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Joyce Poole's response to Gay Bradshaw's critique of War Elephants

On April 22nd 2012, Gay Bradshaw posted an article in her blog in Psychology Today critiquing War Elephants and Joyce Poole's role in it. Here is Joyce's response to it.

Dear Gay,

I awoke this morning to an email from a colleague who has done more to highlight the plight of elephants than almost anyone I know. It read: "I presume you saw this. I am so sorry. How ignorant of her. If it makes any difference, I saw the NGS film and was proud to know you. Hang in there.” Then I read your critique of War Elephants and my role in it and realized how little you understand of who I am and what I stand for. Gay, you and I hold many of the same perspectives on elephants, we have published together, and I admire and respect you for the work you have accomplished. If you had concerns, why didn't you get in touch so that, as colleagues, we could try to find common ground? Why torpedo an elephant spokesperson if you have the best interests of these incredible animals at heart?

We will not be able to save all of Africa’s elephants from the onslaught of poaching and conflict, but by using our collective intelligence and experience we can work together toward a kinder future for those who live in places where they have a chance to survive. I choose to be part of a solution, to put my long experience in Africa and with elephants to work. While I would be so glad if elephants everywhere could be left in peace, doing what they like, in the real world we need to find ways for elephants to survive despite human intervention and encroachment. To habituate elephants to friendly visitors is one way to do that - and done with knowledge and respect, elephants are intelligent enough to adapt and thrive as we have seen in Amboseli, the Mara, Samburu and elsewhere. Elephants learn quickly and they easily can discriminate between their human friends and foes.

Gorongosa National Park and its elephants had been given up for lost, but thanks to the Mozambican Government and the Gorongosa Restoration Project, these elephants have a chance. Their future, though, depends on tourism revenue and I was invited to Gorongosa to assess the elephants and to begin a process of habituation, so that visitors can have peaceful encounters with them. This work would have happened with or without cameras present, but National Geographic expressed an interest in documenting the habituation process and the Gorongosa Restoration Project felt a film would help to highlight the work they are doing and the particular plight of these (and many other) elephants who have survived war.

I approached the Gorongosa elephants as I would any elephants: slowly, and when I saw signs that they were concerned I turned off the engine and sat quietly. The concept is to gain trust by respecting their boundaries. Sometimes I talk to elephants; I always have done and I make no apologies for it. My conscience is totally clear regarding my strategy and my actions. I would never do anything to harm or harass elephants. There were no guns in the car; the incident you mention occurred on the main road on a game drive, coincidently with a ranger in the car, long after the film crew and I had departed. The incident only serves to highlight the necessity of gaining, in a systematic way, these elephants' trust.

Other than charges by some individuals, my experience was that the Gorongosa elephants were, surprisingly, calm. Editing weeks, indeed months, of footage and compressing it to 50 minutes gives the impression of relentless agonistic interaction. The use of long lenses, the pace, the timing, the selection of scenes, their repetition, the script and the music all interact to exaggerate the drama. But that is TV - film production and editing is not my expertise.

I played calls to the elephants for a reason. I have been asked if there is a way to encourage the elephants to use parts of the park that they abandoned years ago. The elephants are needed to open up habitat and kick-start the grazing succession for other species. Our hope is that if elephants hear others on the distant bank of the river they may feel that it is safe to venture there themselves. The calls I played to them were the sounds of normal elephants doing normal elephant things - in this case adults threatening a lion and calling for recruits. I played those particular calls for a purpose - because I thought they were most likely to attract a family group. The elephants responded with excitement and curiosity, not with fear and agitation. And again: I would have used this technique whether a film crew was there or not.

ElephantVoices will be returning to Gorongosa later this year, and in the years to come, and we will use all of these techniques and others to try to secure a future for these elephants. War Elephants gives a tiny window into who these elephants are and through a monitoring and research program we will learn much more. We will continue to do all we can to make sure that there are other places in the wild for elephants, and to work toward an end to the ongoing poaching-crisis. It can be hard going, and full of heart-break, but I believe if we all work together there will still be free-ranging elephants for my great-great grandchildren to experience. At a time when elephants are under tremendous threat, Gorongosa is a place of hope. It is also a place where a team of dedicated conservationists, scientists and filmmakers are coming together to give this small population of elephants a chance. We are proud to be among them.

Joyce Poole signature

Joyce H. Poole, PhD
Co-Director, ElephantVoices