By Kate Moore, Programmes Director of the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust
“Long ago, great giants lived here. They were magnificent creatures. But…we killed them all.” These are the opening words of the film “Njobvu, Ndakusowa” (in English, “Elephant I Miss You”) as a grandfather recounts the tale of the first, and only, time he saw an elephant in his village somewhere deep in Malawi. He then traces the story over the next 60 years as elephants are poached to extinction.
Elephants may be edging closer to extinction which would in turn cripple local ecosystems, but it is the stories of damaged crops and trampled people that are most salient for communities here in Malawi. Nyama is the Chichewa word used for both “meat” and “anima”’, and chirombo, which means pest, is often used to describe wild animals. The prevailing cultural belief is that they are God-given resources that will never run out.
“Elephant I Miss You” was made to challenge this view using the storytelling tradition combined with facts-based education. We hope it will stimulate discussion as well as pride in the country’s natural heritage that in turn would support wider conservation efforts. It is also a tale that could be told in many an African country with a message that will no doubt resonate with a global audience, hence our writing to share it with you here, rather aptly on National Geographic’s Voice for Elephants blog.
The film is loosely based on a true story that we heard from the grandfather who is the lead narrator in the film, and the real-life grandfather of Lawi, the musician that appears at the end of the film with a heartfelt message for the viewers.
Lawi has been a wildlife “activist” since 2015. He hadn’t seen an elephant since he was a child, until last year when the perfect opportunity arose to witness the world’s biggest elephant translocation. On the way there, we visited his grandfather, Mr Phiri, and other family members in the village where he had lived all his life, an hour off the paved road just outside Liwonde National Park. We sat under a mango tree drinking Fanta and naturally talk turned to elephants and our experiences of when each of us saw one for the first time. That’s when we agreed to do this project.
As you watch, bear in mind that none of those who appear in the film has acted before, and the quality of the final product is thanks to the leadership and patience of film maker, Julian Braatvedt!
The majority of Malawians, indeed people the world over, will never have the chance to see an elephant in the flesh, but we hope that those who watch this film will still feel that sense of mysticism and beauty, and a sense of responsibility towards protecting their natural heritage before it is too late.
We’re targeting a wide cross-section of society. Last week, the film was taken out for the first leg of its pedal power cinema roadshow, which should reach a total of 15,000 people over three months in electricity-void communities around protected areas. Today, the film will be premiered in Parliament to celebrate World Environment Day. And the 10 percent of the population with access to a television set can catch it on repeat on the country’s two main channels, Zodiak and MBC. The media have been very supportive, providing the airtime for free.
Malawi’s elephant population has halved since the 1980s due to poaching, and the country is also southern Africa’s principal transit hub for the trafficking of wildlife products. That said, Malawi has been making great strides in its fight against wildlife crime and elephant ivory is high on this agenda. Thanks to new initiatives like the country’s first Wildlife Crime Investigations Unit and public-private prosecutions, rates of arrests for ivory trafficking increased 9-fold year on year, with 101 arrests made in 2016, and sentences have moved from an average of $40 and no custodial sentences to 3 ½ years behind bars. Thanks to the new Wildlife Act published last month, judges can now pass sentences of up to 30 years with no option of a fine, and the film will be linked with sensitisation of the new legislation.
We hope you enjoy the film — feedback is most welcome as we’re planning to make more like this in the future.
Kate Moore is Programmes Director of the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, which is a member of the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), the Species Survival Network representative for Malawi and a founding member of ICCF Malawi’s Conservation Council.