The Elephant Whisperers
Synopsis: A couple cares for orphaned elephants in India. (Streaming on Netflix as of April 2023)
“O, my dear child.” These words are spoken by an adoptive parent to a child who had been orphaned as an infant. Now, the man, Bomman, and his partner, a woman, Bellie, care for the child, Raghu. They live together in a rural area in southern India.
The parents are human and the child is an elephant calf. What’s so remarkable is the close interspecies bond. Both species are intelligent and social animals, which helps them to understand each other. The little elephant, Raghu, was found collapsed and near death. He was brought to the Theppakadu Elephant Camp in the Tamil Nadu state.
In India, elephant camps were traditionally places where elephants were trained by mahouts to work in the timber industry. Naturally, they weren’t “recruited” with a good benefits package, but born into servitude or, in some places, elephant-napped as youngsters.
Today, roughly 2,500 elephants live in the area and twenty-four reside at the camp. Bellie and Bomman, looking to be in their fifties or sixties, are paid by the park service to care for orphaned calves. The couple are part of the Kattunayakan tribe that has traditionally lived in the region. Bomman says his people have long co-existed with elephants and know their ways. Their religious beliefs acknowledge the elephantine Hindu God, Ganesha. In fact, ceremonies to honor Ganesha include the elephants. The elephants, adorned with colored chalk designs, patiently stand with the people during the ceremonies. The bide their time eating the flower garlands they are adorned with and when asked to stop eating the decorations, they ignore the humans.
Bomman tells us that elephants are very intelligent and emotional. And dangerous. Yes, I can imagine that a tusked animal weighing over three tons who is being bossed about, or feeling threatened, could be dangerous. But back to the baby elephant…
Early in the day, Baby Raghu is bathed in the nearby river by Bomman. I’m not sure this is necessary, but all of the mahouts seem to use a lot of soap, as they scrub the elephants’ thick skin. At one point, Bomman chides the little ellie for losing the bell attached to his collar. In a voiceover, Bomman explains that young elephants can wander and the ringing bell helps the humans to locate them.
During the day’s peregrinations, Raghu is spirited and gentle with his caregivers. He does, however, get impatient waiting for his mega-bottle of formula, eagerly reaching forward with his trunk. Raghu sleeps in his own hut and isn’t shy about pushing his trunk into his carers’ hut to ask for a bottle before bedtime.
As you can imagine, the elephants need to eat A LOT. Besides foraging on their own, the twenty plus elephants at the camp are given provisions of millet, jaggery and coconut. Raghu doesn’t care for the millet, so the local langur monkeys scoop up that. When I read that jaggery is sugar cane, I could understand Raghu’s preferences. After all, wouldn’t you rather have sweetened coconut than millet (which is basically grass beads)?
While Bomman is attentive to Raghu, Bellie is positively doting. She has children from her first marriage, and applies her motherly knowledge and TLC to the calf. The director, Kartiki Gonsalves, spent about five years working on The Elephant Whisperers, so we see Raghu grow and evidently, Bellie and Bomman came to trust the filmmaker. As we see Bellie skirting the forest’s edge, she confides that she has been afraid of the forest. Not easy when your home is basically in the forest. And she certainly has reason to be afraid: her first husband was killed by a tiger. Now, I know that these big cats are just doing what comes naturally, but I couldn’t help but shake my head and tskk, Bad Cat. In fact, I think that the little elephants are sequestered in huts at night to keep them safe from roving carnivores. If a baby isn’t protected by a herd of adult female ellies, kitty can be quite a menace.
Just when you can relax, as we see Raghu seemingly quite accustomed to the humans and their ways, your heart lurches… another baby elephant has been rescued. We are told that she is only about five months old and was somehow separated from her family. The little darling is covered with downy hair and adorably uncoordinated. How precious. Who wouldn’t be charmed? Ahem, Raghu is not pleased with the new development. Like an only child used to being the center of attention, Raghu is jealous of the new baby. But–and this happens throughout the documentary — the elephant inclination to sensitivity shines through. Before long Raghu rushes to her side to comfort her, newly named Ammu, if she cries. And she clearly adores her big brother.
Alas, the countryside looks like a paradise (except for the killer tigers, of course), but powerful humans impact everything on Earth. The Kattunayakan people are not politically or economically influential. Likewise, individual elephants are impacted by park service decisions. The Elephant Whisperers shows us how security –of life or natural spaces –is never really settled. Many viewers of the film will be thousands of miles from where Bellie and Bomman, and Raghu and Ammu live, but you’ll feel a stake in the well-being of the people, elephants and this place.
To leave you with a happy thought: Bellie reports that her encompassing and successful raising of the little elephants has taken away her fear of the forest. As for myself, I would be within a hand’s length of a big elephant at all times for protection. And I’d bathe myself in lemon perfume, because I hear that cats hate citrus smells. But good for Bellie.
P.S. Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Short Film of 2022, Kartiki Gonsalves and Guneet Monga
P.P.S. Learn more about the importance of only visiting ethical elephant camps. Human use of elephants is not mutually beneficial for elephants: their labor can be cruelly exploited. Any tourist activities should be centered around observing elephants in their natural environment. Preservation of their habitat is crucial. Learn more here.
Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:
Cut to the Chase: Remarkable profile of elephants and the people who live among them.
Humor Highlight: How the elephants seem to accommodate their humans’ culture.
Cross Generational Appeal, Documentary, Oscar Winner, Streaming
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