What we saw through the Elephant

   A herd of wild elephants scavenge for food at a garbage dump adjacent to a forest. We saw this picture of elephants on the Internet in December 2020, and it became the catalyst for us to make a documentary film. Elephants are familiar to those of us who work in film production based in Northern Thailand. We have witnessed the destruction of nature and the garbage problem caused by rapid economic development in Thailand on a daily basis. That’s why the photos were shocking, but at the same time, it was a scene that we could never imagine happening to anyone else.

   Even in Thailand, where forests are drastically diminishing, wild elephants are raiding the fields of neighboring villages in search of food, causing frequent clashes with local residents. In Thailand, elephants have been domesticated for many years and have become the mainstay of the country’s tourism industry. However, due to the pandemic of the new corona, most of the “tourist elephants” have become “unemployed” and are now in a critical situation of starvation and disease. What is the current situation of Asian elephants trying to tell us? Such a question was the beginning of my search for a film production project.

Photographs taken in the vicinity of a wildlife sanctuary in Tlingkomari, northeastern Sri Lanka. (Photo by Sergii Rudiuk)

Contradictions in Human Society Revealed by Pandemic

   Thailand is the world’s eighth largest tourist nation, with tourism accounting for 20% of its GDP. The elephants working at elephant camps (facilities for elephant tourism) support this behind-the-scenes work. The population of wild elephants in Thailand is said to be about 2,000, and that of domestic elephants about 3,800 according to 2017 statistics. One elephant camp manager described the impact of the pandemic.

  “Before the Corona disaster, elephant tourism was a lucrative business. Elephants were hard-working breadwinners, but now that there is no tourism income, it has turned into a huge economic burden.” Elephants, which eat several hundred kilograms of food a day, have turned into negative assets after the pandemic. However, this is just the selfish logic of human society. Asian elephants, which have been exploited for the pursuit of human wealth and desires, have now become victims of the pandemic. The image of the chained tourist elephants overlapped with the wild elephants in the garbage dumps scavenging for food. Isn’t this human-centered thinking itself already reaching its limits?

Reunion with animal rights activist Lek

   While the search for elephants continues, there was one crucial encounter that spurred us to start our film project. It was a five-year reunion with Sanduan “Lek” Chailert, an internationally renowned Asian elephant conservationist. About 20 years ago, Mr. Lek was the first Thai to speak out against the animal cruelty behind elephant tourism, and he gained a great deal of support from overseas. But domestically, she has faced fierce opposition from elephant tourism officials for many years. She now serves as the deputy head of the Animal Protection Advisory Committee in the Thai Parliament, and domestic attitudes toward tourist elephants are slowly beginning to change. When we met her again, she was traveling around the country in her work clothes and boots to rescue elephants suffering from the corona scourge, provide food aid, and support elephant breeders. “Every living thing has a role to play and a meaning to its existence. The problem of the new corona was caused by the human-centered, economy-first society. Through the plight of the Asian elephants and other animals affected by the corona disaster, I believe we should seriously reexamine the relationship between nature, animals and people.” With these words from Ms. Lek, the wild elephants at the tourist dump suffering from hunger were connected by a line. By following the current situation of elephants in Thailand and the people who protect them, I believe that we can learn something important from a very unique and local story. It was from this encounter that the filming of the documentary film “Roars of the Elephant” began, with all hands on deck. 

Elephants are chained and their activities are severely restricted in elephant camps where there is no tourism income.

Our dependence on the natural world

   Human desire for wealth has led to the destruction of rich nature and the development of every corner of the earth. As we are embedded in a cycle of mass production, mass consumption, and mass disposal, we are faced with the unavoidable consequences of this cycle, such as global warming and environmental destruction.

   Dr. Jane Gudahl, a world-renowned animal behaviorist who studies chimpanzees, attributes the new corona pandemic to humanity’s disregard for nature and disregard for animals.

  “When we destroy the forest, the various animals in the forest are forced to live in close proximity to each other, which results in the transmission of disease from animal to animal. As a result, diseases are transmitted from one animal to another, and the disease-carrying animals come into close contact with humans, increasing the possibility of human infection.

   “Dr. Gudal continued, “We must realize that we are part of the natural world, that we depend on it, and that to destroy it is to rob our children of their future. How does the story of elephants under a pandemic and the people trying to protect them coalesce into the theme of “the connection between nature, animals and people”…? The filming and production of the documentary film “Roars of the Elephant” was an experimental journey to find out. I hope to actively share the reality that emerges through the interesting existence of Asian elephants with people in Japan and around the world through online events during the production process and the final film, and to connect this to the search for a sustainable future.

A walk through the forests of Northern Thailand during the rainy season reveals a wide variety of plants and creatures.

Elephants in the “Elephant Nature Park” with Mr. Lek, the representative of Save the Elephants Foundation.

The main characters in the documentary film "Roars of the Elephant" Chailert Lek Sandhuang

Elephants at the Elephant Nature Park with Mr. Lek, President of Save the Elephants Foundation.

Elephants at the Elephant Nature Park with Mr. Lek, President of Save the Elephants Foundation.

