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Top 5 ways to beat ‘Blue Monday’…

Apparently today is the most depressing day of the year. Cold January Mondays, can be a miserable time as it is, without the thought that statistics are against us, as well as the rainy British weather.

I figured it would be a good time to escape the January blues and indulge in the beauty of nature, and some of the incredible conservation heroes working hard to secure a future for some of our planet’s rarest wildlife.

Here are a few of my top suggestions for getting through the day.

1. Try out Gorilla Safari VR

A free app for your phone or mobile device, Gorilla Safari VR was developed by vEcotourism.org and released by the Born Free Foundation over Christmas.

If you’ve not tried it yet, the app — available on Android and iOS — begins at Born Free Foundation’s headquarters in Surrey and takes users on an immersive adventure (either using a VR headset or as a 360-degree video experience on your device), to the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Meet Eastern Lowland Gorilla patriarch, Chimanuka (star of BBC’s Gorilla Family & Me), and explore his native habitat with Ian Redmond OBE as your guide.

Gorilla Safari VR

I wrote an entire post on this app last month, so feel free to take a look back over that for a full introduction, or visit vEcotours website at: http://www.vecotourism.org/news/announcing-gorilla-safari-vr/

2. Watch A Lion’s Tale

The realm of Natural History film making is in a fantastic position at present. We finished 2016 on the high of the amazing Planet Earth II, with its ground-breaking footage and camera techniques; we’ve had a host of great wildlife shows presented by Gordon Buchanan, and currently you can catch the fascinating BBC series ‘Spy in the Wild‘ narrated by David Tenant. Spy in the Wild uses some impressive robotic animals fitted with hidden ‘spy cameras’ to film a very intimate and unusual look into the lives of a range of animals, from alligators and elephants to African wild dogs. 

But there are many other amazing Natural History films available that you won’t find from switching on your television. Independent filmmakers are posting some incredible results online, including ‘A Lion’s Tale‘ by Tania Esteban.

This film looks at the legacy of actress turned conservationist Virginia McKenna, who famously played Joy Adamson in the 1966 film ‘Born Free‘. Fifty years on, A Lion’s Tale attempts to look at what that legacy means among today’s wildlife conflicts, returning to Kenya (where Elsa the lioness was once released to roam free) to visit the Born Free team and the Kenya wildlife service rangers to explore their work on the frontline of conflict and education.

A Lion’s Tale saw its public release online this last weekend, catch it here:

For more info about the film: treproductions.co.uk/

Official webpage: taniaesteban.wixsite.com/alionstale

3. Explore ‘Speaking of Nature’ case studies 

Another impressive independent film project to have received its launch onto the World Wide Web is that of film maker Craig Redmond. His project ‘Speaking of Nature‘ was released on the 5th of January and has gradually been doing the rounds on social media.

I discovered it this weekend and spent an entire morning working my way through the six stories that comprise this project.

Each story focusses on a different conservationist; Badger Cull – Dominic Dyer, Badger Trust;  Primate Pet Trade – Dr Ros Clubb, RSPCA; Hunting and Trapping of Migrating Birds – Fiona Burrows; Committee Against Bird Slaughter; Wildlife Crime – Mark Jones, Born Free Foundation; Industrial Fishing – Wietse van der Werf, The Black Fish; Gardeners of the Forest – Ian Redmond, Ape Alliance

There is a written introduction to each conservationist, exploring their role and the plight of each animal they work with (or rather, for the protection of) and video footage of two-part interviews with each chosen person.

Grab a cup of tea, nestle in and prepare to be inspired.

