Originally created 05/08/99

Theater to feature life of elephant family



WASHINGTON -- The angry elephant towers six stories above you, ears flared as she charges, her bellowing so loud you can feel it.

That heart-stopping moment awaits visitors to the new giant-screen IMAX theater, opening next week at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.

Opening the new theater is "Africa's Elephant Kingdom," a Discovery Channel film documenting a year in the life of a family of elephants in Kenya.

A matriarch leads the group. They depend on her memory to find food and water in different seasons, and she guides life in the family.

And it's she who defends them, risking her life to threaten intruders as she charges to drive them off.

"It was a charge to end all charges," said film consultant Iain Douglas-Hamilton, driving a truck with the film crew in the back as the elephant charged.

She was quicker than Douglas-Hamilton expected and caught the truck with her tusks on either side of the camera before he was able to speed up and escape.

Eventually, however, the crew was accepted by an elephant family.

"The greatest compliment they would pay was to ignore us," said Douglas-Hamilton. "We seldom walked with elephants because that's dangerous, but we did a lot of very close-up work from cars and they seemed to recognize our smell."

That family lived in Amboseli Park, while the elephants who charged the filmmakers were Tsavo Park.

Ivory hunters have killed many elephants in Tsavo in recent years, and Douglas-Hamilton concluded that the survivors seem to fear and hate humans.

For the elephant family featured in the film, the annual rains came late, and drought means famine.

Adults use their own huge bodies to shade the babies as the family trudges along in search of sustenance.

When an elephant collapses from starvation, the others try and pull it to its feet, struggling to help, knowing that to stop means to die.

The mother of a dead baby elephant tries to lift her tiny offspring, as though to massage life back to its small body. When that fails, her companions come by, rubbing the mother with their trunks as if in consolation.

Finally the rains return, the elephants wallow in cool mud, and plants grow quickly, providing food. Once again life is good.