This documentary looks beneath the hides and into the hearts and thinking of a unique wilderness family--a herd of trained elephants and the small, dedicated band of people who share their lives, twenty-four hours a day, in one of Africa's last great strongholds of unspoiled nature.
All the elephants are orphans, survivors of culls carried out in overcrowded African reserves, when their mothers' breeding herds were gunned down and only the youngest were spared. Today, Botswana's Okavango Delta is their home. Yet some of the animals endured decades of lonely exile in zoos and circuses on other continents before one man's vision transported them here.
Wildlife biologist Randall Jay Moore first came to know trained African circus elephants thirty years ago near his home in Oregon. He successfully shipped a pair back to Africa and spent a year teaching them how to live on their own in the wild. Since then he has rescued African elephants from confinement all over the world and returned them to their native soil. Ages six to forty, his herd's thirteen orphans and exiles have been given a near miraculous second chance to live and wander in the wild realm of their birthright.
Through a combination of instinct and human tutelage, the Abu Herd (named after the unflappable lead bull, Randall's closest elephant partner and friend) has re-invented the social bonds that cement a family group in the wild. But one thing vital to the clan's sense of purpose is missing - none of the herd has ever had a baby of their own.
Elephant Orphans follows this family of pachyderms and people as their first calf is born to a tumultuous trumpeting welcome, by a young cow named Shireeni who's just come of child-bearing age. We go along as Shireeni introduces the tiny bull to his herd of adoptive step-aunts and uncles, and then walk with them as she leads him out for his first mud bath in the wide and wonderful new world of the Okavango Delta.
Randall names him Wanto - 'Firstborn' in Setswana. But a cloud hangs on the horizon of these joyous events - the little bull has been born two months premature.
An epic struggle plays out over days and nights of feeding, treating, and comforting the little calf and his distraught mother. No effort is spared or remedy untried, but the saga's end isn't a classically happy one - the calf and his family will lose their fight.
But life in the African bush has a way of persevering and ultimately rising over death. The elephant gods of the Okavango still have a gift to give the Abu Herd--a little surprise who toddles out of the jungle one day with wounds on her trunk, a three-year-old strayling cow lost from her wild herd, who's desperately in need of the protection and comfort that only other elephants can give her….
Elephant Orphans tells a moving and important story more poignant than fiction - the true tale of a collection of elephants' and humans' hopes and dreams, some of them shared, told through a memorable cast of characters drawn from both species:
*** Abu, the lead bull, whose stock-steady trust in Randall goes back over twenty years of respect and understanding…the rock on which the herd's achievements are built
*** David Mabukane, ramrod of the outfit, a South African who fell in love with the herd and now runs a school where elephants and humans learn to trust each other
*** Seba, the adored youngest calf, an actor of note as the title star in the Disney feature film 'Whisper', and the darling of all the cows' doting affections…until a younger star enters, stage right, and boots him out of his heaven
*** Daniella Blaettler, a free-spirited Swiss-Italian wanderer who's found a home and formed a special bond with a young elephant…but one that's now changing
*** Benny, a full-grown bull wounded in body and soul from early years of cruel captivity in a zoo, who finally has a chance to learn what it means to an elephant
*** Randall Jay Moore, a demanding leader, teacher, and driven perfectionist whose tough-skinned demeanor is belied by the clear bonds of affection between him and his elephants, and the mahouts of many nations and races whom he has taught to ride them
Through these very personal stories, Elephant Orphans opens fresh avenues of insight and possibility at a critical time in the intertwined destinies of Earth's two dominant terrestrial mammals… a promising new chapter in the long history of elephants and Homo sapiens sharing the planet.