Telling the story of forest elephants in Central African Republic

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Telling the story of forest elephants in Central African Republic

Posted by Scott in Film 02 Apr 2014

One of the great new projects we are collaborating on is a documentary film by director Todd McGrain, which tells the story of The Elephant Listening Project (ELP) and the organization’s research on the threatened African forest elephants at Dzanga Sangha Special Reserve in Central African Republic.  I am working as the director of photography on the project.

Director Todd McGrain uses a 600mm telephoto lens to capture detailed images of elephants at Dzanga Bai. (Scott Anger/Pandau)
Director Todd McGrain uses a long telephoto lens to capture detailed images of elephants at Dzanga Bai. (Scott Anger/Pandau)

The film follows the work of Andrea Turkalo, a member of the ELP team and a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, who has devoted the past two decades to the first demographic study of forest elephants.  The ongoing study examines the complex social systems, language and ecology of the African forest elephants.  (Learn more about Andrea and her work here and here.)

Although the ELP works throughout the greater Congo basin, the majority of Andrea’s research work has taken place at Dzanga Bai.  Dzanga Bai is considered to be the “Grand Central Station” of forest clearings, known as a “bais”, where the elephants gather to eat and socialize.

Founded in 1999 by naturalist Katy Payne and several colleagues, The Elephant Listening Project is associated with the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York.  The ELP roots stretch back to 1984 when Katy discovered low frequency communication between two Asian elephants in separate cages at the Portland Zoo.  That discovery led to further research into the way elephants use sounds below the threshold of human hearing to communicate over vast distances.  A large part of the research conducted by the ELP includes recording elephant vocalizations using remote devices placed in the forest.  (Watch a video of Katy giving a talk about elephant vocalizations.)

Researchers say between 60,000 and 150,000 African forest elephants exist in the wild today.  They are a distinct species from their better-known cousin, the African savannah elephant found elsewhere on the continent.  Forest elephants are smaller in size and have more rounded ears and straighter tusks than the savannah elephants.  Due to the desirability of their ivory, illegal poaching by organized groups is a major threat to the species.

“We have lost 60 per cent of forest elephants in the Congo basin to poaching during the first decade of this century. At that rate, they could go extinct within 10 years,” Andrea warned in an interview with New Scientist in January.

Bleached bones are all that remain of an elephant killed  in May 2013 at Dzanga Bai. (Scott Anger/Pandau)
Bleached bones are all that remain of an elephants killed by poachers at Dzanga Bai in May 2013. (Scott Anger/Pandau)

Violence escalated in Central African Republic after rebel forces, known at Seleka, took over the capital Bangui and seized power in March 2013.  Fearing for her safety, Andrea fled the country after the coup and returned to the United States.  She has been waiting until the situation improves before returning to resume her research.  

Scores of people have been killed in the civil war and subsequent sectarian violence while more than a million have been refugees since Andrea’s departure.

Todd, Guillermo Fernandez Florez, the sound recordist on the film, and I travelled to Central African Republic in December to film the elephants and to follow Andrea’s local colleagues who stayed behind to continue working in her absence.

Forest elephants gather to dig for minerals in the mud at Dzanga Bai. (Scott Anger/Pandau)
Forest elephants gather to dig for minerals in the mud at Dzanga Bai. (Scott Anger/Pandau)

The film is being produced through The Lost Bird Project, a non-profit organization focusing on art and the environment.  Todd is the creative director of the organization and I previously served as its managing director.

Production on the film is expected to continue into the summer.  Our hope is to follow Andrea when she returns to resume her work with the elephants at Dzanga Bai.

– Scott

 Screen Shot 2014-03-27 at 11.54.40 AM

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