Disappearing Gardeners: thoughts on the Laotian elephant crisis (Laos)


Shannon Cuthbert, Mongabay

Date Published


See link for photos

In their latest collaborative film, Gardeners of the Forest, Ceylan Carhoglu and Nicole Jordan Webber decided to explore a species whose fate is critically linked to the well-being of an entire ecosystem: the Laotian elephant. With only 400 left in the wild, these natural gardeners, who maintain healthy forests for plants and other animal species alike, could very well disappear altogether unless action is taken to protect them and their shrinking habitats. Carhoglu details what drew her to focus on the Laotian elephants, and what it would mean if these key creatures vanish forever.


Shannon Cuthbert for Mongabay: What is your background, and what are some other examples of your work?

Ceylan Carhoglu: I’m a recent graduate from Chapman University. I majored in film production and, after multiple documentary classes, I have become very interested in documentary filmmaking. I’ve worked on profile docs about extreme characters like an elderly woman called “Phyllis” who refuses to let her old age define how she lives her life and other pieces like “The Happiest Place on Earth”, an observational documentary that chronicles the coming-of-age story of an underprivileged child growing up in the middle of an impoverished Anaheim neighborhood.

Shannon Cuthbert for Mongabay: Is wildlife conservation a common theme throughout your work, and what are other things that inspire you?

Ceylan Carhoglu: I’ve always been very passionate about wildlife and I’ve tried to find ways to be more involved with conservation, but this project is the first time that I had the chance to effectively combine my passion for filmmaking and wildlife conservation. I’m inspired by stories that challenge the way we think and the system as we know it. When I hear about an environmental concern that people have come to know commonly as a sad, irreversible trust, I hunt to find if another solution. I am also inspired by the outdoors, photography, adventuring, travel, and comedy (film, TV, standup, etc).

Shannon Cuthbert for Mongabay: Your film Gardeners of the Forest focuses on the disappearance of Laotian elephants, which were once so common that Laos was known as the “Land of a Million Elephants.” Explain the relevance of the film’s title and the state of Laotian elephants to date.

Ceylan Carhoglu:As of 2016, there are less than 400 elephants left in the wild and the numbers are going down dramatically. The Elephant Conservation Center in Luang Prabang is trying to breed more elephants with their Baby Bonus program but, in general, the elephants in captivity have a negative growth rate. The current system in Laos is definitely not sustainable and it has caused the population of elephants to drop from more than a million to less than 400. These Asian elephants are in a vicious cycle that is entirely controlled by logging, poaching, mistreatment in tourism, and unprotected habitats. Elephants in Laos are going to disappear if we don’t take action to stop these traditions in Laos.

Shannon Cuthbert for Mongabay: What would it mean for Laos’ culture and history if the elephants became extinct?

Ceylan Carhoglu: Elephants are essential to Laotian culture and history. They used to be the national animal of Laos and were represented in the old Lao flag. It would be devastating for Laos’ culture, history, and ecosystem to lose the Asian Elephant.

Shannon Cuthbert for Mongabay: What drew you to focus on Laotian elephants specifically, and does their fate overlap with that of any other key Laotian species?

Ceylan Carhoglu: Nicole and I have always been inspired by elephants – their grace, emotional capacity, beauty, and power. When we learned about how special the elephants are to Laos, we knew exactly what we needed to focus our doc on.

After we left Laos, one of the things that Anabele Perez, biologist at ECC, said really stuck with us. She talked about how the forest and the elephants depend on each other and cannot exist without one another. She called them the “Gardeners of the Forest” and we loved how it simply summarized the importance of elephants’ role in the ecosystem, so we decided to use it as our title.

Elephants are keystone species, so their extinction is going to affect biodiversity very greatly. By breaking the branches with their trunks, elephants allow for the sunlight to go into the dense forests and enable new plants to grow. Then other shorter animals are able to feed on these plants. If elephants go extinct, not only will a lot of other species be in danger, but the local tree species will be at risk too. There are a lot of trees that depend on elephants for seed dispersal, which helps build dense forests that prevent erosion from destroying villages, especially in wet areas. The possible effects of elephant extinction are much more drastic than most think.

Shannon Cuthbert for Mongabay: You worked with Nicole Jordan Webber on this film. Did you know each other before filming, and what was the experience of co-creating this piece like?

Ceylan Carhoglu: Nicole and I had known each other for 4 years and I have worked as editor on several projects that she directed. We’ve always wanted to work on a documentary together and this seemed like the perfect opportunity because we are both very interested in wildlife conservation. Even at the early stages of production, we both agreed on making a documentary that carried both the stories of elephants and the people who took care of them. When we arrived at the ECC and met the mahouts [people who tend to elephants], Nicole wanted to interview Mr. Seng and I wanted to interview Mr. Boom, which equated to having the perspective of a traditional mahout and a new generation mahout. So our ideas and style always balances each other, like they usually do.

Shannon Cuthbert for Mongabay: What impact do you hope your film has, and what do you hope audience members come away with after seeing it?

Ceylan Carhoglu:I hope that it starts a conversation about what it actually means to respect and love wildlife. Wildlife tourism is very popular in all over the world, and zoos and wildlife shows attract a lot of visitors because people love seeing animals but they don’t really question what it takes for that animal to be there and how that affects the environment. Elephants, not only in Laos but all around the world, are in a very critical situation and I hope people realize that they way we treat animals is a reflection of the way we treat each other.

Shannon Cuthbert for Mongabay: Do you have any other films in the works?

Ceylan Carhoglu: We do! We are developing two other short documentaries and I have been assistant editing various other full length documentaries.

Shannon Cuthbert for Mongabay: Why is the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival (WCFF) important and why is it important for people to attend?

Ceylan Carhoglu: WCFF is an opportunity for the Wildlife Warriors to come together, share our concerns, passions, insights, and films…and ultimately spread the word.

To see Carhoglu and Webber’s film, come to the 2016 WCFF in New York, NY this October. To see a schedule of all films and speakers, and to purchase tickets visit: http://www.wcff.org/2016-film-festival/