Savannah Africa


Savannah

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ROARING YAWN

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I'm flying over the Great Rift Valley in East Africa.

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And below me, is a landscape in turmoil,

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torn apart by the twisting and buckling of the Earth's crust.

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It's also a landscape of huge and unpredictable change,

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that forces animals, day by day, season by season,

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to gamble with their lives.

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But for those that win,

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this is one of the most fertile landscapes on Earth.

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Nyiragongo, the largest lava lake in the world...

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..bubbling up from nearly ten miles beneath the surface.

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Nowhere takes you closer to the fiery heart of the planet.

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Mount Nyiragongo is one of the most active volcanoes in Africa.

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Its eruptions can be seen from space.

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As magma churns below the Earth's crust,

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the land to the east of here is being torn apart.

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Volcanoes like this are continually changing the face of Eastern Africa.

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The volcanoes here may have a violent side...

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..but life flows from these infernos.

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Fertile ash from countless eruptions carpets the land...

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..creating the ideal conditions for grasses to flourish,

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on an immense scale.

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And with the grasses come animals in numbers found nowhere else on Earth.

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Wildebeest.

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Nothing stands in their way.

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All this, just to reach fresh grass.

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WILDEBEEST GRUNT

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The ever-travelling herds are only one element of life here.

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Look closer and there are new stories to tell.

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Living on the savanna is about making the most of the hand

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the landscape deals you.

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But here, it's always a gamble - everything may change tomorrow.

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From their vantage point, agama lizards

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wait for the arrival of the herds, ready to seize their moment.

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It's payday - over a million wildebeest on their doorstep.

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And with the wildebeest come flying insects - billions of them.

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BUZZING

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Food - if only they could catch them!

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Time for a rethink.

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This agama lizard has spotted an opportunity.

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Only one thing attracts more flies than the wildebeest...

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..lions that have eaten wildebeest.

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Lions are famously bad-tempered -

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they could swat the lizard like the flies he's hoping to ambush.

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He will need to pick his target carefully.

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LOW GROWL

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Not her.

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Or her.

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Maybe?

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But no.

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LIONESS GRUMBLES

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To be within striking distance, he's got to hold his nerve.

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Got one!

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Now he's getting his eye in.

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LIONESS GRUMBLES

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But this might be a bit ambitious.

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It may take courage to hunt on the back of a lion...

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LION GRUMBLES

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..but it takes sense to know when to run away!

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The wildebeest won't stay for long, and when they leave,

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most of the flies will follow.

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Change is everywhere in East Africa.

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This grassland was once covered by a forest that ran

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unbroken from west coast to east coast.

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Today, high above the plains,

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swirling clouds hide mountains that tower three miles into the sky.

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These frozen summits now form part of a mountainous barrier separating

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the ancient jungles in the west from the savannahs of the east.

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Up here, lies the largest glacier in Africa,

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just a few miles north of the equator.

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These are the legendary Mountains of the Moon.

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The height of these peaks means they create their own weather.

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The local name for these mountains is "Rwenzori" -

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"the rain maker".

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WATER DRIPPING

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Meltwater flows down from the glaciers.

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And on the lower slopes, all this water supports thick jungle...

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PIPING AND TRILLING BIRDSONG

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..remnants of the dense,

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steamy forests that once dominated the whole of East Africa.

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But driven by a drying climate beyond the mountains,

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the forests began to wither away.

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Today, only small pockets of upland jungle remain -

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home to animals who once roamed the ancient forests.

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The largest living primates on Earth.

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GORILLA GRUNTS

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Mountain gorillas.

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GORILLA BABY SQUEALS

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This little one's ancestors have lived in forests like these

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for millions of years.

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But all around, the world has changed to swamp and savanna.

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This is the furthest these mighty giants

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now venture into Eastern Africa.

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They're marooned on their islands in the African sky.

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Below the highlands,

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vast wetlands cut swathes through the open savanna.

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BIRDS CHIRRUP

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Bangweulu Swamp is huge -

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its name means, "where the water meets the sky".

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Hidden amongst this maze of waterways

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is a creature like no other.

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A giant, prehistoric-looking bird.

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A shoebill.

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Standing well over a metre tall...

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she roams these swamps...

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..trying to catch catfish.

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Not exactly what she was after.

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Deeper into the swamp, lies the reason for all this fishing.

