
After weeks of hard work, we were rewarded with astonishing glimpses into the elephant’s lives. But we couldn’t have imagined that we’d become so directly involved in a life or death operation to save a baby elephant’s life.
Our filming team spotted a calf, just a few weeks old, in a pitiful state. She’d badly injured one of her front legs, and was having serious trouble keeping up with her mother. It’s a difficult dilemma – is it better to step in and help, or let nature take its course? But as we’d been finding out, elephants feel emotion deeply. Letting this distressed calf and mother suffer was not an option for the Save the Elephants team.
A wildlife vet was called in – he needed to examine the calf, but there was one literally enormous problem: Her 3 tonne, highly protective mother. To save the calf, her mother had to be anesthetised first. But the huge female started to fall on her chest, sphinx-like, a position where an elephant’s lungs can be compressed by their own body weight. Worse, the calf clung to her side – if she fell over suddenly, the calf would be crushed underneath her.
The team were shouting for help - there weren’t enough people to push over the mother, and hold back the baby. There was no hesitation, all of us on the production team leapt out of our cars and rushed in. Out hearts were pounding as we tried to hold the calf away from her mother – she was amazingly strong – she knocked several people over, and it eventually took five of us to hold her steady. Others wrapped tow ropes from a truck around her mother, and a combination of horsepower and manpower pulled her onto her side so her breathing could stabilise.
The vet examined the calf, and found her leg was badly broken. He felt it would heal, but the risk was slow spreading infection in the bone. The vet gave her a life saving injection of antibiotics, and with relief, we watched as mother and calf were reunited.
The months of working with the Save the Elephants researchers culminated in a true team effort, and we all felt privileged to have played a part in saving that baby elephant.
By Holly Spearing, producer
BBC Wildlife Magazine