Tuesday, June 22, 2021
Bob Poole Chronicles ‘Life at the Waterhole’
An impala at the waterhole. PHOTO: www.poolefilms.com
Sunday, May 16, 2021


If office life revolves around the water cooler, life in Africa revolves around the waterhole.

These depressions, which collect water, are vital to elephants, lions, leopards and hundreds of other species, which meet and compete for the water these oases provide.

But little has been known about the role they play. Until now.

Bob Poole prepares to head into the busy at the Mwiba Reserves during wet season. PHOTO: Clare Jones

Recently, PBS and the BBC Studios Natural History Unit collaborated with the Mwiba Wildlife Reserve and local Hadzbe and Maasai communities in Tanzania to build a waterhole at the southern tip of the Serengeti with a built-in specialist camera rig. They outfitted the waterhole with partially submerged and weather-proof cameras.

The footage they captured is contained in “Life at the Waterhole,” a new three-part series that will air Wednesdays on PBS from May 19 through June 2.

“We’re talking amazing off-the-charts photography,” said Ketchum photographer Bob Poole, who was both behind the camera and in front of it. “We had a concrete bunker so you could stand there at eye level right next to water buffalo elephants and giraffes. For the most part, they waited their turn for water. It was amazing to be so close as they drank.”

The waterhole was built in an area where there’s been conflict between wildlife over water and between humans and wildlife over water at nearby wells. Workers excavated 100 tons of soil, laid five miles of fiber optic cable and pumped in 13,000 gallons of sustainable ground water as they completed the project.

Elephants are among the grateful users of the manmade waterhole. PHOTO: Isak Pretorius

The crew then charted the goings-on over a year from the middle of the dry season through the hottest time of the year and the height of the rainy season when the ecosystem is transformed.

Dr. M Sanjayan, CEO of Conservation International, was featured alongside Poole, who is an award-winning wildlife cinematographer.

“The story is really about water, this waterhole and what we learned,” said Poole, who had just spent two hours in his Ketchum garage conducting two hours’ worth of five-minute interviews with TV shows across the country.

Poole said it was remarkable how quickly animals found the waterhole. Within hours of construction, thirsty monkeys and other animals were flocking to the waterhole to drink, jockeying for position.

Bob Poole’s unique vehicle is outfitted with cameras. PHOTO: www.poolefilms.com

The first to come back were the warthogs. That was to be expected, Poole said, because they are curious creatures who watched the waterhole as it was being dug. Once it was done, they jumped right in for a celebratory mud bath.

Elephants were next.

“Elephants have a great sense of smell so they can smell water from a long way,” he said.

In the course of monitoring the waterhole, Sanjayan realized that the animals had a schedule for using the waterhole. Most animals came mid-day during the driest time of year; they came at night when it was hottest.

Sanjayan also used state-of-the-art thermal cameras to record how different animals among them cool down to survive.

Poole set out with Sanjayan on a nighttime stakeout to follow animals in the backcountry. He was able to use a state-of-the-art nighttime camera decommissioned by the military to find a mother lion with the tiniest cubs he’d ever seen.

“They were the size of a housecat,” he said.

While rewarding, the stakeout was difficult and challenging. It meant traveling hours on foot through thorny bush. And it’s not necessarily safe for someone to be out in the bush like that at night.

“She did manage to keep the cubs alive throughout our filming,” he said.

Poole was also mesmerized by a big male cat who was alone, which meant he had lost his mates.

“He was chased out by two younger brothers. He couldn’t hold the line against these two young males.”

Poole grew up in Kenya where his father worked in the Peace Corps. He got his start filming wildlife at 17 when his father got him a summer job on a wildlife reserve and a National Geographic film crew took him under their wing.

He moved in Sun Valley nearly 40 years ago to work with Jim Dutcher on a film about the Sawtooth wolf pack and has since won various awards, including an Emmy, on projects for PBS, BBC and National Geographic.

He wrapped this shoot up in February 2020 just before the world shut down due to COVID. He got home to Ketchum, but his camera gear is still in Kenya where he had left it for another yet-undone project.

“We hope that scientists will gain a greater understanding of the role of water in Africa in the face of climate change as a result of what we’ve done here,” he said.


  • Wednesday, May 19—This episode shows the creation of the waterhole and shows how tensions arise between the two biggest drinkers—the elephants and cape buffalo.
  • Wednesday, May 26—This features Poole and Sanjayan heading into the bush to learn more about hyenas. A count reveals larger numbers than they ever imagined.
  • Wednesday, June 2—As the rains fall, the area transforms into a lush grazing pasture. Sanjayan and Poole follow hyenas and other animals as they spread out across the landscape. Giraffes mate and a great migration of wildebeest head towards the reserve, potentially upsetting life as we know it at the waterhole.


Sanjayan holds a master’s degree from the University of Oregon and a doctorate from the University of California-Santa Cruz. He is a visiting researcher at UCLA and a professor at Arizona State University. He has hosted more than a dozen documentaries for PBS, BBC, National Geographic, Discovery and Showtime.


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