Following a Primal Trail

Project: The Old Elephant Route...
October 1, 2000

Project: The Old Elephant Route

Description: The Asian elephant is listed among the world’s most endangered species. The Old Elephant Route was once their migratory path – stretching from Vietnam to the Himalayas, and to the south of India – allowing for the interbreeding of wild herds. Asian elephants migrated along this route for thousands of years, but today parts of it have been destroyed by deforestation and the hand of man. How has that impacted upon this endangered species?

Executive producers: GA&A Productions (Italy)

Coproducers: Animal Planet (U.S.), Les Films d’ici (France)

Pre-buy: Tele+ (Italy)

Director: Philippe Gautier

Length: 52 minutes

Budget: us$400,000

Since 1993, Prajna Chowta, an Indian ethnologist-turned-ecologist, has been undertaking field research to determine the relationship between humans and elephants in the south of India. Through experience gained by living in the wild and working with the mahouts (traditional elephant trainers), she has slowly learned their closely guarded secrets and become one of the foremost authorities on the animals.

September 1996: Based on her research, Chowta begins to see that the survival of Asian elephant herds might depend on the interbreeding that has historically taken place between the wild herds of India and those of Myanmar (once Burma). She begins an investigation, but finds it is slow going. There are almost no sources of information about the jungle-covered border between the two countries, the area where the animals would have to travel to interbreed. She does find clues in the records of the forest department, and the Bombay-Burma Trading Company (which worked in the area in the ’30s and ’40s), suggesting that elephants once traveled the territory.

Ongoing, 1998: Chowta’s work has taken five years and has spawned a feature called Hathi, documenting the life of the mahouts. The film is directed by French independent Philippe Gautier, who will also come to direct The Old Elephant Route.

Having completed the feature, Chowta decides to tackle a doc on the elephant route as well, which will commit her team to the unknown territory of the India-Myanmar border and the Chaukan Pass, the last point where diverse herds of Asian elephants have traditionally had the chance to interact and communicate. However, the Second World War, deforestation, poaching and modernization have dramatically damaged the area. It is unclear if any elephants still roam there.

They decide on a mission: uncover what remains of the

elephant’s old habitat, discover what migration is still being undertaken, and find out what – if any – interbreeding still takes place. It is the first step towards restoring the wild elephant herds of Asia.

December 1998: Chowta’s first meeting with the Myanmar embassy in New Delhi to discuss The Old Elephant Route and the proposed expedition.

January 1999: Philippe Gautier pitches the doc to Parisian production company, Les Films d’ici, which agrees to help develop the project.

February 1999: Les Film d’ici brings a French broadcaster into the project. A year and a half later, however, the broadcast deal still isn’t finalized.

March 1999: Having received approval in principal and an invitation from the authorities of Myanmar, Chowta and Gautier fly to Yangon to meet government representatives.

In Italy, Tele+, a pay TV network and part of the Canal+ group, joins the project on a pre-buy.

July 1999: Myanmar authorities confirm their agreement.

October 1999: The expedition is planned for December, but the French broadcaster won’t confirm its involvement on such short notice. As a result, the project is momentarily stalled. The start date gets pushed back – bringing it closer to the beginning of monsoon season.

December 1999: Prajna Chowta goes to Delhi to make the necessary arrangements with the Ministry of Defense. Meanwhile, Les Films d’ici contacts GA&A in Rome for possible involvement as international distributors. When GA&A’s sister company, GA&A Productions, learns the project is stalled due to lack of broadcaster commitment, it offers to take over as executive producer, with Les Films taking a coproduction position. GA&A’s involvement provides Chowta and Gautier with the necessary financial security to start production, while they continue to work at securing a broadcaster.

It is clear to GA&A, however, that securing a major broadcaster is crucial. News arrives that they’ve been shortlisted to pitch the project at the RealScreen Summit in February. Gioia Avvantaggiato of GA&A Productions begins working with Gautier and Chowta on a presen-tation for the pitch sessions at the Summit.

January 2000: Chowta and Gautier fly to Yangon to discuss the final expedition itinerary with the Myanmar authorities. Access to the northern border of India – specifically the Chaukan Pass – is virtually impossible. It is decided to start the expedition from the Indian side. The journey will take 12 weeks.

February 2000: GA&A Productions learns The Old Elephant Route is confirmed as one of four projects to be pitched at the RealScreen Summit. The pitch is a success and attracts the interest of several broadcasters and potential coproducers, including Animal Planet (U.S.) and the National Geographic Channels. Shortly after the Summit, Animal Planet confirms its interest in becoming a coproducer (eventually putting up 40% of the budget).

