Amongst the prodigious assortment of natural history and wildlife films on offer today, some stand out, and fall in the category of ‘definitely worth seeing’. Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale is one such film.
Title: Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale
A Vulcan Productions Film
In Association with Off the Fence
Directors: Ben Bowie and Geoff Luck
Executive Producers: Paul G. Allen and Jody Allen
Producers: Emre Izat and Hilary Sparrow
By Linda Pfotenhauer
Some sceptics may argue that animals unequivocally do not have emotions, or at least do not experience emotion as human beings do. They draw a clear distinction between all other species and homo sapiens, whom they believe superior and at the top of the evolutionary scale.
Others somehow draw a line between their pet dogs and cats, with whom they have close everyday contact and can recognise feelings, and wild animals.
Yet the plethora of wildlife films aired daily on such Nature channels as National Geographic Wild, Animal Planet and BBC Earth bring all of us – sceptics or not – closer to the recognition that wild animals do have feelings, often running the gamut of what we ourselves experience.
Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale, a film about an orphaned elephant calf rescued and resuscitated back to good health, drives home that point in no uncertain terms.
With plenty of extreme close-ups of the troubled animal’s face and eyes, we come to see and understand her feelings, ranging from – initially – loss, grief, fear, loneliness and rejection, to ill health, confusion and a driving hunger for affection, and later, when her predicament takes a positive turn, happiness, contentment and well-being. It is all out there in front of us, unmistakable and at times startlingly similar to our situations.
Naledi’s story begins with her birth, astounding and rarely captured footage of the actual moment when she emerges from her mother’s womb, landing on the ground with a muffled thud. She belongs to a group of trained elephants at Abu’s Camp located in the extreme northern reaches of the Okavango Delta, Botswana, where tourists can come to experience the ultimate – a walking safari with African elephants. The film takes place at the nearby Elephants Without Borders (EWB) Conservation Ecology Research Station.
Naledi (whose name means ‘star’ in the native Setswana language) struggles to get up and stand steady on her wobbly legs and feet, to which her mother, Kitti, urgently comes to her assistance. We see touching scenes of affection and bonding between the baby and her mother, siblings and other elephants in the herd.
But then, things go horribly wrong when rather suddenly Naledi’s mother becomes ill and dies. The grieving calf falls into poor health, and seeks affection, reassurance and milk from her ‘aunties’ and sisters; but, not having milk for her to suckle, they reject her, pushing her away and out of the herd.
As Naledi weakens and falls into ill health, the decision is taken by camp managers and researchers to move her to a separate area for treatment and feeding. At first the disoriented calf panics, repeatedly banging her head against the wire fencing and refusing the bottle of specially prepared elephant milk. She is seen almost comically climbing on the lap of one handler, obviously in need of physical contact and affection. He strokes and cuddles her, using the warmth and security of a blanket to reassure her.
There is quite a struggle to get Naledi to accept the bottle, with some rather humorous scenes of persistent handlers with errant calf. But in the end, they succeed and the baby elephant is on the road to recovery.
After four months of care by a group of dedicated handlers – whose love of the animal is clear and who even present her with a cake on her first birthday – we see Naledi healthy, strong and happy. She is successfully adopted by the herd, with dramatic and rather touching footage of her siblings rushing to her side, the animals greeting each other by touching and intertwining trunks, and Naledi placed squarely in the centre of a protective circle they create for her, the bonding already taking place.
“Naledi’s situation reminds me of how many orphaned elephants there are on the continent now, how many have lost their mothers to poaching,” comments Dr. Michael Chase, elephant researcher and founder and director of EWB and its Conservation Ecology Research Station, who leads the rescue effort for Naledi.
Indeed Naledi’s story is emblematic of the dire situation of the African elephant in so many parts of Africa today. And by personalising the situation, drawing the viewers into her tragedy and triumph, they are compelled to examine the wider picture – 30 000 elephants poached every year, one elephant every 15 minutes – and the urgency of the race to keep her, and all elephants, protected and alive.
Interspersed in this gripping story are scenes of Dr. Chase and research assistants flying over and visiting countries where poaching is taking its toll, such as Ethiopia and Kenya. This is part of EWB’s ambitious Great Elephant Census which has collected scientific data on elephant numbers and whose goal is to “count every elephant on the continent,” according to Dr. Chase. They discover national parks gone asunder and poached elephant carcasses.
“I have seen a lot of elephants poached, tusks and body parts hacked off. How can you possibly display ivory in your home knowing this fallen carcass is where it has come from? It’s happening on our watch. It’s unsustainable.” a visibly troubled Dr. Chase asserts.
The film ends with disturbing scenes of carved ivory for sale in China, elephant body parts piled in warehouses and huge piles of ivory being burned in Dubai. There is an impassioned plea from Dr. Chase speaking at an International Wildlife Trafficking Conference, along with former Botswana President and staunch conservationist, Lt. Gen. Dr. Seretse Khama Ian Khama.
“It is up to us to act now,” says Chase, “and we don’t have a lot of time.”
Parting shots remind the viewer that the sale of ivory remains legal across the globe and entreats the viewer to join the fight to ban the ivory trade.
‘Every elephant counts’ is the final message; and indeed by following Naledi’s absorbing story we see how that is inexorably true.
Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale was the winner of the 2016 Jackson Hole International Elephant Film Festival, USA. The film is aired on the PBS series, Nature and Netflix.
© copyright: Linda Pfotenhauer
Information courtesy of Elephants Without Borders, Kasane, Botswana
Suggestion: this section would likely benefit from a discussion of poaching of elephants in Africa as an introduction. And the discussion of the film may benefit from shortening.