How One Woman Is Changing Our Approach to the Disappearing Elephant

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Written by: Sarah Stephens

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Actress Ashley Bell wasn’t prepared for the burnt orange sky and smell of dirty ash when she stepped off the plane in Cambodia. As a self-proclaimed work-a-holic, her first trip to a developing country was eye-opening.

“I asked, ‘What’s that smell?’” Bell remembers from her trip. “They said, ‘It’s the trees. The trees are on fire.’”
The Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary, which covers one million acres within the Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary, was introducing the first pair of rescued Asian elephants. Bell was just in time to see this memorable event. Bell learned of the rescue through David Casselman, the CWS founder, an LA-based attorney and close friend.

“Everything stopped. I had a gut reaction. I said ‘I’ve got to film this.’ I went thinking it was a short documentary with a film crew, Change for Balance,” Bell recalls. “When we got there, my whole perspective of the issue and the world just changed.”

Bell’s film project soon turned into her life’s mission.

“Soon there will be no more rain-forests to log and no more elephants. There are none left in the wild to capture.”

She learned the constant burning sky was due to the ongoing, primarily illegal logging in the region. With over 75 percent of the surrounding forests and jungles burned, the wildlife has been displaced at an alarming rate—including the Asian elephant. Bell also learned a startling truth: Asian elephants in the Cambodia are now 100 percent in captivity used either for the illegal logging industry, forced to perform for the entertainment of tourists, or killed for their ivory. Those held captive by the logging industry are controlled with harsh methods and are often abused to the brink of death.
“Elephants mean logging and logging is money,” Bell says explaining the mentality of the loggers. “Soon there will be no more rain-forests to log and no more elephants. There are none left in the wild to capture.”

Samuel Wasser, of the University of Washington, predicts that by 2020, the Asian elephant will be extinct. That’s five years from now. When faced with that dark reality, the choice becomes to ignore the problem or activate a change.

“Now we’re at the brink,” Bell points out. “Every single elephant counts and every action we take matters. If I’ve been blessed enough to be here, I have to get this message out.  Everyone should see what I’m seeing firsthand. I went on a crusade to raise awareness.”
What began as a short film about the rescue of two elephants morphed quickly into a global call to action. Love and Bananas, a full length film produced and directed by Bell, explores the problem of the Asian elephant’s extinction and how the tide can be turned to save the species. That solution is Love and Bananas.
Bell met Lek Chailert, who runs the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, during her time in Cambodia in 2013. Chailert, who was recognized as a Time magazine Hero of Asia and a Humane Society Genesis Award winner for her conservation work, helped rescue the CWS elephants and showed how to do so without using force. Young elephants in captivity are subject to cruel treatment at the hands of the captors.

“Now we’re at the brink. Every single elephant counts and every action we take matters.”

First, the young elephants are “broken” by a machine called a crush box, meant to break the bond between mother and calf and replace the bond with fear of man. In the cases of logging elephants, captors use bullhooks to prod the elephants to cart hefty logging loads out of the jungles. Other broken elephants are made to perform for tourists.

“Any time you see a captive elephant, circuses, logging, rides for tourists, they have been through that crush box,” Bell explains.
Elephants in these situations are often abused to keep them subservient. Bell remembered meeting the sanctuary’s rescued elephants for the first time.

“You could read their bodies like maps of their abuse,” Bell recounts. “You could see the scars on their bodies, dehydration, malnutrition. One of their eyes had been taken out by a slingshot.”
“She has proven you don’t need bullhooks to guide an elephant. You can guide an elephant with love and bananas,” Bell says about Chailert’s treatment of the newly rescued elephants. “I saw it firsthand. These logging elephants had just been transported. On the first day, you had to be very, very careful with them because they did not trust humans. My second day, they remembered me. You could touch them.”
By the third day, Bell was able to walk the elephants through the jungle, allowing them to explore their new terrain.

“They were hesitant to even do this because they had never been allowed that freedom,” Bell said. “By the end of the third day, they had taken off into the jungle. When they’ve been liberated, they can sense it and you can see their spirit and trust flourish. And that was in just three days.”

These two elephants are just the first to hopefully reside within the sanctuary. Love and Bananas shows the growth of the two elephants two years after rescue and takes viewers on the dangerous rescue missions to save more Asian elephants. Bell wants people to see the true face of the elephant abuse in Cambodia and what it really takes to save these animals.

The journey to rescue an elephant is not a simple one. Elephants have to be targeted first, whether from a logging facility, a zoo or a tourist attraction. Once the elephant is rescued, though, it’s a permanent change. Previous owners rarely have the ability to purchase the elephant back and there simply are no more in the wild to capture. While the rescues are vital to saving the Asian elephant species, the documentary strives to educate globally on the truth of the situation.
“There’s a lack of education,” Bell said. “It’s the biggest challenge. This information hasn’t been publicized on a wide level. People are so unaware of actually what’s happening there, that we’re actually that close to Asian elephants being gone forever. People don’t know we’re at the brink.”

Love and Bananas’s mission is to turn the tide on the crisis facing Asian elephants, present active solutions, and ignite a new way of thinking about this species. Bell hopes to create an approach of love and respect over domination of elephants. After a successful Indiegogo campaign (which at one point included Bell dressing up as a banana in Times Square to spread awareness) the film is poised to pick back up again. Bell has two new films (Maternal Bonds and There’s a New World Somewhere) coming out this year, after her time on Broadway in Machinal, but Love and Bananas has never been far away.
“What’s been a constant is this passion project and finding new ways to get this film and the message heard. It’s been eye-opening and scary and a joy to work on,” Bell said about her journey to make Love and Bananas. “We keep finding new ways to make it seen and heard.”

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