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This chick is just three weeks old and a little bit wobbly on its feet.

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Its vast bill means it has trouble balancing.

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It won't be able to fly, or even walk properly for several weeks.

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HONKING CALL

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It's entirely reliant on its parents for food and water.

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SQUEAKING CALL

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There is also a smaller chick,

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who isn't doing so well.

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CHICK'S LOW HONKING CALLS

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The larger chick pesters its mother for a drink.

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While she goes off to fetch water,

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it reveals a dark side to the relationship with its nest mate.

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It's three days older than the other chick,

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and has always won the race for food and attention.

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This is more than just a scrap between two siblings.

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As their mother returns, she sees what the larger chick has done.

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The smaller chick seeks its mother's comfort.

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CHICK SQUAWKS

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But she has already made her choice.

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Only her first-born will get a drink.

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Shoebills very rarely raise more than one chick.

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The younger chick was only ever an insurance,

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in case the elder didn't make it.

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Now it's old enough, the adults know that

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they're better off putting all their efforts

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into bringing up just one fit and healthy youngster.

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The swamp's changing water levels mean fishing

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is too unpredictable for them

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to gamble on trying to raise two chicks.

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Nothing here stays the same for long.

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This is the time of year when Eastern Africa is beginning to dry.

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HIPPOS SNORT AND ROAR

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The rivers and waterholes are shrinking.

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The land continues to dry out.

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Tensions rise.

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Hippos seek what relief they can.

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This time of relentless drying

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is also when another force of change ravages the land.

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Without warning, fires rip through these tinder-dry plains.

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The flames sweep across the savanna at 50mph...

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reaching temperatures of nearly a thousand degrees,

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consuming everything in their path.

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Each year, an area larger than Britain goes up in smoke.

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But this destruction can bring opportunity,

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if you're prepared to take a risk.

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Drongos, bee-eaters

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and rollers bravely pluck fleeing insects from amongst the flames.

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There's little better than a char-grilled grasshopper.

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These fires may appear devastating, but they are, in fact,

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part of a natural cycle that is essential for the regeneration

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of East Africa's grasslands.

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But sometimes the cycle is broken, just when a change is most needed.

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Here, on the plains of Amboseli, in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro,

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the seasonal rains have failed for the last two years.

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And this year, they are already long overdue.

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It's the hardest drought for half a century.

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ELEPHANTS TRUMPET

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ELEPHANTS TRUMPET

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Amboseli is usually a haven for elephants.

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These plains should be green and covered with grass.

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Now there is nothing but dust.

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This family is forced to travel

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constantly,

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searching for anything they can eat.

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ELEPHANTS GRUNT

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The young must keep up, sometimes there's not even time to suckle.

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ELEPHANT BABY SQUAWKS

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With the grass gone,

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all the elephants can scratch from the dust is withered twigs.

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The adults might just survive on this,

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but it will not support a calf for long.

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Every mother in the herd

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is struggling to provide milk for her calf.

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The search for food is increasingly urgent.

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As the herd moves on, this female faces a terrible choice.

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To carry on with her family,

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or stay behind with her calf,

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who's becoming too weak to even stand.

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They will soon be out of sight.

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But her instinct is to stay.

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CALF SQUEALS

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MOTHER ELEPHANT BAYS

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She won't abandon her baby.

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CALF SQUEAKS

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MOTHER ELEPHANT BAYS

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MOTHER ELEPHANT BAYS

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MOTHER ELEPHANT BAYS

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BABY ELEPHANT WHEEZES SOFTLY

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With the calf's last breath, she knows that her battle is lost.

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MOTHER ELEPHANT RUMBLES

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There ARE places even more hostile than the dust-choked plains.

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These alien landscapes are actually the sun-baked salt crusts

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of a chain of lakes that run through East Africa.

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The face of these soda lakes changes day by day,

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as the sun evaporates the water, leaving the salts behind.

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The waters here are toxic, poisoned by volcanic springs.

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But life does exist, even here.

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The strange colours are created by algae,

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specially adapted to live in this corrosive liquid.

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And it is these algae that attract

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one of the most astonishing animals found in East Africa.

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SQUAWKING

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WATER LAPS NOISILY

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Among the steaming geysers of Lake Bogoria,

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over a million lesser flamingos bathe and feed in the caustic water.

