Boteti: The Returning River (2011) Movie Script

[dramatic instrumental
music playing]
Twenty years of drought
have turned the Boteti river
in Botswana to dust.
The animals that live here
season after season have to endure
of excruciating hardship
just to keep alive.
To survive in this harsh desert,
they've had to adapt
their behavior.
[thunder rumbling]
But now, the long and dry era
is about to change.
Water floods
the dusty river bed.
Desperation gives way
to hope
as the Boteti
flows once more.
[zebras yipping]
[birds chirping, flies buzzing]
[instrumental music playing]
The Boteti river
is a jagged lifeline
that runs into a harsh desert.
It connects the lush water
wilderness of the Okavango
with the fickle wastelands
of the Makgadikgadi pans.
For centuries,
the floods of the Okavango
have spilled into the Boteti,
and brought the desert to life.
[bird calling]
But over the past few years,
this supply has gradually
dried up,
and what was once
a former paradise,
has become a killing field.
Herds of zebra fight over
what little water is left.
[ominous music playing]
[elephant trumpets]
[zebras yipping]
These last pools are their
dry season lifeline.
But they're not
the only creatures struggling
in this harsh environment.
[insects buzzing]
Surprisingly, some crocodiles
still survive here.
They were stranded in this area
when the river stopped flowing.
Crocodiles need warm sun
and cool water to regulate
their body temperature.
But these shallow pools
are lukewarm.
[bird calling]
So the crocodiles have devised
an ingenious way to lower
their temperature.
They have dug caves
in the dry river bank,
where it is ten degrees Celsius
cooler than the outside.
[zebra yipping]
Crocodiles can walk over land,
but they can't cover distance.
The next closest water
is the Okavango Delta,
eighty miles to the north,
too far for these
short-legged reptiles,
[birds calling]
making them long-term prisoners
of the Boteti.
[insects buzzing]
But over the years of drought
these crocodiles have not only
learned to keep cool,
they have completely changed
their hunting behavior.
They now focus
on an unlikely food source.
[queleas twittering]
Huge flocks of queleas
converge on the Boteti pools.
Strength in numbers
is a popular strategy,
but sometimes,
flocking is deadly.
The birds are also thirsty,
and they descend
on the water's edge in force.
The collective weight of
the tiny bodies bend the reeds,
pushing some of the queleas
into the water.
The crocodiles persist
and eventually make a full meal
of the tiny birds.
Waterlogged survivors
paddle for the shore.
But a lurking marabou
is waiting to pick them off.
[birds calling in the distance]
[instrumental music playing]
Evaporation is at its
highest now
and the pools are becoming
muddy shallows.
[zebras yipping]
For one female zebra,
the situation is becoming
increasingly desperate.
She's early in her pregnancy
and she'll eventually need
fresh, green grass to supply
her unborn calf
with milk when it arrives.
[zebra snorts]
[rhythmic music playing]
Water along the Boteti
is so scarce that every pool
is a sought after commodity.
Elephants are clever in their
use of the precious water.
When they drink,
they don't waste.
They step carefully into
the pool to avoid lifting
the mud from the shallows.
They need 250 liters a day,
so they have to think ahead.
They move further down
the dry riverbed.
The elephants create mud
by stirring up the water
with their feet.
The mud cools them,
and gets rid of parasites.
[elephant trumpets]
But it's sometimes difficult
for them to haul themselves out.
The last part of their daily
routine, is a sand bath.
A sprinkle of fine sand
cements the mud
and provides protection
from the sun.
Unlike most
of the other animals,
these elephants can range
into the adjacent desert
to find nutritious food.
They hunt down certain twigs
and barks that nourish
their huge frames.
But their favorite parts
are the leaves.
At first glance, the foliage
of this winter wilderness
seems barren.
But acacias have a way
of drawing every drop
of moisture from the soil
to keep their
tiny leaves alive.
Sooner or later, though,
the herd will have to return
to the river,
and sometimes they roam further
than they intended.
They get thirsty
and have to run back.
