Elephant Path: Njaia Njoku (2018) is a documentary that is beautifully done, takes a turn you don’t expect, and has some serious “how on earth did they get this footage” moments. It follows conservation staff at an endangered forest elephant preserve in southern CAR as they deal with poachers and the day to day work of elephant conservation, and then face armed Séléka rebels taking over the preserve and the town.
The setup at first makes you think it’s going to focus on the white American researcher, but she is reluctantly evacuated to snowy New York when the rebels arrive, and instead she is peripheral to the story, helplessly worried for the elephants and her colleagues in CAR and using her audio research to document the slaughter.
Instead, the documentary focuses primarily on her research partner, Sessely Bernard, who is a forest tracker, and how he works with both the sanctuary and his own Bayaka (pygmy) community to protect the elephants. The documentary also spotlights Zephirine Mbele, who is the head of an “eco-guard” armed unit that targets ivory poachers.
When the Séléka arrive, many of Sessely’s community retreats into the forest to survive, and the eco-guards are hopelessly outgunned, and unable to save many of the elephants from organized ivory raids by the insurgents. It’s a heartbreaking film, but with glimmers of hope, and the footage is incredible.
There’s footage of a show-trial of local poachers (a literal witchhunt), which is then mirrored by the astounding footage of the newly arrived Séléka commander laying down the law to community leaders and the eco-guards. I have no idea how anyone was able to get that footage without being shot – it’s almost surreal to have film-quality footage of actual armed insurgents taking over your community.