It was in the year 2014 that National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence and wildlife conservationists Beverly and Dereck Joubert came across the skulls of two male elephants with their ivory intact in Selinda Spillway, a river linked to the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Though the two were sad that such magnificent beasts were no longer alive, the presence of their tusks meant that they hadn’t met their end due to poaching, which is a major threat faced by elephants across the world, especially in Africa. This discovery encouraged them to travel down the Spillway by a canoe, and trace the life of the two male elephants and understand the essence of the largest and one of the most intelligent mammals on earth. Their 50-minute-documentary Soul of the Elephant, which was screened at the fourth edition of Woodpecker International Film Festival in New Delhi, captures this quest. The same has won the award for Best Wildlife Film at the New York Wild Film Festival this year and was officially selected as the Best Feature documentary at the Beijing Film Festival.
“Elephants share many of our traits. They have the ability to use sounds to communicate in what can only be called a language and show signs of empathy and altruism. Most animals live in the present, but elephants have memory, and use it to forecast where they will go in the future just like we do. What they don’t have is our special capacity to kill for fun, to be cruel or evil,” says 60-year-old Dereck, who lives with with Beverly, 59, in Duba Plains, Okavango Delta. They made the documentary over a period of two years.
The struggle of a calf to stand moments after its birth while its mother encourages it, the panic which the elephant herd goes through when a little one is lost in the overflowing river and the sadness when a herd encounters the skull of a matriarch are some moments captured by the conservationist duo in their camera.
Capturing these moments, however, wasn’t an easy task. The couple had to stay out in the wild for weeks, managing their supplies on their own. Also, initially the elephants would charge at them around every bend in the river. However, by constantly following the herds, they were finally able to win their trust and shoot the documentary.
The couple, winners of eight Emmy awards, also made the film because they wanted people to understand what exactly they were losing when an elephant is poached for ivory. “To understand the value of elephants alive rather than dead is our job,” says Dereck, who feels that destruction of ivory by burning it sends out a strong message to the ivory dealers that tusks are not commodities for sale. He also stresses on the importance of the community to understand the need to connect and protect these creatures.
For their next, the duo is working on the film Soul of the Cat with National Geographic, which is based on the evolution of the domestic cat.