[zebra yipping]
But the water hole
is overcrowded.
[zebra snorting]
Every animal needs to drink.
[soft instrumental music
[yipping continues]
The pregnant mare
is in the queue,
patiently waiting for access.
The front ranks become agitated
and churn the water into mud.
This sounds the alarm
for the elephants.
-[elephant trumpets]
-[zebras yipping]
They know that this water
needs to be saved.
But churning it into mud,
will mean far less to drink.
[elephant trumpets]
Eventually, they take charge.
[yipping continues]
They cannot let the unruly zebra
destroy this precious waterhole.
[elephant trumpets]
[insects buzzing]
More and more zebra
come to drink at the river.
[instrumental music playing]
But the stagnant pools
have a welcoming committee.
The vultures have worked out
that every animal in need of
water has to come to the Boteti.
Right to them.
They know many are already
on the verge of death.
All they have to do, is wait.
Jackals are clever.
[jackal barks]
They follow the throng
of scavengers.
There may be something in it
for them.
[ominous music playing]
Eventually, their patience
is rewarded
as a zebra collapses.
[instrumental music playing]
[water splashing]
[hippos grunt]
Like the stranded crocodiles,
hippos are also
heavily reliant on water.
And this,
their last polluted pool,
is drying.
And hardening.
In the cool of the night,
they're free to feed
in the surrounding scrub.
But when morning comes,
they have to return to the cool
of their last wallow...
[hippo huffs, grunts]
hoping that there's enough mud
to coat their sensitive skins.
This remaining pod
hasn't raised young for years.
All calves are killed
immediately at birth
by the pod male.
There just isn't room
for one more.
The hippos are also
long-term Boteti inmates.
Another season like this,
and they'll be cemented
in their muddy tomb forever.
[flies buzzing]
By mid-morning,
the scavengers have reduced
the fallen zebra
to a pile of skin and bones.
One creature's famine,
is another's feast,
and the jackals join in.
[bird calling]
They've left their territories
out in the desert.
[vultures screeching]
But like a Cold War meeting
in no-man's land,
this encounter is not friendly.
[jackal growls, barks]
They compete with each other
for every bite.
[vultures calling]
[bird calling in distance]
While some jackals work
the Boteti pools,
fifty miles into the desert,
others have a different
survival plan.
[insects buzzing]
Without the summer rain,
these plains are dry and dusty,
but this hardy individual can
spend the entire year out here.
It knows that where there's
old elephant dung,
there are insects.
To find them, it has to listen.
It focuses on sound,
pinpointing the location.
It gets all the nourishment
and moisture that it needs
from this food.
But even out here
it has competition.
The meerkat family comes
out of their den in the morning
to forage for insects.
which they dig out with their
long, strong nails.
They hunt for food together,
alternating sentry duty.
[guitar music playing]
They don't share their catch,
but eat it there and then.
The saviors of this desert
environment are termites.
They're the favored food
of many insect eaters.
These primitive animals form
huge, well-organized colonies
that go deep underground.
Harvester termites feed
on any vegetable matter.
And when the grasses dry out,
it's time to harvest.
The blind workers spread out
over the plains
and efficiently
clip the grass blades
which are taken underground
to store.
A wolf spider has strategically
set up home near
the termites' nest.
Because they cannot see,
the termite don't even know
she's on the prowl.
[suspenseful music playing]
She hunts during the day
and has a well-developed set of
eight eyes, which she relies on
to track her fast-moving food.
She collects as many termites
as she can,
greedily stashing them away
to feed on later
in the coolness of her burrow.
But the entrance is a tight fit,
and this time, a clump of grass
forms a wedge.
With her head
stuck below the ground,
she's exposed and vulnerable
to attack from the meerkat clan.
With difficulty,
she squeezes in.
Eventually, she make it.
But the termites
are not out of danger yet.
The most vicious
of termite killers has found
the entrance to their nest.
[suspenseful music playing]
The giant Matabele ants attack.
They bite the termites
and the sting paralyses them.
the ants enter the termite hole
and pull out body after body.
