On a sunny August day, I’m sitting in a boat on the Okavango River in northwestern Botswana. A big bull elephant stands at the edge of the water, using his trunk to pull and slap and feed on river grass. The sun is starting to sink into the acacia and palm trees, as we inch ever-closer to the beast.
We’re 30 feet from the bull, then 25, then 15. He stops eating, wheels around and looks at us for a moment before starting to trod our direction.
“Are you sure this is safe?” someone in the boat asks.
“Yes, yes, we’re fine. He’s just checking us out,” our guide insists, chuckling.
I have never been this close to such an enormous animal. He stares, and I hold my breath, waiting for him to charge. Eventually, he looks back to the grass and the task at hand and we watch him feed — uprooting tufts of grass with his trunk, shaking the excess sand off the roots, and bringing them to his mouth to munch thoughtfully.
Watching the elephant reminds me of the feeling I get when I stand on top of a mountain after a particularly grueling hike. There’s a hint of the sublime: I feel small and slightly terrified and like I’ve never been closer to the heart of things. And it is staring at this bull when I start to appreciate the power of wilderness—the power of proximity that Brad Bestelink believes is one of the best conservation tools we have.
Brad is a filmmaker and the brains behind projects like National Geographic‘s Savage Kingdom. He is also the force behind National Geographic’s feature film, The Flood. The full-length feature tracks the great flood that comes to the Okavango Delta every year and transforms it into one of the richest and wildest areas on the African continent.
While sitting in a film trunk in Mombo, one of Brad’s chief filming locations for both Savage Kingdom 3 and The Flood, a few days after the elephant encounter, the director explains why he makes wildlife films and television shows: not just for the entertainment value, but because viewers become attached and therefore start to care about the animals’ environment.
“We can’t be so detached that we don’t really care about these animals. The Bambis and rainbows that people think of natural history, make people feel like, ‘Oh there’s a game reserve somewhere and the animals are all happy and fine.’ That’s so not the case. You need to care a bit more [rather] than just dismiss it. That’s what we try and do through our films today.”
This isn’t just lip service, either: Brad grew up in the middle of the Okavango. He was, in fact, raised at Eagle Island Lodge. Now a premier safari lodge on the verdant Xaxaba Island next to the Okavango River. Eagle Island was started by his father P.J. Bestelink as the first photographic camp for tourists in the country.
Brad’s grandfather had previously had a large concession to hunt crocodiles, nearly destroying the Okavango’s population, an all-too-familiar story in southern Africa. So when P.J. started his photographic camp, he helped change Botswana’s path. And now, Brad’s life—as a Botswanan and a filmmaker—is inextricably linked to the Okavango Delta, and to its conservation.