ELEPHANT REFUGEES – Review by Rachel West

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In 2014, when Botswana banned the poaching of elephants it created a refugee crisis of elephantine proportions for the country and the species. Among the elephant population, “news” of the country becoming a new safe haven for the mammals spread among herds, prompting a mass migration into Botswana from neighbouring countries. While the ban is a boon for animal welfare activists and conservationists, the migration of the elephants has put a strain on Botswana and the people who have taken it upon themselves to provide for the giant creatures.

In Louise Hogarth’s documentary Elephant Refugees, she profiles the Moller family and their unending efforts to provide water for elephants at their Elephant Sands lodge. Battling against unprecedented drought, climate change, and an ecosystem pushed to its limits, the elephant population in Botswana has swelled to the point where 60% of Africa’s elephants now live in the country.

Positioning elephants as “refugees” whose migration and escape has not only changed the landscape, but our response to it, has positioned the international community to react to and aid them in their plight. Highly aware of their surroundings, these emotional and intelligent creatures come in search of help from the Mollers in the form of water while Southern Africa experiences its worst drought in living memory.

After an exhausting journey across sandy woodlands of the Kalahari ravaged by climate change, the elephant herds are in desperate need of the water the Mollers provide. But giving access to the elephants is a struggle for the Mollers and the lodge. With hunting camps closing under the poaching ban, their generators and wells have dried up, reducing the number of water wells for the elephants. Now, the Mollers have almost exclusively become the sole providers of water for the elephants and when their own wells run dry, the animals resort to breaking into the lodge, desperately searching for water in toilet tanks, sinks, and even sewage pits. With dwindling resources and a reliance on tourists to the lodge in order to have the funds to provide water, the Mollers are at a crossroads, having to make decisions between filling a pool to attract tourists and giving that water to the elephants.

With narration by Game Of Thrones’ Jerome Flynn, Hograth focuses her story on the Moller’s fight for survival, with intimate access into multiple generations of family and staff who are doing all they can for these creatures in their quest to keep the lodge open and water flowing. While bringing this topic to light is important and at times heartbreaking, Hogarth brings plenty of touching and humourous moments with these creatures to the screen.

There are the “naughty” regulars who get up to mischief in their search for water, the adorable babies, and the elephant who puts its trust so completely in the lodge staff it “asks” for help when injured in a move that even a wildlife vet has never seen before. With touching moments like this mixed with scenes that will be hard for animal lovers to take in, Elephant Refugees gives a unique insight into how the actions of humans have changed the course for an entire species, offering viewers a newfound lens with which to view not just elephants, but the water crisis.

As with most wildlife documentaries, the eye-opening message here is what will have a lasting effect on viewers making for a worthwhile watch.

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Rachel West

Rachel West is a Toronto-based producer for ET Canada with a B.A. in Film Studies. A Tomatometer-approved critic, she's a regular contributor to That Shelf. She's interviewed everyone from Michael Fassbender to Miss Piggy and has reported live from TIFF, the SAG Awards, Comic-Con, and the Golden Globes, among other events. Her film writing has appeared in publications including Globalnews.ca, The National Post, Cineplex Magazine, Letterboxd, and more. Find her on Twitter: @rachel_is_here