The dead and paralyzed termites
are taken to the ants' nest
to be eaten by the colony.
As the execution of thousands
of termites continues,
slow-moving bull elephants
follow invisible roads towards
a mystery source.
[dramatic music playing]
They have struck out from
the Boteti and are heading east,
into the dry Makgadikgadi.
No one knows
how they navigate,
but they head
for far-off water points
in an ancient map network
edged into their heritage.
When the bulls find a baobab,
they take advantage of the shade
provided by the huge trunks.
These tree are like beacons
in the desert, and the elephants
gravitate to them.
The elephants stay here through
the hottest hours of the day,
when temperatures can easily
reach 45 degrees Celsius.
These large, dark animals have
no sweat glands
and they overheat
very quickly.
Flapping their ears
is the most efficient way
of lowering body heat.
The breeze that is generated
cools the blood flowing
in thousands of capillaries
near the surface of the skin.
They will mobilize
when the temperature drops.
But ahead of them lie miles
of endless dry scrubland.
[ominous music playing]
Some don't make it.
Heat exhaustion affects
an elephant radically.
These bulls need to time
their journey just right.
[flies buzzing]
[thunder rumbling]
Out on the distant plains
the summer rains
have finally arrived.
But a 100 miles away
at the Boteti,
the skies are still clear.
[zebras yipping]
Yet the smell of rain
is in the air.
An escape route from the Boteti
hell has been opened,
and the zebra
jump on it immediately.
For the pregnant mare,
this is one last gauntlet to run
before a little nourishment
becomes available.
[upbeat music playing]
She'll eventually have to return
to the Boteti,
but for now,
it's not worth thinking about.
During this trek, the animals
hardly drink, rest or feed.
But at least there's hope
at the other end.
Twenty-five thousand animals
make the journey
in the second largest
zebra migration in the world.
Exhausted, they arrive
at their summer pastures
in a spray of welcome rain.
For the next few months
they'll have an unlimited supply
of food and water.
[wildebeest grunting]
The bull elephants
that struck out earlier,
are ahead of the zebra,
and they have found
one of the pools
en route to the plains.
Their large shapes are a beacon
to the thirsty herds.
But the elephants
are possessive.
Perhaps they remember
the previous confrontations
over the Boteti water.
The zebra have no choice
but to give way.
[instrumental music playing]
On the plains
of the Makgadikgadi
there are no running streams
or natural springs
of underground water.
When the rains stop
at the end of summer,
the pools will dry up.
The bulls take their time.
But before they finish,
more travelers arrive.
The zebras have
to wait a little longer.
[birds chirping]
Once again the smell of water
makes the weary elephants
quicken their step.
The bulls give way.
The new arrivals are breeding
herds of elephants with young.
They come from the distant
Okavango Delta.
They wouldn't be here
if not for the recent rain.
[crickets chirping]
[upbeat music playing]
All the zebra herds have now
reached the grassy plains.
They can settle in here
for a few months
and regain their strength.
For the expecting mother,
the new grass is like
a gift from the gods.
And finally she gives birth.
The rich pasture is crucial
for the mother's milk,
and her new arrival spends
most of the time suckling.
For the first few days
of its life, the mother keeps
it away from the herd
to imprint her unique smell
and stripe pattern.
[zebra foal cries]
The little one is well developed
at birth and is following
its mother within an hour.
By three months, it will start
to drink water and eat grass.
[zebra yipping]
Intruders aren't tolerated.
The foal's mother chases off
any lost foals.
She needs to watch
her new charge closely.
[foal braying]
Being lost here isn't wise.
[zebra yipping in the distance]
[ominous music playing]
[zebra yipping, braying]
The lions have been waiting
patiently for the herds
to arrive.
The mother has kept
her foal safe.
The pride join the hunter and
they finish the meal quickly.
[lion grunts]
A small foal doesn't take long.
[instrumental music playing]
As the weeks pass
on the Makgadikgadi plains,
the foal follows her mother
everywhere, moving with the herd
from grass to water.