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They gather whenever the algae bloom.

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LOUD SQUAWKING

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These huge numbers

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create one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on Earth.

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Almost all the world's lesser flamingos

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live on this chain of lakes,

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moving from one lake to another as the amount of algae in each changes.

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All along the lake shore, volcanic vents are a reminder

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of the forces that continue to change this land.

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And a streak of colour on the horizon

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signals that relief for the parched plains is on its way.

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THUNDERCLAPS

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RAIN FALLS

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At last, countless storms drench the thirsty ground.

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Rain changes everything, yet again.

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LIGHTNING CRACKLES

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THUNDERCLAPS

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A crowned eagle has been desperately waiting

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for what she hopes the rain will bring...

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CHIRPING

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..food for her hungry chick.

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Nesting here has been her biggest gamble.

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Her chick's life depends on the arrival of creatures

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from the far rainforests of the Congo.

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THUNDERCLAPS

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Her wait will soon be over.

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The largest mammal migration in Africa is on the move.

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HIGH-PITCHED SQUEAKING

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Ten million fruit bats are drawn to this tiny forest,

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on the edge of the eastern savanna.

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The bats flock here to gorge themselves on fruit.

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It's what the crowned eagle and her chick have been waiting for.

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But they're not alone.

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Other eagles have flown in from miles around...

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..fish eagles,

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martial eagles,

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and they're all after the bats.

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HIGH-PITCHED SQUEAKING

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SQUEAKING, WING FLAPPING

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The gamble the crowned eagle took months ago by nesting here

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has paid off.

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She is the only eagle to actually nest in this forest.

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CHIRPING

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The only one who took the risk to breed here,

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well before the trees came into fruit and the bats flooded in.

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She only breeds once every two years,

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so her timing must be perfect.

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HIGH-PITCHED SQUEAKING

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In a few months, the bats will leave,

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but her gamble means her chick

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will have the best possible start in life.

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These grasslands have been grazed and burned

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and have endured the harshest drought in generations...

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FLIES BUZZ

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..but with the rains, they're beginning to recover.

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GRUNTING

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WATER LAPPING

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GRUNTING

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CHIRPING

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THEY GROWL

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And on the once dust-choked plains of Amboseli,

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there's a return to the good times.

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ELEPHANTS BELLOW

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The drought here killed hundreds of elephants,

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but the survivors are now returning home.

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And with them, there's a surprise.

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HIGH-PITCHED GRUNTING

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A newborn.

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ELEPHANT BELLOWS

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LOW-PITCHED GRUNTING

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HIGH-PITCHED SQUEAL

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Surrounded by food,

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the youngster can concentrate on more important things...

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..like chasing egrets.

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HIGH-PITCHED SQUEAL

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BIRDS SQUAWK

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LOW-PITCHED BELLOW

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The bulls also return.

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LOW-PITCHED GROWLING

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THEY GROWL AND HISS

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This bull has waited many years

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for his chance to father the next generation.

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Now, he must fight his way to the top.

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LOW-PITCHED GROWL

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But his rival is massive.

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Each of their heads weighs as much as a car.

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They have been duelling for days.

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GRUNTING

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LOW-PITCHED GROWLING

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Now in its third day, the contest is reaching a climax.

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ROARING

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Soon, one will be forced to concede.

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GRUNTING

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LOW-PITCHED HOWLING

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The power of these clashes can even shatter tusks.

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CRASHING AND CREAKING

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GROWLING

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Three days of battle is at an end.

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The victor has won the right to the females.

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The process to replace what the drought took away has begun.

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Soon, the elephants will be at full strength again.

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Every day, the animals of Eastern Africa gamble with their lives,

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but despite the continual changes they face,

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their extraordinary adaptability

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just tips the odds of survival in their favour.

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East Africa may seem very cruel,

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but there's nowhere else that provides such rich opportunities

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for those that are prepared to take them.

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And in the end, it was these ever-changing savannahs

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that produced the most adaptable species of all...

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ourselves.

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ENGINE REVS

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Filming in East Africa

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would take the team on both a physical and emotional journey

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through the extremes of this landscape.

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These are the legendary Mountains of the Moon,

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towering over 5,000 metres into the African sky.

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Just miles from the equator,

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they're the highest mountain range on the Continent

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and home to the largest glacier in Africa.

