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Chasing migrations

Liz Bonnin shares her experiences keeping up with nature’s most epic migrations.

You travelled to some fairly extreme locations. What struck you the most about them?

True wildernesses are becoming increasingly rare on the planet, so getting the chance to immerse ourselves in such environments is always very special. I was especially amazed by the arctic landscapes of Canada and Alaska where we filmed the Caribou Migration. For thousands of kilometres there is no infrastructure, there are no roads, telephone poles or buildings, just a vast expanse of stunning mountainous landscape as far as the eye can see, in all directions – and that’s from the air, as it’s the only way to get around.

Just getting to our base for the first part of the shoot was tricky enough. Sheep Creek – made up of two small buildings and a river bank to pitch your tent on - is an old, disused gold mine in Ivvavik National Park, Northwest Canada, that can only be reached by plane. But if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, it’s impossible to land a Twin Otter on the rough little airstrip that ends bluntly with a precipitous cliff edge. Several times during our stay, our resupply plane flew overhead, attempted to land and promptly turned away again, leaving us waving goodbye to its contents. But this is part of the reason why this place feels so untouched. The sheer difficulty of getting there means very few visitors come each year – more people make it to the summit of Everest in fact.

One morning I was dropped off on the top of a mountain so that I could deliver an opening piece to the camera on the helicopter. As it flew away to position itself for the shot – I turned around slowly to take in the extraordinary 360° vista of endless snow capped mountains interspersed with vivid turquoise waterways far below me, with the wind whistling in my ears. I remember my skin tingling at this incredibly beautiful, almost other-worldly sight.

In Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where we rejoined the caribou after they had given birth, we had an entire 78,000km2 of wilderness to choose from to pitch our tents; we just had to find somewhere close enough to the latest GPS locations of our caribou, in the hope that they would cross our path. And here, it felt even wilder. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is almost eight times bigger than Ivvavik and is one of the largest intact ecosystems left on the planet. Once our plane dropped us off, we were left to travel on foot to try to intercept the caribou. We would walk for hours and not see another soul save for a brown bear or Dall sheep scrambling up a mountain side. The sheer space, the unique kind of stillness and the wonderful remoteness of it all will stay with me forever.

Did you have any first time wildlife experiences during filming?

I’d never been in the presence of mating elephants before. We were lucky enough to witness this on an open plain in Samburu National Reserve in Kenya. We had parked our vehicles to do some filming and could see several family groups in the distance making their way out of the tree line towards us. We decided to sit tight and couldn’t believe our luck when we spotted a bull in full musth following a female very closely. The entire group, maybe 20 or 30 strong, stopped in the middle of the clearing and as the musth bull placed his trunk along the top of the female’s back we knew that he was about to mount her. It was a beautiful moment and there was a real energy in the air as all the elephants stood around the mating pair.

Once it was over the ‘mating pandemonium’ began. All the elephants started to trumpet and roar and rumble, ears flapping, with the younger calves running around under foot. This joyous, emotive sight felt like a real celebration – as if the herd were anticipating the arrival of a new family member.

I thought I knew how social elephants were, but I had no idea to what extent they interact in every aspect of their lives – from greeting each other after a separation, to a new birth, to the grieving of their dead. Everything they do is followed by a reinforcement of their relationships, in ways that can only be described as empathic and emotionally intelligent behaviours.

Did you get attached to any of the animals you were following?

We first started learning about a 40 year old bull called Matt from his collaring data. He spends most of his time away from the safety of Samburu National Reserve in Northern Kenya, among highly populated areas, and as a bull of that age it is a wonder he's still alive. His data showed that he was constantly on the move, and seemed to have adopted an effective strategy to avoid poachers and other dangers.

Collaring data can not only tell us where individual animals are, it can also give us an idea of the character of individual elephants through their behaviours – the decisions they make depending on where they are. Some are cautious, some take more risks, others don’t have enough experience to lead a family group and make mistakes.

Even before Matt appeared in the reserve I had developed an admiration for this bull, and when he finally joined a gathering of elephants in Samburu to find a mate – we were all delighted. To set eyes on such a beautiful, healthy older bull was wonderful, not least because there was a conspicuous absence of other males of that age in the reserve.

Once in the reserve Matt moved tirelessly from herd to herd, in an attempt to find a female in oestrus to mate with. I had completely underestimated just how difficult it is for a bull to succeed – a female is only in the perfect condition to mate for a few days and all the elephants were going to be dispersing out of the reserve again soon, so Matt really had his work cut out for him.

When he finally found a suitable female he had lots of younger males to contend with, all chasing this one female across the landscape like a bunch of love struck fools. Even though the younger males had no chance with her, Matt had to spend a lot of his time chasing them off. I couldn’t help but root for this majestic bull, so full of character, chasing off these pesky contenders to secure his mate.

When he finally succeeded, we were so happy for him. But I was saddened by the warning ‘Save the Elephants’ founder Iain Douglas Hamilton gave us as we discussed Matt’s movements one day. He told us that considering his age and magnificent ivories, and the prevailing poaching threats outside the reserve, it could well be the last time that Matt would be seen in Samburu.

Were you ever surprised by what you learned about these migrations?

Just when you think you have an idea of what animals are capable of, scientific advancements allow you to discover yet another extraordinary aspect of their lives. Now that we can track animals in real time and follow them more closely than ever before, we can observe animal behaviour in great detail.

I think I was most surprised by just how resilient caribou are and what they must go through, each and every year, to survive. On their journey to their calving grounds, these animals face so many challenges and obstacles. The starving, pregnant females march tirelessly for hundreds of kilometres in deep snow, climbing vertiginous mountain passes and crossing treacherous rivers filled with boulders of ice that can carry them away in an instant. The yearlings in the herd, making this journey for the first time, seem far too frail to be able succeed and there are starving bears and wolves at every turn, just waiting to pick off individuals. And yet, the caribou make this migration each year, all in the promise of the new cotton grass growth on the calving grounds that will give the mothers and their newborns the best chance of survival.

If that wasn’t enough, once the calves are born, swarms of millions of mosquitoes, capable of asphyxiating an adult caribou, harass the herd throughout late spring and summer – a caribou can lose as much as 300ml of blood a day and miss out on building up precious energy stores as they try to avoid them by staying on the move. I was humbled by what I saw and had a new found respect for a herd animal we might not necessarily think of as having such extraordinary capabilities.