Natural World (1983–…): Season 27, Episode 9 - Natural World - full transcript

Polar - and grizzly bears are rather similar, opportunist omnivore mammals and the largest land carnivores. However the polar bear gave up hibernating, and is forced south by the warming climate, which causes the vital ice to melt, and allows grizzlies to expand north. So now their diets and hunting grounds overlap, with each-other and with humans - they even roam in towns. Life has grown even harder for polar bears, especially in summer.

Are you wondering how healthy the food you are eating is? Check it -
the Namib Desert in southwest Africa.

"Namib" means vast.

It's 1,600 kilometres long,

50,000 kilometres square.

The Namib is the oldest desert on Earth.

It's the harshest place in the world
for elephants to live.

And 25 years ago,
out of a herd of 80 desert elephants,

poachers killed all but three.

Now large-scale poaching has ended,

the herd is recovering,

and two young calves
have just been born.

Their first six months will be critical,

as each calf learns
the secrets of survival

among the searing sands.

It's May, the cold, dry season
in Namibia.

In the Hoarusib Valley,
several families gather to feed.

One mother is particularly hungry.

Four months ago,
Broken Tusk had a new calf, Dusty.

He's always after milk.

Dusty is Broken Tusk's first calf
for eight years.

Desert elephants have only half as many
calves as their Savanna cousins,

and they may suckle for twice as long.

The family appear to enjoy
their new member.

Dusty's relatives will do all they can
to prevent him getting into any trouble.

Youngsters are
even more welcome than usual

because of a recent death in the group.

This is Rosa, the oldest member.

She's just lost her elder daughter,
who died within days of giving birth.

In her late 50s,
she's unlikely to have any more calves.

Rosa is attempting something
elephants don't normally do.

She's trying to raise
her dead daughter's son, Himba.

She's adopted the orphan.

Luckily, she can give him milk

because she's still feeding
a seven-year-old daughter.

Rosa's milk is vital

because at two weeks,
Himba can't cope with solids.

He can't eat grass, so Himba is
totally dependent on his grandmother.

The challenge is to guide
the new youngsters safely

through the next six months.

By then, the two calves will
have to be strong enough

to endure the long treks
that take desert elephants

to their next source of food.

For now, the leaders can
let the calves play,

but in a short time, they will guide
the youngsters on journeys

that will test them to the limit.

The lead females take the herd

on short trips
into the surrounding hills to forage.

Exceptionally, the desert is in bloom.

Any young born now
are enjoying ideal conditions.

A miraculous transformation
has taken place.

Five months ago, deluges
in distant mountains unleashed torrents.

For the first time in 3@ years,

the floods brought
dried-up rivers back to life.

The rivers create corridors
dotted with waterholes.

While they can, Rosa and Broken Tusk
search for food up and down the river.

The adults can last
four or five days without water,

but the calves must drink every day.

Himba is on a steep learning curve.

He hasn't yet managed to fill his trunk.

He drinks with his mouth instead.

Four-month-old Dusty has learnt
by copying the adults.

He can already fill his trunk.

The older elephants can suck 10 to
15 litres into their trunks each time.

They empty the contents
straight down their throat.

Water alone won't keep Himba alive.

To grow, he depends on milk
rich in fat and vitamins.

The tiny orphan relies on the milk
left over once Rosa's daughter has fed.

At the same time, unusually,
Dusty is on double rations.

He's drinking milk from both his mother
and his elder sister.

As males, Dusty and Himba should grow

faster and larger
than their female relatives.

Dusty certainly has an appetite.

If he sees his elder sister
suckling her own calf,

he'll try to prevent her.

He's able to feed much more than Himba.

Dusty can look forward
to drinking milk for years.

At least one of his relatives is
still suckling at the age of seven.

Rosa and Broken Tusk will do
everything they can

to give their offspring
the best chance of survival.

The small families need
every extra member they can raise.