[upbeat music playing]
Life is much easier
for the jackals now too.
But this water
is only temporary.
The jackals know they have
to make the most of summer.
Shadowing the lions
is their number one priority.
Meanwhile, the foal's mother has
carelessly dropped her guard.
[dramatic music playing]
[jackal yelps]
The jackals are hot
on the lion's heels.
The lionesses have gone
to fetch the cubs,
while the male secures the kill.
For the scavengers,
now is the time to strike.
The vultures' plan
is to intimidate the predator.
[lion growls]
But this ploy doesn't work
on the big male lion.
He has his hands full
keeping control of the kill.
[lion growls]
The jackals are always waiting
for a gap.
But facing the lion
isn't an option.
[birds calling]
[lion growls]
he sneaks a piece...
just before
the lionesses reappear.
They'd left their two-month-old
cubs in the den during the hunt,
and now they lead them back
to the kill.
[instrumental music playing]
One of the lionesses
tests the father's mood
before allowing the cubs near.
[lion growls]
A swipe from his powerful paw
could cause a serious injury.
But he seems willing
to share his meal,
and he allows the family
to approach.
The cubs aren't so sure.
For the zebra foal
the tragic death of its mother
is a huge loss,
but for the lion family,
it's a windfall.
This carcass will keep them fed
for a week.
[lion growls]
When the cubs
have tried a little meat,
they revert to playing.
For the lions
it's been a successful day.
[lion cub mews]
The ever-patient scavengers
finally get their turn.
And the jackal, once again,
steals from the vultures.
[lions growl softly
in the distance]
[instrumental music playing]
If the zebra foal
doesn't stay with the herd,
she'll never make it.
Keeping up
is her only hope.
[instrumental music playing]
[jackal howls]
The jackal also has a family
on the plains.
[jackal howls]
[jackals howling]
Jackals pair for life, and they
have pups every summer.
[jackal howls]
By the time the rains bring an
abundance of insects and food,
the pups are old enough
to catch their own.
[jackal howls]
Although they still need
to learn which of the little
critters are good to eat,
and which bite.
[jackal yelps]
Soon, the pups will start
to follow their parents
on scavenging outings.
But that will be
in another month or so.
For now,
they stay close to their den,
groomed and cared for
by their attentive mother.
[crickets chirping]
[instrumental music playing]
For the remainder or summer,
the cycle of life unfolds
on the green plains
of the Makgadikgadi.
Endless days of grazing
nourish the herds.
Stallions compete for the favor
of the females.
And the lone foal
is carried along by the herd,
gaining strength.
But the rains
eventually cease,
and the clouds disappear.
The grasses dry,
leaving bare, sandy patches.
Without rain to replenish
the pools, they start to dry.
The time has come for the zebras
to leave the plains.
Staying here is not an option.
Soon there'll be nothing
for them to eat or drink.
[zebras yipping]
Their 80-mile return journey
to the pools in the dry Boteti
river, will be a grueling trip.
[instrumental music playing]
For the lone foal,
this will be the most difficult
journey in its life.
Some foals are smaller,
but at least they still have
their mothers close.
But others already lag behind.
In baking temperatures,
the zebras reach the edge
of the drying summer pastures.
[zebra yipping]
The ever-present vultures
track the herds,
waiting for the weak to stumble.
[vultures screeching]
Within a couple of hours, a dead
animal is almost stripped clean.
The lapped-faced vultures
do their job.
Their powerful beaks
open up the hide
and cut through the tendons,
allowing the rest
of the scavengers
access to the innards.
[jackal barks]
[vultures screeching]
The zebras
can't slow their pace,
the more they linger,
the faster they dehydrate.
[zebra yipping]
Their survival now depends
on how quickly they can reach
the Boteti river,
and whether
there is still water there.
Halfway through their journey,
they get a lucky break,
a last pool of rain water.
But they're edgy as they drink.
Lions often wait around water.
[zebras yipping and snorting]
They need to drink
as quickly as possible
and be on their way again.
