A baby “desert elephant” has been filmed learning how to use mud as “sunscreen” following rare rainfall in the harsh climate of its typically arid home.
The clip shows a group of desert elephants in the southern African nation of Namibia enjoying the unusually wet conditions, cooling down in mud and pools of water. But aside from the fun, the rain has also provided an opportunity for the newborn calf to learn a valuable lesson.
The video is taken from an upcoming National Geographic documentary series “Secrets of the Elephants”—narrated by actress Natalie Portman—which premieres on April 21, 2023. The series travels the world, exploring the complex emotions, strategic thinking and dynamic culture of elephants.
Desert elephants have made their home in the Namib desert—an arid region located in the northwest of the country. This is probably the toughest place on Earth to be an elephant.
These elephants are not a genetically distinct species but are instead African bush elephants (Loxodonta africana) that have adapted to the arid climate.
In this land of extremes, the elephants have passed down from generation to generation, which has helped them to stay alive through periods of drought, sandstorms, and, in rare cases, even floods.
“The most fascinating thing about elephant life is how adaptable these incredible animals are,” Kenyan wildlife conservationist, elephant expert and National Geographic Explorer, Paula Kahumbu told Newsweek.
But despite their unique adaptations, the population of desert elephants in Namibia is at risk of extinction, with only approximately 150 individuals remaining. There is only one other population of desert elephants in the world, which lives in the West African nation of Mali.
And elephants around the globe are facing several threats ranging from climate change and habitat destruction to poaching and conflict with humans.
“I am very concerned about the future of elephants. I found that everywhere we went they were in peril. In Namibia, elephant rangelands are disappearing. And elephants and humans are in conflict. Many elephants are being killed as a result of the conflict,” said Kahumbu, who is featured in the film.
“The desert elephants are in grave danger with only 150 left and global climate change making it even more difficult for these elephants to survive. If we don’t do something, I predict we will lose desert elephants within my lifetime.”
In the video clip, which is taken from the “Desert” episode, the newborn elephant can be seen learning how to cover itself in mud, following the lead of its elders. These elephants use mud as a natural sunscreen to protect their skin from harmful ultraviolet light.
“For the newborn and her family, the rain comes as a welcome relief,” Portman says in the narration of the clip. “At first the mud seems to confuse her. But not for long. When she’s older, the calf will remember this place and that a good coating of mud isn’t just cooling—it’s desert sunscreen.”
“The elephants drink as much as they can, however they can. It’ll be six months before our little calf learns to use the 40,000 muscles that control her trunk. Eventually it’ll be as familiar to her as an arm is to us. But for now, it’s one step at a time.”
Kahumbu said there were several aspects of elephant behavior that she learned in the making of the series that she was not expecting.
For example, she observed elephants in Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou National Park coming down cliffs using their trunks as a tool.
“I’ve seen elephants do all kinds of things with their trunks, but I’ve never seen them using it as a tool to test the ground in front of them, and make sure that it’s a firm ground that they can walk on. So that I found really, really amazing,” she said.
“In the rainforest, I expected to see elephants easily—and we didn’t. They were very, very hard to find. We set up camera traps to find them and we put them in different parts of the forest. They would find the camera traps and they would destroy them. In a way it revealed that they could sense them, they smelt them—they knew they were from humans, and they would just smash them. That was a big surprise for me. I’d never imagined it wasn’t just a one-off.”
The conservationist also said elephants have advanced communication skills that we cannot interpret as humans.
“It’s not like a lion that roars and you can hear it roaring. When elephants communicate with each other, they do it in a language and in a voice that we can’t hear,” she said.
“But they can actually communicate meaning in words to each other. And that will cause them to do various things. That’s one of the most fascinating things about elephants is their communication—their ability to communicate and to navigate these incredibly treacherous landscapes so effectively as a team.”
In a way, she said their ability to communicate “far supersedes” anything we can do as humans.
But despite the documentary series revealing some of the more fascinating aspects of elephant behavior, Kahumbu said she has real concerns about the future of these incredible animals.
“One of the most difficult things for me as an ecologist was to go to so many different incredible places and see that everywhere we went, elephants were in peril,” she said. “In every single location, elephants were under pressure. It was very upsetting and difficult at times to appreciate how much pressure these elephants are all under.”
“Secrets of the Elephants” premieres Friday, April 21, on National Geographic, and will be available the next day on Disney+.
Do you have an animal or nature story to share with Newsweek? Do you have a question about elephants? Let us know via email@example.com.