This is the story of a unique band of African elephants that relies on a waterhole for survival during one of the driest winters on record. Forced into close proximity by thirst, we follow the friendships and fights, bonds and battles that form when drought hits the elephants of Namibia’s Etosha National Park. In particular the bull elephants’ massive leader is missing and battle for his crown is about to begin.
Monitoring the action is scientist Caitlin O’Connell. She’s spent the last 20 winters at this waterhole, and her studies into elephant communication, body language and vocalisations have made her one of the world’s leading experts in elephant conduct. Her unique ability to read elephants’ minds has led to some remarkable findings – she was the first person to unearth the method of elephant communication through vibrations in the ground and to prove that elephants actually listen to these vibrations with special sensors in their feet and the tips of their trunks.
Now Caitlin’s back, and it’s going to be a challenging season. A year ago a devastating fire swept through Etosha, wiping out entire herds of elephants. Many prominent members of elephant society are missing from Mushara waterhole, among them, presumed dead, is Caitlin’s favourite, the top bull, Greg. With the reigning monarch missing, the post of the Elephant King is up for grabs and this year Caitlin hopes to find out who will rise to the challenge and how the fight for dominance will play out. We follow Caitlin through the dry season as she records the interactions of every elephant that comes to Mushara, day and night.
As the drought wares on, what starts with subtle exchanges between rivals; a swish of the tail, a rising of the trunk, a flap of the ears; soon escalates into full scale fighting as these magnificent titans clash. Musth, the period when male elephants are at their most sexual, is a hormonal state that is normally suppressed by the presence of a dominant bull; now with the top spot vacant, that suppression, that title, and the right to mate with the females, is coming up for grabs. We follow the key male characters; sedate Smokie, teen rebel Ozzie, regal Prince Charles and the mighty Mike throughout the season, as they jostle for supremacy.
Yet where would the king be without his courtiers? In reality, Elephant society is ruled by the family, and under the guidance of the matriarch each family has its own character: The Athletes, a family ruled by matriarch Mia, always charge into the waterhole with high energy and spirit; the method of the Actors family under the guidance of Vanessa and Wynonna, is to take centre stage in a more dignified manner; while the warrior clan with Xena at the head always aims for an aggressive takeover of the water trough.
But elephant family life is also being overturned this year; and as the dry season persists it’s the youngest members who suffer most. Prevented from drinking and shunned by the matriarch, for Paula and newborn Bruce in the Athletes family, this dry season may be the last. While Wynonna is considering setting out on her own. While elephants have a reputation as caring, model families, when times are hard many families seem dysfunctional. Only time will tell if all of this year’s calves will survive the drought.
This film follows the stresses and strains of elephant society throughout the Etosha dry season, as they struggle to survive one of the worst droughts on record. Day by day, we interpret the interactions of elephant society by deciphering their body language through the eyes of one of the world’s leading experts as Caitlin O’Connell takes us on a journey deep into the world of Elephant behaviour and the realm of the Elephant King.
A production of Terra Mater Factual Studios and Aqua Vita Films in association with Smithsonian Channel