[zebras yipping]
The dry scrubland
lies ahead of them.
[ominous music playing]
It's the last obstacle
before the Boteti river,
but an old stallion
is dropping behind.
The harsh conditions separate
the strong from the weak.
[zebra moans softly]
[vultures cackling]
the first herd of tired
and traumatized zebras
crest the bank of the Boteti.
They walk into the river bed
where there should be
flowing water.
But all they see
are the desperate hippo.
The foal has made the journey.
It's endured the most difficult
survival test.
And the youngest ones,
born late in summer,
are also lucky to be alive.
But for the twentieth
consecutive year,
the river is dry.
But there's something
these animals don't know.
[instrumental music playing]
[water trickling]
A little further upstream,
a trickle is dribbling
across the hot sand.
It brings new visitors.
Tiny fish ride
the head of the flood.
Slowly, the stream
gathers momentum.
And within hours,
water is charging down
the upper reaches of the Boteti.
[birds chirping]
The flood has travelled
700 miles from the north.
An usual amount of rain
has fallen over the mountains
of neighboring Angola.
The waters fill the Okavango
Delta to the highest recorded
flood level in 30 years.
For months, this water
has crossed the shallow gradient
of the desert,
spilling out of the delta,
and moving steadily south.
And as the zebra and elephant
arrive back in the dry Boteti,
these far-off rains will soon
be delivering salvation.
For the first time in 20 years,
the Boteti starts to flow.
Suddenly, the crocodiles
that ate nothing more
than little parcels of feathers,
have something new
to feast on.
[toads croaking]
The olive toads that hibernate
through the drought,
wake up.
They never know how long
the floods will last,
so they waste no time
looking for a mate.
[toad croaking]
Competition is fierce,
and the highly desirable
females are mobbed.
[toad croaking]
The overenthusiastic males
sometimes drown the female.
Individuals that survive
the orgy,
lay as many as 25 000 fertilized
eggs in long strings
in the calm shallows
of the river.
The eggs will hatch
within 24 hours.
[birds chirping]
Soon the quiet backwaters
of the Boteti,
writhe with newly-hatched
They stay in the water
and feed on algae.
An elephant footprint
can hold thousands.
The first froglets
are already emerging.
Although hundreds of thousands
make the metamorphoses,
thousands are eaten,
and very few survive
to become adults.
The following day, water reaches
the last Boteti pools,
filling the hippos' stagnant
mud wallow to bursting point.
[hippos grunting]
This year, if the cows give
birth, the dominant bull will
allow the youngsters to live.
But despite the rush of water,
the surrounding landscape
is still dry and dusty.
[ominous music playing]
The remaining zebra herds
arrive at the river,
but what they find,
surprises them.
The oldest ones remember
the last time the Boteti
was in flood.
But for the majority,
the flowing river
is a new experience.
They approach it cautiously,
but soon drop all inhibitions.
[instrumental music playing]
[bird calling]
For the first time in its life,
the foal can immerse itself
in the river.
[zebra yipping]
The elephants arrive too.
[elephant trumpets]
They have seen
the floods before.
They remember them well.
[zebras yipping]
[elephant trumpets]
The tussle for water still lives
in these creatures' minds.
But now there is no real need
for confrontation.
[zebra yipping]
For the elephants,
it's a time for celebration.
For the first time in decades,
they can swim.
With so much water around,
there is plenty of space
for everyone.
[thunder rumbling]
And by the end of the winter,
rains come to the dusty Boteti.
The area greens,
[birds calling]
and the zebra will now have
grazing here too.
The river swells with
the promise of fresh water
that will stay for the year.
[thunder rumbling]
Eventually, the summer rains
will draw many of the animals
away from the Boteti again,
but this time, the migration
will be much easier.
And they will a lush paradise
to come back to.
But for now, the tough drought
of the past 20 years
is already a distant memory.
And the Boteti survivors
revel in their new surroundings,
[elephant trumpets]
blessed by the miracle
of the returning river.
[hippo grunts]
[African music playing]