Elephant Refugees stands apart from other documentaries of its ilk by focusing on the incredible personal costs of running small-scale conservation efforts.
In the Kalahari Woodlands of Botswana, Marie and Ben Moller have made it their life’s work to try to help the native elephant populations that have been driven from their native environments by manmade calamity. Climate change has created harsh drought conditions and depleted food supplies, and the last 50 years of poaching have ripped elephant communities to shreds. Elephant Sands, operated by the Mollers and their crew of dedicated workers, is a tourist destination that doubles as a refugee camp for the massive animals. They offer food, water, and medical care as best they can.
Elephant Sands is about 250 kilometers away from the nearest town. The closest trained veterinarian is a 15-hour drive. Botswana banned poaching on state land almost a decade ago; somehow, the Mollers argue, the elephants know it’s safer near their refuge. For the crew, that’s a double-edged sword. They sometimes end up with hundreds of giant new visitors a day. Elephants drink an enormous amount of water and take up so many resources that living at the Sands means a hardscrabble life. Tourists sometimes wake up in the middle of the night to find their homes being knocked over by the very animals they paid to visit.
Director Louise Hogarth does a superb job digging deep into the triumphs and tribulations of the conservationists working at the Sands. There are elephants they manage to save despite great odds and many more they’re unable to help despite their best efforts. Toward the end, there’s a lot of thoughtful contemplation about the meaning of their efforts. “We may find that in 75 years, we are heroes to our grandkids for conserving so many elephants,” someone muses. “Or maybe not.” The question of whether the ecosystem in Botswana can handle so many elephants migrating from other areas is a microcosm of humanity’s own future as climate change forces our own migrations. The conclusion — which drives Elephant Refugees — is that all we can do is what we can do, and if we just sit on our hands, nothing better is possible. So why not do something while we have the opportunity to help?