Film Review: Gardeners of Eden

Powerful environmentalist documentary on the illegal ivory trade in Kenya that threatens elephants with extinction. Short running time leaves certain avenues unexplored; yet the overall effect is utterly heartbreaking and urgent.
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You probably have read or casually heard that Africa’s magnificent elephants are a threatened species. But did you realize an elephant dies every 15 minutes and experts predict their extinction in the next 10 to 15 years—if the illegal ivory trade continue at its current rate? With Kenya-set Gardeners of Eden, a heartbreaking, compactly assembled documentary, producer Kristin Davis (widely known as Charlotte of “Sex and the City”) uses her star powers to place this alarming ecological issue on the public’s radar and joins the ranks of Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert Redford in environmental activism.

A tad too short on running time (at 62 minutes) to deepen its agenda, Gardeners of Eden might not be the first animal-rights advocacy documentary that agitates the audience with humankind’s arrogant claim of power over other species. Yet directors Austin Peck and Anneliese Vandenberg’s moving footage depicting suffering, orphaned elephant babies is certainly among the most powerful of its kind. In fact, I dare you to sit through the pain of these screaming, disoriented orphans without shedding tears and cursing human greed.

The film features informative interviews with the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust's prominent figures and follows their uphill battle toward reversing the toll the illegal ivory trade takes on elephants. The vicious circle goes like this: profit-seeking individuals and entities hire poachers living in poverty, who then slaughter adult elephants for their tusks and leave their babies to die in the wild from dehydration, starvation or predation. Corrupt governments shrug off the problem, the ivory reaches stores as expensive trinkets, consumers buy them—and the process starts all over again. 

Kenya-born activist Dr. Daphne Sheldrick, who created the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust after her husband David's death and launched the "Orphans Project," sets the stage early on during one of her interviews. “They don’t want to live,” she says, referring to the traumatized baby elephants. “They want to die.” The filmmakers then lead us on a you-are-there journey into the heart of the operations, where we watch real-life rescue efforts of starving, grieving babies who show themselves capable of experiencing complex emotions as they lend proof to Dr. Sheldrick’s grim observation.

In one of its sobering segments, the film turns its lens on a poacher, Stephen Muoni Munyoki (who was arrested shortly after giving this interview), living in poverty close by the Tsavo East National Park in Kenya. He doesn’t appear to be without shame or heartache. Yet he poses the question: what is a jobless, hungry father to do when offered $150 (yes, that’s the going price) to go hunting. On the list of priorities of people trapped in poverty, saving animals will never be high up.

Still, the mere existence of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and its tireless work to save these broken-down orphans manages to end Gardeners of Eden on a hopeful note. There are devastating cases like baby Matope (the film is dedicated to him) who dies in agony three days after his rescue from a well, where he was living on mud. But there are nearly 170 other elephants who are rehabilitated successfully, as the trust proudly highlights.

Leaving some avenues unexplored, like a deeper dive into poverty-driven poaching, and lacking a clear call to action (through social media or a website), Gardeners of Eden isn’t likely to stir a Blackfish-like uproar. But one should remember this isn’t about the wrongdoings of a single corporation. Instead, it is about wrapping our heads around far-reaching, infuriating stats, including one that identifies the U.S. as the second biggest market for ivory. If nothing else, the film leaves us wondering whose mantel is displaying the trinket that produced baby Matobe’s tears, and eventually took his life.

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