Secrets of the Elephants

2023 / National Geographic / Four episodes 

National Geographic’s newly released four-part docuseries, Secrets of the Elephants, streaming on Disney+, takes an in-depth look at the complex behaviors of elephants living in southern Asia and in savannas, rainforests, and the Namib Desert of Africa.

Produced by James Cameron and narrated by Natalie Portman, the series provides a rich, engaging, and cautionary account of these highly imperiled gentle giants. Dr. Paula Kahumbu of WildlifeDirect, who has spent decades studying elephants, serves as primary guide during the series, providing keen insights into elephant society.

Beautiful panoramic and aerial vistas provide a visually compelling backdrop to the narrative, which deftly details the extraordinary and varied challenges that elephants face simply to survive in the modern era—from ivory hunters to angry farmers to climate change. Notwithstanding these difficulties, the viewer can’t help but marvel at the intelligence and adaptability of these enormous creatures—such as the elephant bulls in Thailand who have successfully managed to extract a sugarcane “toll” from truckers passing through with a harvest.

The remarkably strong familial and social bonds that define so much of elephant culture come to the forefront throughout. Seeing the young elephant calves try to find their way in an inhospitable world (under the constant tutelage of their elders)—including the first to survive past six months in the Namib Desert in eight years—provides a heart-wrenching reminder of how close to the precipice so many elephant populations remain. While the series avoids showing graphic and violent footage, the subject of poaching—which has decimated elephant populations—is unavoidable. Here again, the effects on the next generation take center stage—from orphaned toddlers who form a close-knit herd in the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary to the story of Zoe, who incredibly joins and becomes the matriarch of a buffalo herd after losing her entire family to poachers at the age of two.

Like National Geographic’s Secrets of the Whales, released in 2021 to critical acclaim, Secrets of the Elephants showcases its titular mammal in a range of unique habitats to underscore their remarkable abilities and drive to carry on against all odds.

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