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For the full stories, visit: https://craigredmond.exposure.co/speaking-of-nature

4. Discover GreenWorldTV

Something to get excited about for 2017 — a brand new television channel dedicated entirely to wildlife and environmental news!
Although GreenWorldTV hasn’t quite ‘landed’ yet, it’s coming. And I for one, can’t wait.
GreenWorldTV will launch in 2017 as the UK’s very first conservation, animal rescue and investigative wildlife online TV Channel and intends to bring a selection of educational and truthful wildlife TV shows, films and shorts to the world. Stay tuned – the channel will launch at www.greenworldtv.com
Check out this trailer for an idea of things to come, and give yourself something to look forward to:

You can sign up to Green World TV YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfsRp0AAJQII4EIfZeVoeRw

5. Have flick through National Geographic Kids Magazine

Ok, so I’m cheating a bit here, because – as some of you will know – I recently started working for National Geographic KiDs magazine. Their February issue (on sale now), is the first issue I contributed to.
It’s a great little uplifting read – lots of fun for children, but also, I’ve found, it’s a nice easy read on an early morning commute.
Simple language, great photography; some fun and unusual facts about big cats and a really interesting feature on polar bears (do you know how big a polar bear’s paw is?).
Plus, it’s bright and colourful and easily digestible. Definitely the kind of thing that cheers me up in January!

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Visit www.ngkids.co.uk or pick up a copy in your local newsagents.

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Blackfish Tilikum: An homage to his memory and a promise to myself

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It’s easy to think, after all the media coverage of ‘2016: the year of death’, that it was the worst start to a year that we have had in this country for a while; kicked off by the passing of David Bowie on the 10th January, two days after his 69th birthday. 

Though I felt terrible sadness at the loss of a musical hero, who will tie quite deeply into this story later (more on that to come), I remember the previous year starting off far worse. 

On the Wednesday 7th January 2015, at approximately 10.30am I had just finished signing off that week’s Primary School news bulletin at Discovery Education when my BBC breaking news alert pinged. The story read that the office of a satirical French newspaper had been stormed by gun men. Returning to work after their Christmas break, heads full of January thoughts and imminent news deadlines (just like mine), the editor and staff at Charlie Hebdo barely had time to register what was happening, let alone react. 

One eyewitness account said that someone had thought the gunman was someone staging a ‘joke hold up’ and laughed, before gun shots and screams broke the mood. Ten journalists and two policemen were killed that morning.

Journalists and news editors, people like myself, were angry. They killed the messengers. The public was outraged ‘they killed the cartoonists, they killed the funny guys!’ was one quote that stuck out to me. If memory serves, the Big Issue penned that one.

‘We won’t let terrorists win’, ‘pencils are stronger than bullets’, ‘Je Suis Charlie’ were some of the protest slogans I remember reading. 2015 had started with a very literal bang, and for one moment in time; we all stood up, stood together

and gave a shit.

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What does this have to do with the passing of Tilikum, I hear you ask? 

The mood of Britain was rocked and on edge. People gathered in their masses four days later at Trafalgar Square, pledged their allegiance to France, shouting their right to free speech. The streets of London felt alive with the absolute opposite of apathy. 

Six days later; one weekend on from London’s Unity March, and once again London’s streets were filled with angry people of all ages, exercising their right to speak up and be heard. This time it was a different kind of terrorist in the firing line. A terrorist that uses ropes, hoists, imprisonment in glass tanks, and funds their work with a cashflow from unsuspecting tourists. We stood once again on the steps of Trafalgar Square, and this time called out ‘Je Suis Tilikum’.

IMG_6832Me, at the anti Sea World protest in 2015

“I would rather die standing, than live on my knees”

Empty the tanks; close down Sea World; stop the slaughter of dolphins at Taiji Cove. These were our messages that day. Riding a wave of protest that my fellow journalists; slaughtered at their day jobs, had created. We rode that wave for Tilikum, a whale who hadn’t ridden a wave himself in 32 years at that point. 

I was 24 years only at the protest. Tilikum was 34. He has 10 more years on me. And I thought about that a lot. All the great things I’d done in my life. 

Tilikum came to Sea World in 1992, when I was two years old. I was probably just getting to grips with walking a few steps and talking a few simple sentences back then. All the things I’ve done in my life since then… and Tilikum has been in the same tiny part of Sea World‘s Florida park, in the same tank, swimming in the same circles with the same view, day in, day out. All. That. Time.

A wild orca can swim up to 100 miles a day in the wild. A wild killer whale with 10 extra years on me should have a hell of a lot more life experience.

kate snowdon photoA wild orca I encountered in South Africa

I encountered Tilikum once. In real life, in person. Summer 1999, and I was nine years old, on a family holiday to Orlando. These were the days before social media ruled the Internet, before I could sit and read National Geographic from cover to cover, before Blackfish was a documentary that existed to be watched and shared hundreds of thousands of times. 