At the moment, however,

the calves keep this part of the herd
tied to the watercourse

and its dwindling pools.

Only 10 kilometres away,
there are other members of the herd.

Leading them is Left Fang,
named after her plunging tusk.

She too is raising a family,
but her calves are older.

The adolescents can traverse
more difficult terrain

and they can undertake longer journeys.

They travel constantly
from food to isolated food,

pausing occasionally to take on water.

Unhindered by young,

Left Fang is free to seek out
the individual plants

that provide important carbohydrate
and much-needed vitamins and minerals.

To fuel their immense bodies,

elephants spend
some 16 hours out of 24 eating.

They need food more often than water,

up to 136 kilos every day.

Left Fang knows
when each food is at its best.

She has brought the others
to browse on conifera.

The woody shrub contains a sugary sap,
the scented resin known as myrrh.

She handles the tough stems with ease,

wielding 40,000 muscles
in her massive trunk.

Down below at the riverbed,

Rosa and the others
are still able to graze,

but the grasses and flowers
from the big flood won't last long.

This year there is
so much food and water

that unusually, the desert elephants
can spare energy to play and spar.

A visitor arrives unseen.

Initially, the herd remains
oblivious to his presence.

This is the first time the calves
have ever seen such a large bull.


Dusty is alarmed.

His relatives rush to reassure him.

Tiny Himba moves closer to Rosa.

The big male leads
a separate, solitary life.

He appears only occasionally,
when he wants to mate.

He is looking for a receptive female.

The mature bull shows
all the signs of being in must,

the time when he is sexually active.

But none of the herd is on heat.

Suddenly, he senses another male nearby,
also in must.

He is at his most aggressive,
so he gives chase.

The newcomer doesn't want to fight,

but the big bull will pursue him
to make sure.

The group moves on
in search of richer vegetation.

The tamarisk trees along the banks
are too bitter and salty.

The youngsters' constant thirst confines
the hungry group to the narrow riverbed.

In the hills above,
where more food grows,

the 50-degree heat is
too much for the calves.

Left Fang and the others
protect themselves with dust.

Elephants can't sweat.

They seek out
even the smallest hint of shade.

What they do now was thought
to be a myth.

Every 20 minutes or so,
Left Fang's group spray themselves down.

They're cooling the blood vessels
that cover their ears.

But up here, there are no springs
or streams to provide water.

Remarkably, Left Fang's group
are filling their trunks

from hidden pouches in their throats.

This has rarely been seen,
and never filmed before.

But the heat is drying them out.

They're losing
several litres of water an hour.

The family won't be able
to spend a second day up here.

At last, night brings
the animals respite.

Dawn at the riverbed.

Rosa's surviving daughter is
waking a sleepy Himba.

He's basking in her attention
and the warmth of a new day.

The seven-year-old aunt
gently readies her nephew.

She gives him a dusting of sunscreen.

She can't feed him, but young females
often mother small calves.

As Himba is an orphan, his aunt's
efforts are even more valuable.

Dusty is already up and raring to go.

Along the riverbed,

the elephants are finding it harder
to locate palatable vegetation.

Rosa and Broken Tusk take
the entire group

off towards the nearby slopes

to look for the woody species
they prefer.

Left Fang and her relatives are
well-fed and restored

after a night high in the mountains.

They are making
straight for the river again.

Her family learn the routes from her.

The older they grow,
the more complex are their mental maps.

Theirs is the more typical life
of a nomad.

Once at the river,

Left Fang's family makes up for
the day in the desiccating sun.

But with little suitable forage
to be had, they won't stay.

After a bout of friendly sparring,
Left Fang's family will set off again.

On their way to distant food,

they come across the corpse
of another elephant.

The bare skull lies separate
from the skin-covered body.

From the smell, Left Fang can
probably recognise the remains.

It is what is left of Himba's mother.

The find fascinates them.

Himba was just a few days old
when she died.

His grandmother is
the only mother he's ever known.