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To reach the summits, the team had to travel on foot,

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the same way as climbers did when they first reached the top

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just over 100 years ago.

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It would take more than two weeks,

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climbing over 3,000 metres from the valleys below.

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Six days into their trek, still well below the summits,

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the team come to realise why Rwenzori, the mountains' other name,

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means "the rain makers".

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Just after we set off, it started raining, then it started hailing,

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and the idea had been that we'd stop here for an hour or two

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and do some shots. But as you can probably see,

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there's not a great deal of view.

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Brilliant shots of rain and hail and fog.

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Beyond that, we're pretty stuffed, so it's becoming a bit of a theme.

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For the crew and over 75 guides and helpers,

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it's hard going carrying nearly a tonne of kit

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through the marshy valleys.

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Mud, mud,

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and just a little bit more mud.

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But it's not just the bogs they have to deal with.

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There was a small, but slightly disconcerting, earthquake last night,

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so let's hope we don't get any of those below any rocks.

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The team continue to climb and, before long, the rain turns to snow.

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They eventually arrive at the highest hut,

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surrounded by ice and nearly three miles up.

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This will be base camp for the crew.

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We've got a kitchen over there.

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Um...

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over there, down a really treacherous precipice, is the toilet,

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which is just a shack with a big hole in the floor.

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From here, they'll make the hardest part of the ascent

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right up to the glaciers.

0:50:130:50:14

Well, this is, believe it or not, one of the better viewpoints

0:50:210:50:25

so...probably going to hang around here for a little while,

0:50:250:50:29

wait till the fog clears.

0:50:290:50:31

But the weather isn't on their side.

0:50:310:50:34

So much for hoping the weather was going to get better.

0:50:370:50:41

All that optimism now seems completely ill-founded.

0:50:410:50:44

With the storm clouds closing in, the team are forced to retreat.

0:50:460:50:51

THUNDERCLAPS

0:50:510:50:54

This enormous weather front's come in, as isn't entirely unusual.

0:50:560:50:59

So we're just coming down as the thunder bursts around us.

0:50:590:51:03

So, glad to get back and go and get inside the hut

0:51:030:51:06

and hopefully weather it out.

0:51:060:51:08

After days of climbing and finding the peaks hidden by fog,

0:51:100:51:13

filming the summits is looking increasingly impossible.

0:51:130:51:17

It can be pretty frustrating at times.

0:51:180:51:20

There's a group of maybe 70 people that we've involved directly.

0:51:200:51:24

You get all the way up here,

0:51:240:51:26

and then we can't film anything because of the weather.

0:51:260:51:29

So, it is just a matter of sitting it out and waiting.

0:51:290:51:31

You have to sort of hope that things come right in the end.

0:51:310:51:34

The "rain makers" are certainly living up to their name,

0:51:360:51:39

but by complete contrast,

0:51:390:51:41

other parts of East Africa were gripped by drought.

0:51:410:51:44

At the beginning of the production, Mark Deeble travelled to Amboseli,

0:51:460:51:50

just a few hundred miles from the Rwenzoris,

0:51:500:51:53

to film the plight of the animals there.

0:51:530:51:55

I mean,

0:51:570:51:58

I've never seen anything quite as bad as that drought.

0:51:580:52:01

And we talked to some of the Masai elders.

0:52:040:52:06

They said it was the worst drought they'd seen in 50 years.

0:52:060:52:09

Amboseli is famous for its huge herds of elephant,

0:52:110:52:14

but the drought had dispersed them far and wide.

0:52:140:52:17

Those that remained were struggling to find what little food was left.

0:52:170:52:21

When we first saw the group, we could tell instantly

0:52:250:52:27

that they were in a really serious condition.

0:52:270:52:30

They were thin and obviously starving.

0:52:320:52:35

ELEPHANT BAYS

0:52:350:52:37

Mark knew that many of the calves would not survive.

0:52:370:52:42

Although desperately painful to witness,

0:52:420:52:44

nothing would convey the cruel power of the drought

0:52:440:52:48

more than this mother's struggle to keep her baby alive.

0:52:480:52:51

The thing about filming a situation like that...

0:52:560:52:58

You know, when an elephant calf dies,

0:52:580:53:01

is that when you're actually filming it,

0:53:010:53:03

you're so caught up in the moment.

