How many filmmakers come from a background as a game warden in an African national park as well as being a passionate advocate for wildlife protection? Simon Trevor is a unique case. After moving from England to Africa with his family in 1946, he got the filmmaking bug at 15 when he received his first 8mm film camera. After leaving his position as game warden at the Tsavo National Park in 1959, he focused solely on filmmaking that raised awareness of the plight facing Africa’s wildlife, especially elephants. He worked as cinematographer for the popular BBC series On Safari (1957-1965) featuring Armand and Michaela Denis, pioneers in the field of wildlife television documentation, and later assisted Sydney Pollack and Michael Apted as a second unit cameraman on their films Out of Africa (1985) and Gorillas in the Mist (1988). Trevor’s own work is not as well known but deserves to be and a good place to start is his 1971 debut documentary The African Elephant, which was retitled King Elephant in some markets.
Written, directed and photographed by Trevor with narration by actor David Wayne, The African Elephant is educational, entertaining and perfectly suitable for family viewing in the manner of a Walt Disney True-Life Adventure documentary like Bear Country (1953) or White Wilderness (1958) but less contrived and cutesy in its attempts at humor. There is an occasional tendency to ascribe human characteristics to animal behavior in order to make the subject more accessible such as a scene where baby elephants wallow in the muddy marshland as the narrator remarks, “What child can resist a puddle of mud?” There is also a maudlin closing ballad entitled “Rain Falls Anywhere It Wants To” performed by Michael Dees and written by the famous Oscar-winning song writing team of Alan and Marilyn Bergman (“The Way We Were,” “The Windmills of Your Mind”). This is not one of their better efforts but the music score by Laurence Rosenthal is mostly effective and not obtrusive.
For the most part, The African Elephant is a strikingly photographed document of animal behavior in remote areas of East Africa where we follow the developmental stages from birth to adulthood of not just elephants but also the wildebeest, the cheeta, the lion and other creatures who may be rapidly facing extinction today. One of the strangest of all is the whale-headed stork aka the shoebill, which looks like some bizarre relic from the prehistoric era.
Photographed on location in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, The African Elephant opens with a lovely montage of animals awakening to the dawn at Mount Marsabit in Kenya, a densely forested region with three crater lakes and surrounded by desert. We are introduced to the Mighty Ahmad, probably Kenya’s most famous elephant who was placed in protective custody in 1970 by the former president of Kenya. This meant he was allowed to roam free in his region under the watch of two armed guards at all times to protect him from poachers. Ahmad lived to be 55 years old and died a natural death but Trevor’s documentary barely touches on Ahmad’s story and uses him as an introduction to the often wonderous and awe-inspiring life of elephants in the wild.
Did you know that elephants form a matriarchal society which is usually led by the oldest member, the grandmother? Males usually leave at age 15 and wander solo on their own, leaving the females to do the child rearing. A 22-month pregnancy is routine for most child-bearing females and a baby usually weighs about 240 pounds at birth and consumes up to 7 quarts of mother’s milk a day. What is most fascinating is how elephants often interact with other species in the food gathering process. For example, when acacia trees bear fruit, baboons invade their branches and extract the seeds to eat but toss the pulp to the ground where the elephants consume the leftovers. Later the baboons will even pick through elephant dung to get any seeds they missed. Then, of course, the dung beetles finish the process. It’s one of the perfect co-dependent, mutually beneficial relationships in the African wilds.
Another example is the relationship between the elephants and the oxpeckers, birds that roost on the tusks or backs of the large animals and pick off the lice, ticks and other parasites that live in the skin and hair. Yes, it’s all about eating, which is survival at its most basic, and it travels in a never-ending circle where nothing is wasted. A gazelle is stalked and eaten by a lion, hyenas and vultures devour the remains and later a leopard raids a vulture nest for its eggs. All of this is captured on camera by Trevor and makes human society and consumption look extraordinarily wasteful in comparison.
This is the crux of Trevor’s approach – to inspire an appreciation for African wildlife and encourage viewers to support causes that protect them. Although there is no sermonizing or message mongering in The African Elephant, Trevor’s later work would be more proactive and environmentally focused in its intent. Bloody Ivory (1978), a BAFTA nominee for Best Documentary, depicts the struggle in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park where poachers kill elephants and rhinos illegally and park rangers are left with trying to raise the dead animal’s orphans. And Trevor’s 2013 documentary short, White Gold, is an expose of the modern day ivory trade and its devastating effect on Africa.
Already many of the animals depicted in The African Elephant are becoming endangered species and who knows what will be left 25 years from now? Trevor’s documentary may end up as a record of the past and what used to exist in Kenya instead of what should have been. In an interview he gave shortly after the premiere of White Gold, Trevor stated, “Steadily over the years elephants have gone down in numbers. Since 1979 the scientists say that 900.000 elephants have been killed for their ivory. Quite frankly, the demand now from the East, primarily from China, from Vietnam, Thailand and that’s because those economies are growing… More and more people can afford to buy ivory and this could mean the end of the elephant, if this is not stopped at the present rate. I believe it will be stopped. This time around it’s much more serious because there’s less elephants and more demand.”
The African Elephant concludes with a haunting sequence in which a herd of elephants encounter the bones of a deceased tusker. After pondering the discovery, some of the herd remove the remains and cart the bones off to scatter elsewhere in some private place. Stories about elephant graveyards and their stockpile of ivory tusks are a myth. The truth is actually stranger and more mysterious.
Where can you purchase a copy of The African Elephant? Nowhere it seems. There are no DVD or Blu-ray options in the U.S. but you might be able to still stream a viewable copy (taken from a beat up, scratched print) on the Cave of Forgotten Films website. You can also view Bloody Ivory on Youtube.
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