Elephants often linger,
smelling and touching the bones.

It's one of the things
that make them seem so human.

Twenty kilometres away, Rosa's group is
still hampered by the two young calves.

Himba is hot, thirsty,
and above all, hungry.

He won't be able to eat even grass
till he's at least three months.

At six weeks, he remains entirely
dependent on his adoptive mother.

His real mother would keep her son
within trunk reach,

in the shade of her body,
and she would feed him every half hour.

Rosa must eat,

as she is struggling to breastfeed
two calves at the same time.

The little calf is
doing his best to stay near.

Himba needs 15 litres of milk each day.

He manages to snatch
only a few mouthfuls.

Rosa seems reluctant to suckle him.

He's desperate for more.

Himba is completely confused.

Without milk, he won't last long.

The calf's instinctive efforts to suckle
lead only to rejection.

Now the undersized orphan looks
frightened of Rosa.

For some reason, the aged female
can't make enough milk.

She may not be finding enough food
or her teeth may be worn out.

Himba can only trail beside her,
hoping the supply will return.

It's now August, two months on.

At one of the few remaining wallows,
Dusty's family are playing excitedly.

Dusty has more than enough energy.

Himba has no strength to play.

The others make the most
of the plentiful water.

Normally, it would have
vanished months ago.

A few weeks later,
there is a sudden change.

Searing blasts scorch the land.

The usual wind from the south
is giving way to winds from the east

across the blazing Kalahari.

In a short time, the greenery
in the inland oases will shrivel.

Rosa, Broken Tusk and Left Fang
face life-or-death decisions

that will affect their whole families.

when should they leave?
Where should they go?

Which is the best course,
with the lives of youngsters at stake?

Each leader will make
a different choice.

High on a plateau, Left Fang
is the first to sense the threat.

Her response will be swift.

She will hurry her family towards cool
and shelter down at the coast.

There are no small calves
to slow them down.

They leave at once.

This is no light undertaking.

Even though her family are
all fit and well,

the arduous journey will take
at least five days.

Left Fang must gamble on her experience

to guide her family
across arid, strength-sapping terrain.

Down at the dry riverbed,

Himba is now so hungry
he's chewing on thorn pods.

For Rosa, the choice of when to leave
and where to go

is not so simple.

Try as he may, Himba can
barely obtain any nourishment.

His grandmother's milk is
slowly drying up.

He really needs his dead mother.

But Rosa is still trying to suckle
her daughter as well.

In frustration, Himba pushes
the competition away.

But he manages only a few extra drops,

and his victory is short-lived.


Until the calf is stronger,
the family are unable to move on.

But the more Rosa feeds Himba,
the less there is for her own daughter.

Rosa is caught in a dilemma.

Dusty's aunts are
all over him with help.

If he's too small to mount an obstacle,
they give him a hand.

Broken Tusk will risk
a long dash to safety,

but she won't leave until she's certain
Dusty is up to the challenge.

Left Fang's family are
already 40 kilometres away now,

two days into their journey.

Downriver, the sand beneath
the sun-baked surface is much cooler.

This will help them endure
the burning valleys bare of shade.

The elephants browse
on occasional bushes.

The thin vegetation gives
Left Fang's family

temporary relief from their hunger.

Nearer the coast,
there's water below and above ground.

The smell draws other animals,
prey and predators.

Baboons are opportunists.

They'll eat small mammals or insects,
eggs or even grass.

They soon spot a chance.

Newly hatched chicks
behind a pair of Egyptian geese.


For all the birds' bravery,
there's no contest.

Their attackers are 10 times as heavy
and much stronger.

Both parents try to head off
the baby-snatchers,

but they can't protect every gosling.

Finally, a thief seizes one.

The parents try to locate any survivors.

At least one got away.

It's the youngest that are
the most at risk in any species.

By September,
in the rapidly drying interior,

Rosa's family are reduced
to the last spiny bushes.

