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Opinion – The Elephant Whisperer is necessary and urgent

Netflix’s latest nature documentary follows the story of Raghu, an elephant in India. It highlights problems within our conservation efforts and the important of nurturing our natural world.

Each time we visit my maternal grandparent’s house in Talcher, we pass through the districts of Dhenkanal, down the road that connects the district of Cuttack to the district of Angul in Odisha.

Passing through, amongst the many visits that we do yearly, we once witnessed large land mammals crossing a national highway. They were elephants; gigantic, magnificently intelligent creatures considered holy according to Hindu mythology and Buddhist tales.

The next day on television we saw multiple reports of elephant deaths.

These included an electric mishap, one stuck inside a gorge, dying slowly and struggling to survive, another murdered for its tusks, and one killed as a result of land dispute between forceful settlers.

Netflix’s latest documentary, The Elephant Whisperers, is an ode to these magnanimous animals and the destruction they face. It is the story of an elephant and its caretakers, an exploration of any two beings who choose to co-exist within a world where climate action and conservation is not prioritised.

The film takes place inside the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, located in the Nilgiris District of Tamil Nadu and spread over the tri-junction of three states, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. The Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve, the first in India, is situated here.

Inside this nature reserve is the oldest elephant camp in Asia, Theppakadu Elephant camp, established around 100 years ago. Located on the banks of the river Moyar, this camp is the perfect example of human nature co-existence.

The film’s narrative features Bomman and Bellie, a middle-aged couple of elephant caretakers heralding a generation of indigenous tribes called the Kattunayakan. They coexist with wildness — wild animals, wild plants, wild insects — and everything it brings with it.

For them, elephants are their gods, and the forest is their mother. This is the story of Raghu, an abandoned elephant who was displaced from its herd as a baby and was then saved from almost certain death by the immense care of Bomman. It was soon joined by the motherly care of Bellie.

As you watch Raghu grow, the conservational history of India unfolds.

India launched the JFM (Joint Forest Management) program in the 1980s to work closely with local communities, protecting and managing forests. These efforts have since fallen out of place, with little care given to individuals nurturing local ecosystems.

The Elephant Whisperers proves how integral indigenous communities and their existence inside forestlands are to biodiversity conservation. A line that stayed with me from the programme is, ‘we take what is necessary from the forest and never more. There is no greed here.’

Watching The Elephant Whisperers breaks apart what it means to look at biodiversity conservation.

The film encourages audiences to question how they define a ‘familial bond’, spending considerable time exhibiting the connection between Bomman, Bellie, Raghu, and Ammu.

‘Everyone now calls me the mother of elephants and that makes me proud,’ she says. ‘Everything about him is like a human, except that he cannot talk.’

It made me reflect on how easily we view biodiversity as a separate entity, as something that is never an intrinsic part of us.

Indigenous tribes like those from which Bomman and Bellie come have always been an integral part of the forest and its history. Their birth, their death, and their breath were all one. We all came from the same source.

There is no line separating humans and creatures, regardless of how strongly modern life encourages us to remove ourselves from the natural world.

To that end, there is no solution to saving nature if there is no awakening of environmental consciousness amongst the public. It is through films like The Elephant Whisperers that public opinion can be changed, informing the masses in meaningful ways that can eventually be converted into action.

The Elephant Whisperers renewed my love of climate action, a field I am aspiring to excel in.

There is a certain amount of warmth and glow to the film too, with scenic, magical shots of Raghu and his parents commonplace throughout. When Bellie feeds Raghu or when Bomman plays football, for example, you are left with mixed feelings of sadness and endearment.

Despite its sentimental tones, the themes of climate destruction that sit at the heart of the film are extremely pressing.

On average, indigenous territories in the Amazon Basin lost 0.17 percent of the carbon stored in their forests each year between 2003 and 2016 due to forest degradation, according to a report titled ‘Forest Governance by Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’.

In contrast, forests outside indigenous territories and protected areas lost 0.53 percent each year, 0.36 percent more than the indigenous territories.

Despite this, displacement of tribes has been rampant, disturbing the fragile ecosystem of forests and changing them drastically at a faster rate.

The forest fire in Simipal reserve of Odisha went unchecked, growing into a devastating disaster. There were few indigenous tribes in the area to keep it under control, serving as an example of how excluding native people in conservation plans makes them redundant.

Indigenous communities and JFMs are more important than ever. We need to protect these initiatives just as the documentary shows, through love, support, care, and mutual respect for humans and nature.

This upcoming Oscars season, India has had multiple film nominations. One particularly discussed movie is RRR, the now winner of Best Original Song at Golden Globe and Best Non-English Language Film at Critics Choice Awards.

Amidst the hype for these big-budget giants, an important but small-scale documentary like The Elephant Whisperers has gone largely unnoticed, despite its urgent themes of climate action and impending disaster. This 41-minute gem of a documentary deserves much more.