It felt like an innocent day of family fun, and my overwhelming feeling was that I loved this incredible killer whale and the way he could perform with his ‘carers’ so carefully and gently. I don’t think you can get away with that level of naivety in today’s Information Age. Tilikum was driven mad by his captivity and is now known to have killed three people.

Including his Sea World trainer, in the pool, in front of an audience.

001A family holiday snap from 1999.

Dominic Dyer addressed the crowds back at Trafalgar Square in January 2015, and quoted the words of Charlie Hebdo’s murdered editor “I would rather die standing, than live on my knees”.

I felt the fire in my belly and I vowed to stand for that poor, disturbed, incredibly intelligent orca that I’d seen behind the glass all those years ago.IMG_6843See Dominic Dyer’s full speech and my coverage of the march that day here. 

“Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim”

There’s a second part to this story. Fast forward one year from the empty the tanks protest, to January 2016. Almost a year to the exact day, David Bowie passed away after a private battle with cancer. 

About a week on, we were back on the streets of London again, this time protesting outside the Japanese embassy.

A crowd, as big as the year before, marched through the streets once more with the message: empty the tanks; close down Sea World; stop the slaughter of dolphins at Taiji Cove.

These three causes are completely interlinked; Taiji Cove is where wild dolphins are rounded up in Japan every year and killed by spears for meat consumption, or the most handsome specimens are captured to be sold into a life in tanks at marine parks like Sea World. 

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For those who know little about the annual dolphin slaughter at Taiji, Japan, I would highly recommend watching the Academy Award-winning documentary; The Cove. 

As powerful as Blackfish, this tells the story of the other marine mammal that’s most commonly associated with captive performances alongside human trainers; the bottlenose dolphin. 

Significantly, just before the credits on this powerful documentary roll, the song ‘Heroes‘ by David Bowie concludes the film. 

“I, I wish you could swim. Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim”

I’m reliably told that the artist, knowing the activist film makers were on a low budget, charged as little as he could get away with for the licensing of the song to be used in the film. Despite his affection for Japan, he risked his reputation with the country for the cause of the dolphins.

See my full coverage of the 2016 march here. 

As January kicks off once again with a personally significant loss; this time the passing of a creature whose gaze I once met through thick glass many years ago, I vow to stand up once again, and let my voice be heard.

The annual Taiji dolphin drive slaughter is in full swing once more its season running from September to March, and once again the waters of the Cove will run red with blood, and the ‘lucky’ dolphins who survive the massacre will be sold on to marine park shows across the world to face the same fate as Tilikum. Driven mad in a tiny glass prison.

I promise, to Tilikum, that as long as marine mammals are kept in tanks, I will continue to stand against it.

I will stand, until they can swim free. 

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Diving the Great Barrier Reef… at the Natural History Museum

I began this blog in 2011, when I was living, working and studying in Australia. I spent 14 months on the other side of the world, working towards my degree at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia.Great Barrier Reef 1

No trip across Australia would have been complete without visiting the incredibly beautiful Great Barrier Reef, and this was one of the absolute highlights for me (see picture left!).

Incredibly delicate and evidently damaged by climate change and pollution, I chose to snorkel around the reef rather than scuba dive, as this would have been my first time using scuba diving equipment and as an inexperienced diver, I didn’t trust myself to know enough to avoid further damaging the reef.

Nonetheless, the experience was unforgettable. Vivid in colour and full of life, the reef really is quite a spectacle.

This weekend, I visited London’s Natural History Museum to recapture the experience.

Sounds a little odd, doesn’t it? But the Attenborough Studio is offering the chance to take a virtual reality tour of the Great Barrier Reef, with Sir David Attenborough himself.

I’ve never worn a virtual reality headset before and didn’t really know what to expect, but putting on the Samsung VR Gear was the perfect way to brighten a Sunday afternoon with a bit of fun and a bit of wonder!

Admittedly, the visuals in the headset didn’t feel quite ‘real’ but it was a fantastic way to combine technology, education, and immersive documentary film making and to go deep under the water with David Attenborough just over your right shoulder, becoming your tour guide for the journey!

