Here be Hefferlumps!

elecloseFor the past fortnight I have been shooting and editing a short piece for Jack highwood and Elephant Valley Thailand (EVT) about the arrival of their first elephants at the new sanctuary. EVT is an extension of the Elephant Valley project in Mondulkiri, Cambodia. It’s a sanctuary first and foremost, not a petting zoo or a place for elephant rides.

This job came up at very short notice and I had just a few days to book flights and get my ass to Chaing Mai in Northern Thailand. This was also an opportunity to fully test my new camera too. I’ve had it a while now but for the most part it’s only been used for a few interviews. It’s a significant step up from my last video camera and gives me the ability to shoot at double speed in full 1080HD for some stunning slow mo. In addition it gives me infrared capability too, which I intend to put to good use next month on some night shoots.


Leaving the border with the first elephant.

Back to the film. We headed south around 500km to Maesot on the Myanmar border, where we were to collect 4 female logging elephants. We met the first elephant quite literally right on the border, with Myanmar just meters away across a tiny stream.

She had a short journey to make to meet up with the other 3 for the start of the big journey the next day. I have to say it was hard to watch her being loaded. The locals seemed clueless how to deal with an elephant, much to Jacks frustration. Once on the truck she was fine and none the worse for wear after her short trip. The next day we met the owners and the trucks and Jack and his team were soon caught up in renegotiating a previously agreed deal. They wanted more money.

It took a while but all was eventually agreed and we then headed off to the elephants to have them scanned by a local official. Elephants in Thailand are micro chipped in an effort to avoid trafficking, but along with the mountain of paperwork involved this makes the process of moving an elephant very difficult.


Thai officials checking the elephants data chips.

As someone trying to shoot this particular scene, it was hard work. Lots of people turned up with the officials just to see the elephants so it was a hell of a bun fight to get the shots I wanted. Once it was confirmed the chips matched the paperwork, loading finally commenced. It’s fair to say it wasn’t easy but it could have been a lot harder considering none of these elephants had been in a truck before. The trip was uneventful and we stopped for the night at a plantation for the elephants to rest up and exercise. Transporting elephants is very stressful for them and sadly it is not unusual for an elephant to die a few days after a long trip. The owners had wanted to do the trip in one day but they were eventually persuaded otherwise.


On the road.

The next morning getting the elephants back on the trucks was much easier and we arrived at EVT a few minutes early, just before midday. The elephants were taken to a grassy area to feed and rest while a small ceremony was performed to welcome them to the sanctuary. The afternoon was spent taking them on a tour of the land and starting the re education of the mahouts. These guys were used to working the elephants and kindness doesn’t really come into it so getting them to understand the aim was to get the elephants to move to verbal commands and get rid of their chains. It was soon apparent the chains would be required for a few days at least. The younger one was particularly unpredictable and decided to make a beeline for the river followed by 2 others. The mahouts managed to catch them just as one made it to the edge of a neighboring field of corn. To try to calm the younger one, Jack decided to put her with the oldest elephant, Maddy, who was a calming influence and the next day went much more smoothly.


Maddy happily grazing at EVT.

My part was simply to film everything and conduct interviews with Jack and the owners. While the journey was simple enough, filming the elephants at the sanctuary was not quite so easy. This was largely due to noise as so much was going on, people talking, people working on the fence etc, so getting clean sound was almost impossible. The issue of chains was also a problem, because I was only there for a few days and the chains were unlikely to come off fully before I left. I was making 2 short films, one of the journey and one as an introduction to EVT. The links are below. The introduction film obviously needed to have footage without chains, which means most of what I shot was unusable until day 3 at the sanctuary, when I managed to get some nice footage of them grazing with chains off. Jack advised me the chains have now come off on two of them and the others should be fully free in a few more days.


Maddy checking me out.

Editing was interesting. I had way too much footage, which made things harder than expected. I find short films are often harder to edit than longer ones because you have to cut so much. I was very pleased with the results, this camera gives wonderful images and I was amazed at how good the dynamic stabilization was. A lot of the footage I shot from the back of the pick up was rock solid. I absolutely love working with elephants, they are such intelligent animals and incredibly gentle, so this was not really what I would describe as ‘work’.

I hope Jack succeeds with this project, too many of these places are just tourist traps for elephant rides. If you want to see elephants up close in their natural habitat and be sure they are not being abused or exploited, I’d highly recommend either the Elephant Valley in Thailand or Cambodia.



About Allan Michaud

English Wildlife Photographer/Environmental Filmmaker based in Cambodia
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