Going On Safari With Wildlife Legends Is A Lesson In Interconnectivity

“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.”

So often, a nature documentary feels like a one-off moment—the thrill of a cheetah bringing down a gazelle, the breathtaking birth of a pink baby elephant. Man Among Cheetahs has plenty of those moments, from a night-vision encounter with lions to a Hunger Games-style escape up a tree.

But cheetahs can live up to twelve years, and elephants for sixty: they go on playing and hunting and hiding long after filmmakers leave. An ecosystem like the Mara survives based not on dramatic moments but on long-lived interconnectivity—on acacia trees that send their ant tenants out to bite encroaching elephants, on century-old termite mounds that spread fertile underground soil as new topsoil, on zebras and wildebeest that graze with giraffes because they need someone tall to spot the lions.

By filming multiple documentaries in the same conservancy, the Pooles have chosen to explore the complex, continuous relationships within a single ecosystem. And they are interested in all the stories. During a climactic moment in Man Among Cheetahs, hyenas chase Nabor and her cubs, and the camera audio captures their eerie, psychotic laughter. To me, watching two menacing hyena stalk a tiny cheetah cub validates every Lion King prejudice I’ve been harboring since the third grade. Bob and Gina, though, see the hyenas as hardworking, misunderstood, and…cute?

“Oh my god, the babies,” Gina gushes.

Likewise, by choosing Naboisho, the Pooles play a role in a beautifully complex human web of Maasai, researchers, ecotour operators, conservationists, and tourists (like me). Naboisho is the Maa word for “coming together” — a term that aptly describes the balance within the community. Some 500 Maasai landowners lease the 50,000 acres to the conservancy, which is managed by a board of half ecotour operators and half Maa elders. Part of the fee paid by the conservancy goes into community programming, from schools to healthcare to microfinance. The Maasai maintain the right to graze their cattle on conservancy land, and on game drives you can spot herds of cows grazing alongside wildebeest, zebra, topi, gazelles, and impala.

In return, the Masaai build no fences or other structures on the land, preserving crucial animal migration patterns. The conservancy partners with projects like Save the Elephants and the Kenya Wildlife Trust, while maintaining small private ecotourism camps like Naboisho Camp, the gorgeous and welcoming nine-tent outfit that Bob and Gina use as a home base while filming. The minimal roads and relaxed atmosphere of Naboisho Camp suit the Pooles’ all-hours, all-terrain film schedule, but it’s clear that their fondness for the camp is built on relationships—with hosts Roelof and Helen Schutte, with guides Benjamin Kisemei and Evelyn Sintoya, with the camp staff.

I never get to see Nabor, though we do run into Forester, the rejected suitor from Man Among Cheetahs. Yet throughout my time in the Mara—eating breakfast next to hippos, watching baby elephants swing their trunks and take exaggerated strides, falling asleep to the roaring of lions—I feel I have witnessed Nabor’s world.

That’s what Bob and Gina Poole have captured in their latest documentary—a small slice of motherhood that hints at a complex, dangerous, and interconnected world.

Man Among Cheetahs premieres Monday at 9 ET on Nat Geo WILD.