This eye-opening, heart-wrenching, and stunningly shot documentary is about the plight of elephants in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, where poaching for ivory is worse than ever, and the efforts of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) to rehabilitate the young orphaned animals. Made by Santa Barbara-turned-Kenya filmmakers Austin Peck and Anneliese Vandenberg, the film stars Sex and the City actress-turned-elephant conservationist Kristin Davis, who also produced the film. Peck and Davis answer questions below.
After literally decades of public awareness and outrage over the plight of elephants, how does the ivory trade even still exist?
Kristin Davis: I think that everyone was under the impression that the poaching problem had been fixed when there was a global ban on ivory in the ‘80s. Then there was a “one-off sale” in 2009, agreed to by CITES, the international board regulating wildlife “trade.” This sale created so many loopholes that the current poaching crisis is now worse than anything we’ve seen before. Every 15 minutes an elephant is brutally killed for its tusks. Soon we will have no wild elephants on the entire planet. Thus the pressure is on us to act quickly to save this iconic species
As an actress, how did you get involved in this issue?
KD: I have loved going to Africa as an Ambassador for Oxfam and have always loved elephants. In 2009 I was visiting friends in Kenya and we heard of an orphaned baby elephant. We found her and called the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust for assistance. That is how my relationship began with the Trust. As a producer, why did you think it was important to tell this story?
KD: I wanted to make this documentary because I feel that people really have no idea what is going: it is a day-to-day war to try to save the elephants. Because DSWT is involved with so many aspects — saving the orphans, treating wounded wild elephants, catching poachers — I thought that if I gave a glimpse into what goes into a day with the people who are working to save elephants, that it might enlighten those of us removed from the situation. This awareness will hopefully bring people to act to help save the elephants before it’s too late!
Humans tend to anthropomorphize the behaviors and thoughts of many animals. But in the case of elephants, and based on your experience on this film, does it seem like they are truly very similar to humans? They seem to need lots of care, to be psychologically settled, and so on.
Austin Peck: It’s in our nature to want to bond and I think anthropomorphizing is generally a good thing. I’d bet that in their way, animals do it right back to us. Upon encountering the elephants, eye-to-eye, there was undeniably something intelligent and emotionally complex coming back at us. Seeing how they respond to the tenderness and even moments of discipline given to them by the human keepers, we felt as if we’d just landed on a new planet where humans are not the only sentient show in town.
My sense is that they’ve got forms of intelligence that we don’t even know how to measure. The risk of anthropomorphizing elephants is that we confine them to the realms of the human experience. While there is some overlap, they’ve certainly got more going on than we currently understand.
That realization was the first thing on the director’s chalkboard: “So being with them is deeply transformative…but not everyone can be with them, so let’s give audiences the next-best thing.” From then on, we deliberately shot to bring out those opportunities for bonding and relating: eye contact, expressive gestures, play. We hope it will evoke that instinct to care for something as precious as our own kin.
How do the true infant orphans do once they are back in the wild?
AP: One thing we perhaps didn’t really make clear with the film is that it can take almost a decade to reintroduce them. They are physically under the care of the Trust for years, gradually moving through their own maturation and development, getting stronger, getting curious. There’s a huge leap though which occurs after a few years at the reintegration centers in Tsavo. They start socializing with wild elephants who remarkably seem to know the drill. The wild herds educate the returning orphans.
Slowly, a desire starts welling up in the orphans to join those wild herds and they start experimenting with their independence, going out for hours without the keepers or their fellow orphans, then maybe a for a whole night out, and then one day, they just go and decide they don’t want to sleep in the stockade anymore. They come back and visit and still have the familial bond with their former keepers, but a clear shift has taken place. The dirt on their skin even changes.
The real testament to the success of the process is that former orphans are mating with wild bulls. In fact, they are expecting three babies from former orphans in the next few months.
Are the poachers or the anti-poaching efforts prevailing?