At the end of the 20 minute ‘show’, I was ready to take the gear off and give my neck a bit of a rest – but the feeling of possibility and connection to the location definitely stayed with me for much longer!

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Racing Extinction assembly: Inspiring the next generation of wildlife protectors

Last week I had the fantastic honour of representing Discovery Education (for whom I work whilst wearing my 9-5 hat), in a special Racing Extinction assembly delivered to 300 young people at Claires Court Senior Boys School in Maidenhead.

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As part of my role at Discovery Education, I worked on the school resources for Racing Extinction – sub editing the content of all the lesson plans and presentations that supplement our chosen clips from the documentary. I also sub edited the descriptions/blurbs that went with each of the clips and the marketing material and public site, too.

2I knew that some of the assembly audience would have used these in their classes, but for those who weren’t entirely familiar with the documentary, I began the assembly with a trailer, before going on to explain that I’d actually spent time out in South Africa, at game reserve called Shamwari — to help work on conservation issues faced in the wild.

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For this particular talk, and given that I wanted to focus on the content on the actual Racing Extinction documentary, the main body of my presentation was about two specific animals – the polar and the manta ray.

I divided the room in half (a little trick given to me by Will Travers), with one side of the room representing the polar bear, and the other; the manta ray. I then read out 10 facts, asking students to declare whether the fact I had given was about their animal, by way of a show of hands.

The idea was to dispel myths and insert knowledge.

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Facts:

  1. The normal life expectancy of this animal in the wild is 40 years = manta ray
  1. The average weight of this animal is 1.4 tons = manta ray
  1. This animal mainly eats seals, which they catch using their remarkable sense of smell = polar bear
  1. This animal’s natural predator is the killer whale = manta ray
  1. There are 20,000-25,000 of these animals remaining in the wild = polar bear
  1. Global warming – resulting the rise of sea levels, sea temperatures and acidity of the sea has affected the availability of this animals main food source = both
  1. Climate change is currently the greatest single threat to this animal = polar bear
  1. Hunting by humans is a big threat to this animal. In the early days, they were hunted and killed so that the oils could be extracted from the body = manta ray
  1. This animal has international protection after CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) listed it in their appendices in 2013, meaning that their trade is heavily restricted = manta ray
  1. Finally, this animal shares its habitat with Ships and tankers of all kinds. Most of these ships use something called heavy fuel oil — meaning the animal is at great risk from leaks or spills which would be catastrophic to its environment = polar bear

I was surprised (and delighted) to see how well received the game was, and how much the students both engaged and considered their answers.

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As Born Free Foundation was a partner of Racing Extinction, working with Discovery to promote the film, I asked their policy advisor Dominic Dyer to join me as a special guest, speaking about important wildlife issues at home and abroad, the influence of films such as Racing Extinction, and how the young people in the room are the ones with the knowledge and the power to reverse some of the mistakes made by their parents’ generation.

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Thank you kindly to Claires Court School for inviting us along and for all the positive feedback we received! And thank you to Dominic for providing such fantastic and inspiring call to arms.Assembly Claires Court

Learn more about Discovery Education’s Racing Extinction resources here.

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Racing Extinction preview screening: #Startwith1thing

Stepping under the blue lights of the entrance, a rising excitement that just a corridor away would be the preview of Racing Extinction; Discovery Network’s biggest global event.

This was a special one for me, having worked on the school resources that supplement the event as part of my role as a sub editor at Discovery Education — plus, it would bring together two of my biggest passions: my job and my campaign work for Born Free Foundation.

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Born Free Foundation were one of the partners of the film, along with familiar faces such as Tusk Trust and Save Me.

Coincidently, one of the first people I bumped into at the top of a staircase adjorned with beautiful photographs of endangered species (complemented by their population facts and figures for us all to reflect upon); was Born Free’s Policy Advisor (and head of the Badger Trust) Dom Dyer: a face I have come to be familiar with thanks to demonstrations against Taji Cove, fox hunting, canned lion hunting, and most recently; the Lion Aid event in memory of Cecil the lion.