Himba is still too young
to gain strength from the meagre fibres.

Rosa herself is increasingly
short of energy.

The undernourished youngster
gains little from his grandmother.

The small amount of milk that remains
has precious little fat and nutrients.

The bones in his forehead are showing.

Himba is growing weaker and weaker.

None of the others have
the commitment a real mother would.

The orphan's efforts to feed
are increasingly in vain.

Rosa's attempt to save her grandson

may be putting the rest
of the family's lives at risk.

He is so small, none of them
can travel to better grazing.

Rosa knows where she wants to head to,

but the journey could kill Himba.

Their five-day march completed,

Left Fang's family can enjoy the cooler
surroundings of the coastal dunes.

They're locating the foods
they crave at this time of year.

This makes
their extraordinary journey worthwhile.

Here, lush tree foliage is
within easy reach.

Left Fang's family can relax.

with some plants, they love the roots.

with dwarf palms, only found here,

they particularly relish
the tender bark.

Left Fang has made sure
her family's needs are met.

They are safe, watered
and at full strength again.

The family can regroup
before their next great journey.

In the interior, Rosa is under pressure.

She can smell rain upriver,
over 100 kilometres away.

Fresh pasture might give her
enough milk to restore Himba,

but they need to reach it within days.

Dusty's family is on the move, too.

Broken Tusk seizes the moment.

She knows an area where extremely
rich food is about to become available.

The coming 48 hours will face Dusty

with the hardest test
of his life so far.

To reach the new food involves
a marathon trek 7@ kilometres long,

south beyond a mountain ridge,
into the next major river valley.

Further inland, Himba has
barely moved from the river.

The surrounding vegetation is
no longer edible.

They have to leave as soon as possible.

Rosa and her daughter know that
if the infant doesn't get up quickly,

he may become too weak to rise again.

They want to keep him moving.

They lead him towards a mud hole.

The others wallow.

They coat themselves in mud
as a protection from the sun.

Himba has run out of strength.

Rosa and her daughter
won't leave the calf,

but without food, they can't stay
at the waterhole any longer.

Once more, his family rally round
to get him going again.

It's all too much for Himba.

Seventy kilometres south,
Dusty is within sight of success.

After a whole day and two nights
on the move,

the longest Dusty has ever walked,

his efforts are about to be rewarded.

For a short time,
a delicacy lies on the ground here.

The ana trees are dropping their seeds.

The pods are packed with goodness.

For Dusty, milk from his mother
and his older sister

enabled him to reach fresh food.

His family's unique
double-suckling strategy is paying off.

Dusty's newfound stamina takes
the pressure off the whole family.

Back at the dry riverbed
as November comes,

Rosa can still smell rain to the east.

She's desperate to head there
in search of fresh food.

She has decided they must set out,

despite Himba's weakened state.

Himba has collapsed, exhausted.

Lying next to him,
his aunt tries to rouse him.

Without her help, his chances
of getting up again are slim.

Himba's aunt becomes
increasingly concerned, frantic even,

as he fails to respond.

The lack of milk is taking a cruel toll.

Yet if they can lead Himba
to a new grazing area,

he might get more.

Finally, the pair help him
struggle to his feet.

How long and how far the small calf
can keep going, they do not know.

Rosa and his aunt have ignored
their own need to eat for too long.

Himba's weakness and their persistence
have put their lives in danger.

Himba has not been seen since.

At the coast, Left Fang's family are
attracting attention

from a male in must.

Fresh and cool, full of their favourite
palms and bushes,

Left Fang and her family are
in prime breeding condition,

and one of the females may even be
carrying the herd's next calf.

For the survivors
of the poaching holocaust,

each calf that lives helps
rebuild this herd.

Dusty is now strong enough to master
the routes and routines

that will continue down the generations.

It's this knowledge and experience,
gathered over many lifetimes,

combined with exceptional endurance,

that is giving these elephant nomads
their second chance.