Chowta returns to Delhi to finalize permissions with the Home Office and the Ministry of Defense, while Gautier and other members of the crew cover 3,000 miles by jeep from Bangalore to Assam, crossing the 12-mile wide Brahmaputra river. They reach this final village, where roads end and the journey along the Elephant Route begins on foot.

March 2000: Following the RealScreen Summit, GA&A Productions enters into negotiations with Animal Planet. Monsoon season is looming, and the production team pushes to get the expedition moving. GA&A faces the possibility of funding the entire expedition with only a verbal agreement from Animal Planet, but decides to risk it and gives the producers the go-ahead to start filming.

March 2000 (On location): After seven years, Chowta begins to see the fruit of her labor. She will lead the expedition, along with Surendra Varma and Mujeeb Khan. Varma is a field biologist from the Indian Institute of Science who has spent many years in elephant habitats from Myanmar to Assam and South India. Khan comes from a community of mahouts who have been training elephants for generations.

The expedition to the Chaukan Pass will cover 116 miles through wilderness and thick jungle. Only one road links India to Myanmar in the area, and it was built during the Second World War to move supplies from India to China (both were allies against the Japanese, who had invaded Burma). It is known as the Ledo Road, after the name of a village in Assam where it originates. The team will follow it to Myanmar, although it has been little used since the war.

Chowta meets with a local elephant owner to hire elephants for the expedition. She picks three elephants, four mahouts and six porters for the march to the pass. The plan is to cover 12 miles a day. If things go according to plan, they’ll reach the pass in ten days.

The team sets off into thick jungle under drizzling rain. The track is muddy and difficult, and the elephants struggle. Progress is slow. After a two-day march, the crew is exhausted and the temperature has dropped severely. The elephants are suffering from the cold, so a mixture of beaten rice and rum is prepared to steel them for the difficult obstacles to come.

Day three: The team arrives at the Nallah river. Afraid of the sound of the raging water, the elephants refuse to cross the incomplete army bridge. Khan manages to coax them the first few steps so they can feel the vibration produced by the deafening current. Khan and Chowta finally lead the frightened elephants across the bridge.

Day four: An unforseen triumph. The team encounters a sign of humanity in the depths of the jungle: a settlement of the Lisu tribe. A semi-nomadic tribe originating from Ynan in China, they hunt elephants for their ivory and flesh. Such an encounter is unexpected. Chowta and the head of the tribe discuss her trek to the Chaukan Pass. During the conversation, he reveals that he has seen elephant footprints in the area, and that the elephants migrate during the winter. It is the first clue that suggests Chowta’s research is paying off.

Day five: More problems arise. The crew comes across a curve in the river where the water is too deep for the elephants to cross with their heavy load, so they are forced to build rafts to carry the equipment. After four hours they manage to transport both supplies and elephants to the far shore.

On the other side, Chowta and her team again find something unexpected. Elephant footprints are scattered throughout the deep mud, confirming the revelations of the Lisu. Besides bearing out the goal of the expedition, the find indicates the elephant’s extraordinary ability to negotiate difficult terrain.

That night they camp and discuss possible routes to the Pass. Word comes that a landslide has blocked their planned path not far ahead. Even though Myanmar is only 12 miles (20km) away, the only alternative route would take the team through thick jungle along high, slippery slopes. Chowta does not want to push the elephants any further, and supplies are now becoming critical. After 52 miles and seven days, they have no option but to turn back.

Day fifteen: The unruly weather settles, and the crew decides to try a second attempt. Hiring nine porters, they restock their supplies and set off on foot. In four days, they cover 45 miles, and have fallen into a rhythm: waking at 4:30 a.m., breakfast at 6:00 a.m., and then walking from 7:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. – into bed by 6:00 p.m.

Day twenty-one: They come to the 62-mile mark, where the landslide blocks the path. Without the elephants, they are able to negotiate it, and soon arrive in Vijoynagar, the last village before the Chaukan pass. It is 103 miles to the closest village in India, but only 14 miles to the pass. The team hires local guides to lead them the rest of the way.

Day twenty-seven: Less than a month since their first step in the jungle, the team has covered 176 miles. As they travel into what Chowta describes as ‘the heart of darkness’, signs of civilization are completely non-existent. They arrive at the base of the Chaukan pass, but access is again blocked by a landslide. The porters refuse to go further, and they are forced to return to Vijoynagar, where they arrive on day 30.

Before they can return to the pass, the monsoons begin. Chowta and her team are stuck in the small village with no supplies and dwindling hope. After waiting for eight days, the team boards a government helicopter to return to civilization.

During the trip back, Chowta and her team reflect on their efforts. Fraught with highs and lows, the expedition has begun something new. The clues suggest that the elephant route is still being used and that migration is still taking place. Chowta’s work has paid off, and she begins to dream of the end of the monsoon season, when she can begin the search again.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.