‘Elephants in the Coffee’ Premieres August 30 at ABAC
TIFTON--A one-hour documentary titled “Elephants in the Coffee,” produced by Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College Associate Professor of Journalism Thomas Grant and his students, will premiere on Aug. 30 at 6 p.m. in Howard Auditorium on the ABAC campus. This event is free and open to the public.
The documentary shows how the expansion of coffee plantations in Southern India led to conflicts between humans and elephants. With hundreds of people and dozens of elephants dying each year, the film explores the question of whether farmers can co-exist with this endangered animal.
Grant first became aware of the issue on a CLIC Abroad trip to India. Created by his friend, D.K. Bhaskar, CLIC Abroad is a non-profit group dedicated to using photography to connect students from America and India. Grant has been a part of the program since 2011.
“During a CLIC Aboard trip in 2012, we took some students back to India, and we saw forest department elephant camps at the Nagarhole National Park,” said Grant. “At the time, there were 11 captive elephants there tended by mahouts (elephant keepers) from the Jenu Kuruba tribe. When I returned in 2014 with more ABAC students, there were 35 elephants in the camp. The question arose, why are there so many more captive elephants?”
Grant got his answer later that week when he watched the mahouts and government workers force two more freshly-captured wild elephants into giant wooden cages. These elephants were accused of killing people in a nearby agricultural area.
“We learned that due to the expansion of farming, particularly coffee plantations, led to more and more conflicts between endangered elephants and humans,” said Grant. “More than 100 people are killed by elephants each year in India. Because the pachyderms are protected by law they cannot be killed so the government’s solution has been to capture and force them into submission by tribal mahouts hired by the Indian government. This is what inspired the documentary.”
Grant and his team of students spoke to farmers of large and small coffee estates, including Tata Plantation, the largest coffee farming operation in India that has a joint agreement with Starbucks. Biologist Karthic Krishnan provided video of elephants living inside the coffee plantations of Tata and tracks the animal on the estates. Grant and the ABAC students also spoke with officers of the forest department, including former game warden K.M. Chinnappa, who has been working to protect elephants for more than 50 years; scientists and professors who study the human-elephant conflict; and veterinarians and mahouts who manage the captive animals.
The earliest video in the documentary was shot in 2012 but the bulk of the footage was done in 2014 and 2015 during two study abroad trips to India. A total of 10 ABAC students were heavily involved in the project from the conception to the shooting of the video. Their interviews offer the Western viewpoint of the issue. Five students from the Ponnampet Forestry College in southern India served as translators for the ABAC group.
“The rough cut of the documentary was completed in summer of 2016, and thanks to a faculty enrichment grant from the ABAC Foundation in the fall of 2016, I was able to complete the final cut during the spring of 2017,” said Grant.
Since its initial viewing, “Elephants in the Coffee” has won Best Documentary at the Doc Sunback Film Festival in Kansas. On Aug. 29, the film will be shown at Georgia Southwestern College. The documentary will also be shown in Washington, D.C. in September, the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in New York City this October, and has been selected by film festivals in Russia, India, Lithuania, Estonia, Italy, Canada, and the United States. Presently, Grant is trying to get wider distribution, focusing on showings at colleges and high schools, as well as broadcast, cable or video on demand sources.
Grant believes that elephants and farmers can co-exist, and hopes that some farmers, like those at the Tata estates, try to make that happen.
“Conflicts between wildlife and agriculture seldom have quick and easy solutions,” said Grant. “Our coffee comes from a complex ecosystem and resolving these issues will require concerted effort from inside India, and from abroad. We believe Starbucks, which is committed to environmentally sound practices, could take a leading role is trying to develop elephant-safe coffee.”
Toward that end, Grant is working with Dr. Jason Scott in the Forestry and Wildlife Department at ABAC to seek and find better ways to track elephants and reduce conflicts. And with CLIC Abroad, Grant is working toward creating an elephant education center near the national park in India that could help work toward co-existence.
“We love elephants, and we love coffee,” said Grant. “The world should be big enough to sustain both. But right now, Asian elephants are in a battle for survival because of these conflicts with agriculture. And few people in the Western world are even aware of the problem. We can’t solve the problem. But we can throw some light on it. When we see something terrible happening, as it is right now on the coffee plantations of India, we have a duty to do what we can.”