   Chailert Lek Sandhuang, who appears in the film, is from the Kham ethnic minority and was born in 1961 in a mountain village in northern Thailand. He learned a lot about nature from his grandfather, a local shaman, and grew up feeling close to the animals of the forest. In 1996, he and his co-founder opened the Elephant Nature Park, an elephant facility for tourists, but in the 2000s, they shifted their focus to elephant conservation. In 1996, he and his co-founder opened the Elephant Nature Park for tourism. In the 2000s, they shifted their focus to elephant conservation, and the park now houses about 3,000 animals, including about 100 elephants, dogs, cats, horses, and buffaloes.

   Lek, who is also the founder of Save the Elephant Foundation, has been actively working to protect the endangered Asian elephant with support from overseas. In Thailand, where elephants have historically been domesticated, elephant conservation activities and changing attitudes toward elephants is not an easy task. However, her steady efforts have been reported by National Geographic, BBC, and other media, and she has received international acclaim, including being named an “Asian Hero” by Time magazine in 2005 and one of the “Six Women Heroes of Global Environmental Conservation” by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010. Currently, she serves as the deputy head of the Animal Protection Advisory Committee in the Thai Parliament, promoting the protection of tourist and wild elephants, while continuing to inform people around the world about the current situation of elephants and other animals through online media.

The activities of the Save the Elephants Foundation can be viewed daily on:

Save Elephant Foundation: https://www.saveelephant.org 

"The Roars of the Elephant" Project Team K.M.Tomyam

Mr. Reck, Yasuhiko Okuno and Mieko Saho of the “Roars of the Elephants” production project
the three first met back in 2009.

Mr. Reck, Yasuhiko Okuno and Mieko Saho of the “Roars of the Elephants” production project the three first met back in 2009.

   K.M.Tomyam Co., Ltd. a video production company established in Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2004 by Yasuhiko Okuno, a photographer and video director, is currently working on the project “Roars of the Elephant” Since its establishment, K.M.Tomyam Co., Ltd. has been in charge of producing news programs on Thailand for the JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization) program, “The World is Now,” as well as PR videos for Japanese companies and NGOs in Thailand and the JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) Laos branch. From 2014 to 2019, with the cooperation of local governments such as Sapporo City and Iwate Prefecture, he produced a number of programs to promote travel to Japan for Thai people, which were broadcast on Thai TV stations.

 Since 2020, she has been focusing on documentaries based on the natural environment and sustainability, and is in charge of planning and filming for NHK World’s multilingual programs “Direct Talk” (15 minutes) and “Side by Side” (30 minutes). A mixed team of Japanese, Thai, and Canadian filmmakers is currently shooting in Thailand with the aim of submitting the film to film festivals.

Mr. Reck, Yasuhiko Okuno and Mieko Saho of the “Roars of the Elephants” production project; the three first met back in 2009.

Yasuhiko Okuno (Photographer, Video Director) Lives and works in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand

   From 1988 to 1994, he covered the apartheid regime in South Africa up to the birth of President Mandela with photographs and videos, and reported on it as a video journalist for Japanese newspapers, magazines, and Asahi Newstar. In 1995, he recorded the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake and its aftermath for three years, and published his findings in “Aera” and “Asahi Graph”. In 1998, he began photographing and documenting Paralympic athletes, covering the Nagano and Sydney Paralympic Games for a number of Japanese magazines, and in 2004, he was transferred to Thailand as a correspondent for a CS broadcasting station. In 2004, he was assigned to Thailand as a correspondent for a CS broadcasting station, where he planned and produced 16 half-hour programs introducing Thai society, culture, and lifestyle for the station’s program “Asian View”. 2005, he established K.M. Tomyam Co. In 2014, he spent a month in Swaziland, Africa, as part of an image production project for Doctors Without Borders (a joint team from Switzerland and Japan), and documented the current situation of HIV in the region. K.M.Tomyam is currently in charge of the planning and filming of NHK World’s multilingual program “Direct Talk” (15 minutes) and the documentary “Side by Side” (30 minutes). He is the author of the photo book “Ubuntu – Living in South Africa” (Daisan Shokan), the photo book “Rubble” (Little More), the photo book “Body – Paralympic Athlete” (Little More), and the co-author “Under the Banyan Tree” (Iwanami Shoten). Co-authored “Tetsubin Monogatari” (A Tale of Tetsubin), a record of a survivor of the Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake (Kaisei-sha), etc.

Mieko Saho (writer, video director) lives in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand

   She Graduated from Gakushuin University with a degree in French literature. From 1988, she spent six years in South Africa covering the country’s turbulent society, culture, and traditions with Yasuhiko Okuno, reporting on video for Japanese magazines and the Asahi Shimbun’s CS program Asahi Newstar. After marrying Okuno and raising two children, she worked as a freelance writer, mainly conducting interviews and writing for such publications as “Aera” and “Cosmopolitan Japan. In 2004, she moved to Chiang Mai with her family as a correspondent for a CS broadcasting station. and supported the video production company K.M.Tomyam Co. She has a strong interest in environmental issues, nature conservation, and sustainability, and is an interviewer for NHK World’s multilingual program “Direct Talk. Her books include “Marie’s Choice: Love Beyond Apartheid” (Bungeishunju), “It’s Wonderful to Live (Miwa Natori and the Children of Baan Rom Sai)” (Kodansha), and “Healed by a Thousand Winds” (Kodansha).