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Filmmakers Roberta Staley and Tallulah document tenacity of Kenyan female conservation rangers in Elephant Warriors

Caren Yegon Cheptoo supervises conservation rangers with the Mara Elephant Project. Photo by Tallulah.

Caren Yegon Cheptoo does something that would have been unthinkable for previous generations of Kenyan women. Still in her early 20s, she’s the commander of a group of much older male conservation rangers with the nonprofit Mara Elephant Project.

“I wanted to be a ranger because I like conservation,” Cheptoo says in the documentary Elephant Warriors. “So, when I heard the work of the ranger was to conserve the environment, including the wild animals, I was very happy to participate.”

Cheptoo isn’t the only Kenyan female conservation ranger with the Mara Elephant Project. Elephant Warriors also shares the story of three other brave rangers: Gloria Nyanke, Fancy Chepkemoi, and “Joy”, who uses a pseudonym after infiltrating a gang of poachers as part of an investigation.

Unlike the poachers, these rangers don’t carry weapons as they trudge through the Mau Forest in search of animal traps left by criminals in search of ivory.

Written and directed by Vancouver journalist Roberta Staley and co-directed by Vancouver cinematographer and photographer Tallulah, Elephant Warriors will premiere at 7 p.m. on Tuesday (April 14) at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre in Vancouver. The filmmakers are also sending the documentary to different festivals.

Rising human endangers elephant herds

Gender equality and wildlife conservation come together in unusual ways in the 23-minute film produced by Vancouver-based aRTy Media. In one segment, the filmmakers show why a rapidly growing human population is leading to conflicts between farming communities and wild elephant herds.

Staley tells Pancouver that the population of Kenya has almost doubled since the start of this century. She also points out that an uneducated woman is not going to know much about birth control, whereas an educated woman with a career might have two or three kids at the most.

This is why she feels that the education of women is a critical factor in preserving elephant populations.

“That’s incredibly important—and the women themselves recognize that,” Staley says.

Tallulah emphasizes that she and Staley are not advancing a “white saviour narrative” in their film. Instead, they let the rangers themselves speak extensively about their lives and how they juggle the dangers of the job with being parents.

“Caren—she’s our main subject,” Tallulah says. “She’s the most amazing women. After doing the training course, she became a commander, which is pretty unbelievable, even in Canada.”

Elephant Warriors filmmakers Roberta Staley and Tallulah boarded a helicopter as part of their research.

Elephant tracked by air

The origins of the documentary go back to 2019 when Staley and Tallulah visited Kenya to interview a University of British Columbia graduate, Jake Wall, who had become director of research and conservation at the Mara Elephant Project. Wall had co-created a software platform that allowed researchers to monitor elephants in southern Kenya.

Staley and Tallulah went on a helicopter ride on the second day and observed a tracking team tranquilizing an elephant and placing a Kevlar collar on it with GPS software. The filmmakers returned on another trip to gather footage for their documentary about female park rangers.

“I think it’s really incredible what women can do once they manage to break away from the patriarchy, which sounds cliché but it’s true,” Staley says.

Following the screening of the film, Staley and Tallulah will field questions from the audience and share an amusing tale of being attacked by ants on their trip to Kenya. In addition, UBC research associate and zoologist Rene Byers will speak about the region. Byers is co-author of the 2021 book A Place Like No Other: Discovering the Secrets of the Serengeti.

Elephant Warriors

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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