“Hey, Bob, do we know any of these eles?”
At first, I think Gina Poole is joking. It’s sunrise on the Mara Naboisho Conservancy, and I’m standing halfway through the roof of the Pooles’ tricked-out Range Rover. The Pooles are back in Naboisho for the first time since filming their new Big Cat Week documentary Man Among Cheetahs (Monday at 9 ET on Nat Geo WILD), and we’re in search of its stars, the elusive Nabor and her two cubs Murani and Ntito.
Instead, we’ve found elephants—nineteen of them, etched clean against the color-drenched horizon. To my eye, they are majestic, sedate—and 100 percent interchangeable. Peering through my binos, I wonder: have I really seen a dozen herds this weekend, or just the same few over and over?
“Are we going to say hi?” Gina asks, definitely not joking. We pass close to the elephants, stopping briefly to film, but she doesn’t recognize any of them. How, I ask her, can she possibly tell?
The answer lies—as do most things in the Mara—in longevity built on relationships. Bob and his sister Joyce Poole grew up in East Africa; their parents worked for the African Wildlife Foundation. Joyce, an elephant researcher, now directs a conservation nonprofit called ElephantVoices, which maintains an online database of elephant matriarchs. In 2015, when the Pooles were preparing to film Little Giant (also by Nat Geo WILD), Joyce handpicked three possible herds, all Naboisho-locals. On the plane to Kenya, Gina studied the ID cards for each matriarch, paying close attention to notches and divots in the elephants’ ears. In other words, she creeped on elephant social media like a new fiancé before Thanksgiving.
The research paid off. On one of their first days of filming, Gina recognized a matriarch named Pat Derby (after the Hollywood animal rights activist).
“There was a sea of grey bodies, and I just saw this one elephant and was like, ‘I know you!’” she says. “Now, any time I run into elephants, I’m looking to see if it’s anyone I know.”