Fewer than 750,000 elephants are left in the world, according to conservationists’ estimates. And the average American drinks more than 1,100 cups of coffee very year, according to a Harvard School of Public Health study.
These statistics might seem unrelated, but D.K. Bhaskar, a Lenexa photographer, author and now filmmaker, shows they are crucially connected.
Bhaskar is co-director and co-producer of Elephants in the Coffee, an informative and moving documentary about the struggle between coffee plantation workers and the endangered animals living among their crops.
The other director and producer is Thomas Grant, a professor of journalism at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Georgia. Their film — at times necessarily graphic in its violence — features several of Grant’s students, whose emotions create a point of entry for viewers who might not know anything about the problem at hand.
Because the elephants’ natural habitats have been depleted, coffee plantations — with their ample shade, jackfruit and reliable water reservoirs — have become irresistible to the animals. Notoriously clever problem-solvers, elephants eventually find their way around any fences, trenches or other barriers established to keep them out of the crops.
In spite of their size, elephants are surprisingly quiet in the dense vegetation, and workers often come upon them unexpectedly, startling the elephants into attacking. Because of their endangered status and designation as an Indian National Heritage Animal, it is illegal to kill elephants. There are also restrictions on relocation and taming.
All of which creates a sometimes deadly situation.
Grant's students at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College spent about three weeks in India, he says.
“ABAC has the only undergraduate program in rural studies in America, and students have deep interest in issues affecting agriculture and small communities in the U.S. and around the world," he says. "Before beginning work on this documentary, they had no idea about the magnitude of human-elephant conflicts in India, but they do understand the importance of both agriculture and wildlife. This experience opened their eyes to many things.”
The educational experience is not one-sided, says Bhaskar. He's the founder of a non-profit called Children Learning International Cultures Abroad, which is a sponsor of the students’ trip.
The program, he says, can help “educate and empower the rural communities who are in the direct line of conflict to give them a broader understanding of the conflict and keep them aware and educated and also play an active role.”
That conflict is increasing quickly in size and severity, if the growing population of Anechowkur elephant camp is any indication. Anechowkur is a home for elephants that have been captured and relocated – specifically, elephants that have proven to threaten or harm humans.
“In 2012, Anechowkur elephant camp had about 10 elephants. When we came back two years later, the camp had nearly 35 elephants,” Grant says.
“They could identify and capture troublesome elephants, but was it right to do this?” Grant asks. “And was it an effective solution? That sent us down to path to making Elephants in the Coffee.”
The scenes of elephant capture and domestication are some of the film's most difficult.
“There are some compelling moments that make people uncomfortable,” Bhaskar admits.
This includes footage of mahouts, or elephant keepers, who train their charges in an arduous and years-long process. Some mahouts are paired with young elephants in what are intended to be life-long relationships (an elephant's life span is 60 or 70 years).
It is painful, and tragically ironic, to watch the mahout’s trained elephants expertly build too-small cages for other, newly captured elephants that have arrived at the camp. The relationships in play are achingly complicated. Although the training processes are undeniably cruel, the mahouts also clearly respect and admire the elephants in their care.
“They see god in this animal,” declares a mahout translator named Meghana Natraj.
“Many Americans have a Walt Disney image of elephants, and the graphic depictions in Elephants in the Coffee is going to disturb that pre-conception” Grant says. “Yes, I worry that at times the film is frightening, and that some of the treatment depicted is inhumane. But this is journalism, and we wanted people to see all sides of the issue.”
One weakness in that effort is the film's low-production look, which culminates in an odd animated sequence explaining the origin story of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu deity. The origin story is helpful in understanding parts of India’s complicated relationship with elephants, but the quality of the student-made drawings detracts from the seriousness of an otherwise professional and compelling film.
Viewers might also leave wanting more information on both the elephant’s “Heritage Animal” status and continued efforts at curbing poaching.
“Elephants continue to kill nearly a person a day in India, mostly because of conflicts over agricultural lands,” Grant laments.
But coffee-drinkers in the United States need not feel helpless.
“Starbucks needs to take the lead on this, and develop elephant-safe coffee throughout India,” he says. “Ask Starbucks to help its Indian partner Tata Coffee to continue programs of co-existence."
Bhaskar agrees: “The documentary is a reflection of global engagement on a project of great conservation importance. Well, who doesn't drink coffee, really?”
Elephants in the Coffee, 10 a.m. on Saturday, August 12 at the Olathe Indian Creek Library,13511 S Mur-Len Road, Ste. 129, Olathe, Kansas, 66062; filmmaker D.K. Bhaskar gives a talk after the screening. Space for the premiere is limited.
Melissa Lenos is an Assistant Professor of English at Donnelly College, where she teaches film studies, composition, literature and popular culture. She can be reached at email@example.com