The elephants living in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park experienced war trauma, much like any human would. Their flesh was hunted to feed soldiers, while their tusks were sought as ammunition.
As an introduction to the Center for Environmental Filmmaking’s spring 2013 film series, National Geographic’s David Hamlin featured clips from the television film “War Elephants” in Wechsler Theater on Feb. 5 to discuss the condition of dysfunctional, hostile elephants traumatized by ivory poaching and a civil war that lasted almost two decades.
Even though the area is now at peace, the elephants exhibit violent, aggressive behavior toward humans, signs that are similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the film.
The elephants who grew up during the war were most likely left as orphans, unable to learn the proper ways of parenting and herd leadership. Now the matriarchs, these malfunctioning elephants lead dysfunctional herds, and have instilled fear and hostility within their families.
“We’re not here to make them forget, but to teach them that not all people are bad,” head expert elephant researcher Joyce Poole said in the film.
This is not the first time elephants have been affected by war. In December, The New York Times released an article about a South African conservationist who worked with a group of wounded, dangerous elephants who would have otherwise been killed, learning to calm them and gain their trust.
“The broadcasters wanted unique access, never-before-seen behavior and charismatic personalities,” producer and writer of the film Hamlin said in a panel after the screening. “We delivered Bob and Joyce, charging elephants and a cool and crazy place.”
The journey, for the most part, was a smooth experience for the production crew once they arrived in the field. Getting there, on the other hand, took a bit of work.
When they pitched the idea, the team’s motto became “fingers crossed, we’ll survive.”
Led by Poole and her filmmaker brother, Bob, the production team approached the disturbed elephants on a daily basis in an attempt to neutralize their ancient yet vivid and traumatizing memories.
Each day, Joyce would cautiously approach the elephants in her Jeep and whisper to communicate reassurance. The sounds of her truck set off flashbacks for the elephants, forcing them to become alert and defensive.
On one occasion, Joyce played an old elephant recording, the sound of a baby elephant in distress under attack by a lion, to see how the head matriarch would respond.
A member of the audience challenged Poole’s technique, pointing out that her actions seemed more like a provocation than of sympathetic nature.
“There was a lot of controversy against Joyce in the scientist research community,” said Chris Palmer, a professor in the School of Communications and founder of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking. Joyce was accused of deliberately harassing the animals, Palmer said.
However, members of the Poole team had full faith.
“Joyce dedicated her life to this,”Hamlin said. “Nobody said she was doing the wrong thing. What we want people to take away is that the place is being given a second chance.”