A deep breath and on through the double doors to the main buzz of the evening; a room of invited guests, Discovery employees and various animal activists, charities and campaigners. There among the crowd stood my dear friend Will Travers (below), whose presence made arriving at such a prestigious event alone slightly less daunting. I’ve said it before, but the close-nit camaraderie among Born Free’s founders, patrons and supporters really is second to none.image

With little time to spare (my ill-prepared decision to walk to the venue from Baker Street Station — a near-on half an hour walk as it turn out — had seen to that); it was on to the main event. The screening of this highly-anticipated, four-years-in-the-making docufilm by director Louie Psihoyos whose work includes the Academy Award Winning documentary The Cove, which I’ve previously written about here.

I hadn’t realised before arrival, that journalist and Born Free supporter Kate Silverton would be hosting the event, which immediately took me back to last year’s Wild Night at the Movies: hosted by a then very pregnant Kate Silverton: this was the event that my subsequent blog post about had earned me an invitation to meet Will Travers for the first time — a serendipitous detail to this evening indeed!image

I don’t know how to possibly put into words the power of the film that Louie Psihoyos has created. It’s a must watch… a must act upon… call to arms kind of film.

I almost feel like we have a duty as part of the human race — or more accurately still, as part of planet Earth — to hear the message that this movie speaks.

With a bigger budget and a cable network’s backing behind him, former National Geographic journalist Psihoyos has taken all the dramatic journalistic investigating; emotional narrative and strong, intelligent ethos of The Cove and mixed in some brilliant visionary talent (in the form of well-documented Empire State Building illuminator and Obscura Digital Founder,Travis Threlkel, and eco-warrior Race Car Driver Leilani Münter) to create something pretty spectacular.

For those interested in joining in the Global Premiere of the film, save the date: 2nd December, where Discovery Channel will be screening the documentary across the globe in a special worldwide event!

After watching the film (which received a standing ovation from its audience), the night concluded with a special panel discussion with a panel that included director Louie Psihoyos himself, and Born Free Patron Dr Brian May.

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The resounding sentiments from this segment of the evening were Psihoyos’ promotion of the statement: It’s better to light one candle than curse the darkness; taken directly from the film, and Brian May’s admission that Racing Extinction had done more than ignite a candle: it had flipped a switch within him.

“The message of hope is what’s important here” May concluded — and I couldn’t have agreed with him more.

“We have to change us before we can change the policy makers,” Psihoyos closed with, and I think that’s where Discovery’s initative #Startwith1thing really comes in.image

All present fundraising champions and ‘wildlife royalty’ made their #Startwith1thing pledge during the course of the evening, including former Springwatch favourite Bill Oddie (who I had the pleasure of meeting at an Angels for the Innocent fundraiser earlier in the year) — and I’ve already made mine (see below).

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What will yours be? If we all start with 1 thing, we could be the candles that light up the darkness!

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The Elephant in the Room

To me, the best kind of an education comes from something that moves you. Something that stays with you long after you first discover or encounter it, and leaves you wanting to take action. Sometimes that action may simply be learning more, delving into this newfound knowledge further, to see what other unknowns may be uncovered. And other times, it leaves you wanting to change the world.

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#Elefilm

That’s exactly how I felt when I finished watching student-produced documentary The Elephant in the Room.

Providing a deeply moving look at the plight of elephants kept in solitary zoo conditions (an issue I already have an opinion on), the confronting images of The Elephant in the Room, made in association with Born Free Films, echo the critically acclaimed scenes of Blackfish – and are certainly as harrowing.

Gaining internet popularity under the hash tag: #Elefilm, the 13 and a half min long documentary, narrated by Born Free Founder Virginia McKenna OBE, explores the damaging industry of zoos in the context of what we now know about elephant psychology and behaviour – and the findings highlighted are heart-breakingly deserving of the 13 minutes it takes to watch the film, and the challenging questions that the 20,000 people who have already viewed the short documentary must have been left asking themselves, about what we are doing in the name of tourism and misinterpreted ‘education’.

If education is about truth, as I believe it to be, then The Elephant in the Room is far more of an education than looking through the cold metal bars of a concrete-floored pen, at an animal that displays none of its natural behaviours and instincts. If #Elefilm has left me with anything, it’s the realisation that these kinds of environments will never truly teach us anything about what wildlife is really like.