0:53:030:53:04

ELEPHANT BAYS

0:53:040:53:07

But it was only after filming,

0:53:070:53:08

when I put the camera away and I looked there,

0:53:080:53:10

and there was this dead calf and the mother standing there grieving,

0:53:100:53:14

that the full impact of what I'd just filmed hit me.

0:53:140:53:16

People often say to me, you know,

0:53:220:53:23

"Could you not have intervened in a situation like that?"

0:53:230:53:26

There are times when you CAN help,

0:53:280:53:30

but in that time in Kenya there WAS no food available.

0:53:300:53:33

Now, you have to also consider the mother.

0:53:330:53:36

If we'd gone in there and tried to...to take the calf away,

0:53:360:53:39

it would have been absolute mayhem, she'd have got incredibly stressed,

0:53:390:53:42

and that would probably have jeopardised her survival.

0:53:420:53:45

In that particular situation, when everything around us was dying,

0:53:460:53:50

there was absolutely nothing we could do

0:53:500:53:52

to help that young elephant.

0:53:520:53:53

Although too late to save the calf,

0:53:580:54:00

a few months later, the rains did finally return.

0:54:000:54:04

When we returned, it was amazing. It was lush and green again.

0:54:110:54:16

And the elephants in the rains, they all tend to come together,

0:54:160:54:18

so it was like all these groups which had been dispersed,

0:54:180:54:21

which had been just somehow coping on their own,

0:54:210:54:24

all got back together again,

0:54:240:54:25

so it was almost a sort of festival type atmosphere.

0:54:250:54:27

GRUNTING

0:54:270:54:30

That was when, essentially, they come together,

0:54:360:54:39

they mate and then, after that, lots of young calves are being born.

0:54:390:54:42

Since the end of the drought,

0:54:450:54:47

over 220 calves have been born in Amboseli,

0:54:470:54:50

and that number is still rising.

0:54:500:54:52

It's the biggest elephant baby boom on record.

0:54:540:54:57

I think what's lovely to see in that situation

0:54:590:55:02

is that having been through such a terrible drought,

0:55:020:55:06

to see the way in which, you know, if you let things alone,

0:55:060:55:09

you know, they do have incredible capacity to bounce back.

0:55:090:55:12

Back in the mountains, and several failed ascents later,

0:55:210:55:24

the team were still battling through the white out.

0:55:240:55:27

They try one last time.

0:55:280:55:30

There's cloud below us and cloud above us.

0:55:320:55:34

It somehow seems slightly like we're heading nowhere slowly.

0:55:340:55:38

Then, as they reach the top, finally, the clouds begin to part.

0:55:420:55:48

MUSIC: "Outro" by M83

0:55:480:55:50

# I am the king of my own land. #

0:55:520:55:57

It was absolute magic here.

0:56:010:56:03

We've just come through the densest, densest cloud,

0:56:030:56:05

having absolutely no idea what's surrounding us.

0:56:050:56:09

The past few days have just been rain and cloud and rain and cloud,

0:56:090:56:13

and, as if by magic, there's the most spectacular view

0:56:130:56:18

of ice and glaciers and mountains,

0:56:180:56:21

that you just wouldn't think was on the equator.

0:56:210:56:23

It's just amazing.

0:56:230:56:24

It's the most spectacular mountain scenery I've seen,

0:56:480:56:51

and to think it's in Africa is just mind-boggling.

0:56:510:56:54

These mysterious mountains have finally unveiled their secrets,

0:57:020:57:07

and on the plains beyond,

0:57:070:57:08

the elephants have returned to their home.

0:57:080:57:11

Despite having been explored by film-makers for over a century,

0:57:130:57:17

East Africa still has the power to enchant and surprise us all.

0:57:170:57:22

East Africa is a land which is constantly changing. To survive here, creatures must be able to deal with unpredictable twists and turns - wet turning to dry, feast to famine, cold to hot - no matter how hostile it becomes.

From dense forests to snow-capped peaks, steamy swamps and endless savannah, this unique and varied land is also a haven for life, supporting large animals in numbers found nowhere else on Earth. But away from the familiar, forever-travelling herds, there are a huge cast of other characters - lizards that steal flies from the faces of lions, vast dinosaur-like birds who stalk catfish through huge wetlands, and an eagle who risks everything on the arrival of ten million bats from a far-off rainforest.


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