‘Elephant Whisperers’: Animals and humans can thrive together

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Michell Eloy

“The Elephant Whisperers” follows a couple in South India who decides to foster a baby elephant. Credit: YouTube.

In the remote forests of South India, a community whose lives revolve around caring for endangered Asian elephants. There, Bomman and Bellie, a couple, have adopted an abandoned baby elephant named Raghu. They care for him like a son — warming his milk, bathing him, cuddling him, and kicking a soccer ball around with him. It’s a touching portrait of an unconventional family – and an example of how humans and animals can thrive together.

Their story is the subject of the Netflix film “The Elephant Whisperers,” which has earned a nomination for this year’s Oscars. 

First-time director Kartiki Gonsalves explains, “Elephants are sacred symbols of peace, mental strength, and power. And over 80% of Indians are Hindus. And [for] members of the Hindu religion, the elephant is an extremely sacred animal. And it's a living reincarnation of one of their most important gods Ganesha — an elephant-headed deity who rides upon a tiny mouse. Lord Ganesha said is said to be a removal of obstacles and a power and a provider of fortune and good luck. And it’s sad but there are roughly around 35,000 to 40,000 Asian elephants left, and the situation is extremely grim. … And it's really interesting because Bomman, apart from an elephant caregiver, is also a Hindu temple priest. He worships Ganesha in temples and looks [after] elephants in real life.”

She notes that elephants are intelligent, emotional, and social — so humans are able to relate to them. In fact, Raghu comforts Bellie, who lost her daughter and previous husband.  She says in the film, “When I cried, Raghu wiped my tears with his trunk. …  I feel he really understands everything. I remember what my daughter was like at Raghu’s age. Taking care of Raghu reminds me of my daughter.”

Gonsalves says the film shows the dignity of both elephants and the Indigenous people who’ve taken care of them for centuries. 

“I wanted to get the audience to stop seeing animals as the other, and to start seeing them as one of us. The Indigenous people have such an in-depth, ancient knowledge and respect for the land that they live on and share the space with. And there’s so much that we can learn from them. And … the elephant was supposed to offer a beam of hope, of mutual respect and cooperation, and a way forward to coexistence.”

Raghu is expected to live the rest of his life on this preserve, and releasing him back into the wild would be too dangerous, as he won’t be able to fend for himself, Gonsalves explains.