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Bob Poole Still Finds Surprises After Decades of Filming Wildlife
No one complains when it rains in African countries as they know it’s such a lifeblood, Poole said. But film crews risk flash floods and getting stuck. PHOTO: Gina Poole
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Sunday, April 2, 2023


Ketchum cinematographer Bob Poole has been filming elephants and other wild animals since his late teens.

But he still finds himself surprised now and then.

Such was the case recently as he filmed “Secrets of the Elephants,” a four-part National Geographic Wild and Disney+ mini-series that will premiere April 22 on Earth Day.

Poole recounted for a Salon audience at the Sun Valley Film Festival, which concludes today, how he was getting ready to film one part of the mini-series in a Namibian desert, which is considered the toughest place on earth to be an elephant. They had found the desert’s last remaining elephants and had just finished setting up cameras when pandemonium ensued. He immediately pushed the record button, capturing the birth of a baby elephant.

“It was so hot in the desert, so hard on the equipment, that all I could do was hope that nothing was going to go wrong with the camera,” said Poole, who screened the segment Saturday afternoon to a turnaway audience at the festival. “And, in my excitement, I had to remember to hold shots for eight seconds. But I filmed the baby, the activity around it, the crazy stuff happening.”

It’s rare to film the birth of a baby elephant, said Poole, who had seen just two elephant births in decades of being around the big creatures. Elephants carry their young for 22 months, and there’s no baby bump to tell you that they’re pregnant.

“Following the baby, I was thinking it wouldn’t survive, that it wouldn’t be big enough to keep up. They went on this march walking 45 kilometers in the hot sun and I thought no way is it going to survive. But two days later they got their first rain in eight years---and the baby became the first to survive there in eight years,” he said.

The segment, narrated by Natalie Portman, features stunning cinematography of sand dunes and other aspects of the harsh environment, which Poole said is experiencing more pronounced droughts followed by “epic crazy rains.”

Giant elephant feet wading through the sands adds a dinosaur-like dimension to the series, which also will feature elephants in the Savannah, Asia and Rainforest.

Poole grew up in Africa without a TV or opportunity to go to the movies. But his father, a conservationist, was a good photographer and his parents went on frequent birding and other excursions.

Poole inherited his father’s camera at 17 when his father died in a car accident. His sister Joyce, who became a renowned elephant researcher, pooh-poohed his initial photographs. But Poole became acquainted with a National Geographic crew when a helicopter pilot invited him to fly along.

And he soon decided filming rhinos was more exciting than his agricultural studies at university. He came to Ketchum to work for Jim Dutcher filming wolves in the Sawtooth Mountains. Then he pitched a story to National Geographic in 1991 about his sister Joyce who started her career collecting elephant urine.

It was a dangerous job, he said, as the urine dries up quickly meaning she had to get close to the two-ton beasts who could have easily crushed her. Joyce Poole went on to identify 200-plus vocal and physical expressions elephants use to communicate with one another.

One of Bob Poole’s scariest moments came in 2011 as he was making “War Elephants.” Ninety percent of elephants in Gorongosa National Park had been killed for ivory and meat during civil war and those that remained were traumatized, knocking over cars and scaring the people that lived there.

Poole built a metal frame on a Land Rover that he thought would protect him against charging elephants.

“Our job was to convince elephants we came in peace,” he said.

At first, the elephants would charge the vehicle, stopping before they caused any damage. But when Poole had to make a detour in brush to get around a tree that elephants had knocked across road, two females charged. One stopped. Then suddenly it lowered its head and slammed into the front so hard that a tire blew off the Land Rover.

The elephant backed off, then hit the vehicle again between the headlights. The remainder of the evening was tense as Poole had to jack up the car to put the tire on, but he made it back to camp safely.

Another memorable moment came as he filmed elephants in the Sahara in for “Great Migrations.” Suddenly a giant wall of sand 2,000 feet high turned blue sky to total darkness. Poole jumped into the bed of the pickup and the footage is now a classic National Geographic YouTube moment.

“They said they hadn’t had a National Geographic moment like that for a long time,” said Poole.

Poole and his wife Gina have spent three months following a mother cheetah. But, asked to pick his favorite animal to shoot, he always circles back to elephants.

“Elephants are special because they’re like us in so many ways. They live long lives, they care for their family. They’re so powerful yet so gentle. And they’re tolerant of us,” he said. "Elephants are smart--they can figure out quickly whether you're a threat or not."

Part of a matriarchal clan, elephants care about one another. They don’t communicate with strange elephants but get very excited when they see one of their own. And, while the mother provides milk, babysitting is shared by the others. What keeps the desert elephants alive in temperatures rising to 120 degrees is a masterful memory that has an atlas-like recollection of the desert.

Poole said his filmmaking started with film but has evolved to high definition to 4K and 8K photography. He uses gimbal stabilizers while driving. And he puts a 4K camera with a wide-angle lens on a crane he designed for the Land Rover with a spring-load arm to take the shock out of driving over rough terrain.

“We use a lot of drone photography, but we can’t get close to elephants with drones—they don’t like them,” he said. “But they don’t care about the crane.”

Poole said he spends enough times watching the animals that he films that he can predict what they’re going to do next.

“Filming’s not so much about a huge amount of patience but rather an incredible challenge. Time stands still. I’m truly present and in the moment.”


The 2024 Sun Valley Film Festival is being pushed forward a month. It will run Feb. 28-March 3, 2024.


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