Against a backdrop of luminous natural beauty, pierced by callous human violence, an American biologist, a Bayaka tracker, a Bantu eco-guard, and an Israeli security contractor form an unlikely alliance. As their lives converge on the paths of the last wild herd of forest elephants in the Central African Republic, each will be tested by the realities of war and the limits of hope for the majestic animals they have committed their lives to study and protect.
Dzanga Bai—village of elephants—is a clearing in the rainforest in a remote corner of the Central African Republic (CAR). African Grey parrots swoop and rare Forest Elephants congregate here to bathe in the mud and drink the mineral-rich water. According to Andrea Turkalo, an American field biologist who has studied the Forest Elephants for twenty-three years, “Dzanga Bai is one of the wonders of the natural world.”
But the lush canopy in the Dzanga National Park is not enough to keep the elephants safe. Political unrest, poverty, and greed fuel a poaching pandemic that threatens their very existence. Fifty thousand elephants live in the Central African Rainforest. Last year 14,000 were illegally slaughtered for their ivory.
As the CAR descends into lawlessness and chaos, the lives of the people dedicated to safeguarding these elephants converge. Among them is Sessely Bernard, an elder of the Bayaka tribe, the indigenous people; Zephirine Mbele, an eco-guard on the front lines of the anti-poaching efforts; Nir Kalron, Israeli environmental security contractor. And Andrea, whose sustained presence at the clearing and her close relationship with the Bayaka, have been important factors in keeping poaching to a minimum at Dzanga Bai. Each day Andrea and Sessely sit side by side on the wooden observation platform, talking quietly about the elephants as they file in from the forest. Moses has a scar. Anatol has rips in his ears. Brys likes to charge. There is Romana, Ezra, Izzy and Madonna. For decades Andrea and Sessely have watched the elephants bathe and play and grow. They’ve seen newborns coaxed along, youths tussle, and young bulls learn to be males. But when they receive word that the Seleka, an alliance of rebel militia factions that overthrew the government, is about to enter the park they are forced to leave their post.
The rebels declare that no one may enter they park; they alone will patrol it. Andrea flees for the border. Sessely and his tribe leave their village and seek sanctuary in the rainforest. Zephirine retreats to the relative safety of the nearby Bantu village.
Fearfully, Sessely walks the forest at night, skirting the bai, listening for the elephants. He hears a jeep and a crash of gunfire. A group of rebels massacres twenty-six elephants and vanishes with their tusks.
The carnage receives international attention and Nir Kalron, a former Israeli commando, intercedes. Kalron negotiates with the rebel leaders. Afraid of international condemnation, the rebel General signs an agreement to stop elephant poaching.
Nir fortifies the elephant observation platform with surveillance cameras and using military techniques trains Zephirine and the other eco-guards. The anti-poaching patrols resume. Andrea returns to Dzanga. She and Sessely once again sit side by side in the observation post. The four friends take up their work, painfully aware that the terrible violence will continue to reverberate across their lives and the lives of the elephants of Dzanga Bai.
Rue des Elephants presents four dramatically different perspectives on the civil war and poaching crisis that threaten the last wild herd of Forest Elephants.
Dzanga Bai, Bayanga Region, Central African Republic.
A “Bai” is a clearing in the rainforest. Dzanga Bai is unique for its large population of Forest Elephants. Between 60 and 100 elephants visit the clearing each day. Much of what we know about the social structure of Forest Elephants comes from observations of interactions at the Dzanga forest clearing.
The Central African Republic is a land-locked country bordering Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo and Cameroon. It is the poorest country in Africa and one of the least developed. A coup d’état in 2012 has left the county in an entrenched and violent civil conflict.
Forest Elephants, a vanishing species
Found in Central and West Africa, Forest Elephants now number fewer than 100,000, down from about one million when Europeans first ventured into Central Africa.
The Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) is morphologically distinct from the Savannah Elephant (Loxodonta africana) – smaller in size, smaller more rounded ears, and straighter, thinner, denser tusks.
Much Forest Elephant habitat lies within countries with a history of civil unrest and poverty, both of which increase the incentive for poaching.
Forest Elephants are difficult to census due to their dense habitat, and poaching activity is harder to detect for the same reason. The greatest challenge to Forest Elephants today is illegal killing to feed the ivory trade. As enforcement strengthens elsewhere in Africa, poachers will increasingly target Forest Elephant populations.
Key Project Staff
Producer/Director/Editor Todd McGrain
Todd McGrain turned his attention to documentary film after a 25-year career as a sculptor. His accomplishments as a sculptor include the prestigious Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and the Audubon Award for Art Inspiring Conservation. His sculptures are part of several major museum collections in the United States and abroad. In 2010, McGrain’s work to create permanent public memorials to birds driven to extinction in modern times became the subject of a documentary film, The Lost Bird Project, produced by Middlemarch Films. This rewarding experience led McGrain to his current focus on the plight of the Forest Elephants of Central Africa. Though Rue des Elephants is McGrain’s first feature length documentary, his understanding of the value of storytelling to raise awareness of our current extinction crisis has been formed over decades of dedication and commitment.
Producer/Cinematographer Scott Anger
Scott Anger is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and independent journalist. In 2014, he won an Emmy Award for the film, Hunger in the Valley of Plenty, which explores food insecurity in central California. Anger’s credits include a number of films for the acclaimed documentary program FRONTLINE (PBS) about ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and South Asia. Two of the films have been awarded the Alfred I. duPont Award for Excellence in Journalism from Columbia University, television’s highest journalism award. Anger was the co-producer and cinematographer for The Lost Bird Project, a film directed by Deborah Dickson and produced by Middlemarch Films, about sculptor Todd McGrain.
Executive Producer Dr. Andrew Stern
Andy Stern is an Associate Professor of Neurology at The University of Rochester but now devotes himself fully to raising awareness about the environment through activities of The Lost Bird Project.
Editor Sara Khaki
Sara Khaki is an emerging independent documentary filmmaker and editor with a passion for telling untold stories that matter in our lives. She graduated from the University of Maryland Baltimore County with a BFA in Film/Video, and the School of Visual Arts with a MFA in Social Documentary Film. From the strength of her thesis film Facing The Mirror, Sara was named the SVA Social Documentary and an Alumni Scholarship award recipient. Sara was born and raised in Tehran, Iran, and she currently resides in New York City.