KD: Unfortunately, the poachers and the terrorist groups and organized crime syndicates that are paying the poachers are winning this war. We must push our government, state and federal, to ban ALL ivory sales. This is the only way to save the elephants from extinction in the next 10 years.
Are the fines and penalties for poaching strict enough?
The stated penalties are drastically different from those actually imposed. Moreover, they are focused on the wrong guy. The key is to drop the hammer on the middle and high-level traders that fund and truly profit from the ivory trade. Lock them up for life.
A policy that focuses on punishing guys like Stephen, the poacher we meet in the film, will always be ineffective. That guy’s back is against the wall and it would be hard for me to say that I’d do something different if I were in his shoes.
The trouble is that the legal angle of the solution eventually runs aground because the biggest perpetrators are effectively above the law.
The film does a great job showing the other side, how poverty forces the park’s neighbors to poach. Is there are work being done to alleviate that pressure? Anything being done to improve the lives of those neighbors?
AP: The systemic poverty you see around the parks is a direct result of poor governance. Sadly, very little is being done for those people. They resent the park’s existence as it impinges upon their fragile livelihood and it always has. They see no benefit from tourism.
The DSWT is trying to reverse that psychology and foster a sense of stewardship, but as a non-government actor, it’s really tricky for them. The best they can do is educate and perhaps employ a handful of rangers from those communities.
This human versus nature mentality is global. The elephant poaching crisis is a moment in history where the ambassador of the non-human wilderness happens to be able to look us in the eye. It’s not a melting glacier or an impenetrable rainforest. Our demise is staring at us. How we deal with this problem is really a test of our species’ right to exist.
Is there any collusion between the officials like rangers and the poachers?
AP: Absolutely. There’s an insidious system of pay-offs at every level.
Did you run into any danger yourself in making the film?
AP: On one occasion, we were tracking a wounded elephant on foot, a giant bull, alongside a Kenya Wildlife Service vet. The goal was to creep up next to this massive creature and dart him so that the vet could treat a poison arrow wound. That elephant wanted nothing to do with us and evaded us for two days.
However, at the end of the second day, he decided he was done running away. He nestled himself behind some trees and let us get really close. We were all focused on getting the shot (the vet with his dart and me with my camera) and suddenly the trees basically exploded and this “wounded” bull comes charging out at us.
As it was the first time this had happened to me, I watched the first few seconds of action through the lens without really reacting. Then as men with machine guns sprinted past me in the other direction I decided I should also get moving.
We darted hither and thither and I think I may have even leaped over a fallen tree the size of a VW Bug. Thankfully after about 15 seconds of terror, the elephant felt he had made his point and let us go on with our lives. He ended up getting away and wasn’t seen again by our team.
How did you connect with the filmmakers?
KD: I met Bryn Mooser and he had two friends who were in Kenya at the time: Anneliese Vandenberg and Austin Peck. We called them and asked if they would do a three-minute short. They were galvanized and begged me to do a full-length feature. I am so thrilled with what they have created! What’s the Santa Barbara connection to this film?
AP: Before moving to Kenya, Santa Barbara was home to both directors. We’ve probably done a combined 20 years there. For me, I was a Gaucho twice — both grad and undergrad, having done a PhD in biology, which naturally led me to make documentary films.
What were some challenges faced in shining light on this issue?
KD: Sometimes it is surprisingly difficult to get press coverage about the imminent extinction of a beloved animal species! I assume this is because our media world is chaotic, at best. Also people don’t know that they can help! We need to apply political pressure on our states to ban ivory. California just had this legislation introduced. People can let their lawmakers know that they care about what happens to the elephants. Also, obviously NEVER buy ivory!
Additionally, you can foster one of the orphaned baby elephants at the DSWT. When you foster an elephant, you will be helping them to heal and grow up with their new adopted elephant family. And eventually they will choose when they are ready to live in the wild again. See
sheldrickwildlifetrust.org for more information on the Trust and their foster program.
What’s your next project?
AP: Top secret. (Not the Val Kilmer and Omar Sharif film).