Belonging to the same herd

Inspired by a Born Free Foundation report entitled, ‘Innocent Prisoner’, the group of nature-loving film makers behind the documentary, traveled from the UK to California in the USA, Romania and Norway to complete filming, drawing upon the knowledge and experiences of experts working within several world-altering charities – albeit if these organisations are altering the world just one animal, and one changed opinion, at a time. Whilst these locations and sources of education are ones I hugely respect, one of the most exciting discoveries about this film, on a personal level, was that it was created as a University of Hertfordshire Film – meaning the team behind it were students of the very university I graduated from last year! How exciting to learn that this highly impassioned and powerful project could come from such close proximity! I caught up with the documentary’s Producer & Assistant Editor Amanda Gardner and Director & Editor Tariq Chow to find out more about the motivation behind the film …

What was your inspiration behind making the film?

Every member of our team has a strong passion for animals – together we had already completed another film called ‘Catastrophe’ which discussed the problems cat shelters are currently facing in the UK. At the start of the pre-production process, we came across an article ‘Innocent Prisoner’ on the Born Free website, which talked about there being over 40 elephants living on their own in captivity across Europe. We decided that we would make this the main topic of our film, as we felt that it was an issue that not many people were currently aware of.

What kinds of processes were involved? Were there any particular highlights for you?  

The main processes involved in making The Elephant in the Room were locating and interviewing specialists and experts in the animal welfare field and travelling abroad to four different locations to capture footage – UK, Romania, Norway and California USA. We also spent a lot of time and detail on writing the narration, editing the clips together and creating the soundtrack and animation. One of the main aims of the film was trying to convey the correct message to the audience in regards to how we can help these elephants living in solitary confinement. One of the main highlights of filming The Elephant in the Room was travelling to America to visit the ARK 2000 Sanctuary, where elephants have been re-homed from zoos and circuses to live out the rest of their lives in peace.

Were there any particular challenges in creating the documentary?

One of the main challenges in making the film was trying to choose the most poignant footage to use in order to convey the correct message to the audience.

How did you manage to get Born Free Foundation on board?

We managed to get the Born Free Foundation on board through a series of processes, including sending over a proposal which discussed the main outline of the film and also talking through our ideas and reasons for creating the documentary. We were extremely fortunate to get the Born Free Foundation on board – we could not have made The Elephant in the Room without their advice and support.

What kind of successes has the film had since completion?

Since its completion, The Elephant in the Room has won the ITV award at the University of Hertfordshire’s Vision’s Festival. It has also received over 12,000 views on Youtube and 5,000 views on Vimeo. We have also held a private screening of our film at the Warner Bros. De Lane Lea sound studios, attended by representatives from the film industry, the national press and the animal welfare industry. Virginia McKenna OBE was also in attendance, alongside her son and President of the Born Free Foundation, Will Travers.

What are your hopes and aims for it here on in?

We hope the message will spread further in regards to the problems of elephants living in solitary confinement. In would be fantastic for my team and I to develop the film into a feature length documentary.

Image courtesy https://www.facebook.com/elefilm

Screening of The Elephant in the Room. Image courtesy:
https://www.facebook.com/elefilm

Marching towards a common goal

I couldn’t finish our chat without asking perhaps the most important question of all, that surely brings together the whole purpose of making the film, the charity work it is highlighting and of course the reason for the existence of this blog itself. What do you hope is the future for elephants? Amanda tells me the hope is that all elephants living in zoos, particularly those living in solitary confinement, can move to a sanctuary where they can live out the rest of their lives in peace, and that no more elephants are taken from the wild in order to live in a zoo or circus.

DThxy

Still from the documentary. Image courtesy elefilm.eu

Important info:

The Elephant in the Room is in association with Born Free Films and is narrated by Virginia McKenna OBE. Crew – Amanda Gardner (Producer & Assistant Editor), Tariq Chow (Writer, Director & Editor), Matthew Buckner (Sound, Music & Animation) and Emma Peirson-Hagger (Camera & Lighting). To watch the film and for more information, please visit; www.elefilm.eu

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