Rufunsa is the small calf on the left, and Tafika is the calf on the right. Photo courtesy of Kelly Bakos.

Rufunsa is the small calf on the left, and Tafika is the calf on the right. Photo courtesy of Kelly Bakos.

Petersburg filmmaker wins awards for documentary on baby elephants

For four months in Zambia, Petersburg resident Kelly Bakos would wake up before sunrise, gather her gear, and then film baby elephants until sunset. That footage became Bakos’ award-winning documentary “Herd of Orphans.”

In 2018, “Herd of Orphans” won four awards of excellence from The Accolade Global Film Competition, a worldwide media competition: Nature/Environment/Wildlife, Viewer Impact: Content/Message Delivery, Contemporary Issues/Awareness Raising, and Women Filmmakers.

The film follows the Elephant Orphanage Project, a baby elephant rescue center in Kafue National Park which started in 2008. Here, calves are taken to live if found to be orphaned after their adult family has been poached for their ivory. They become a herd with other orphaned elephants and are raised to be wild, so when they reach adulthood, they can be released.

It’s Bakos’ hope that the film will show a consequence of poaching that isn’t frequently featured: the trauma the calves go through when they lose their family and their resilience in forging new bonds with the other orphans.

“A lot of poaching films out there – there are quite a few of them – are on the species or population levels and looking at the cartels and looking at how poaching is happening; they are looking at demand size. But to actually have an endearing film that looks at the personalities of elephants and the direct impact on baby elephants – that’s not common,” she said.

From Alaska to Africa

So how did Bakos go from Alaska to Africa? While she studied wildlife biology in college, she knew she didn’t want to be a biologist or wildlife manager. She was more interested in wildlife art and photography. Post-graduation, she found herself working for wildlife nonprofits where she began a career in communications and outreach. She worked in Seward and the Aleutian Islands and even a rescue center in Cambodia. But she and her husband, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service, came to call Petersburg home where she now serves as the volunteer director of the Petersburg Marine Mammal Center. Over her career, she has done everything from designing campaign products to websites and filming videos, all skills which lent themselves well to film-making.

Bakos had never done anything on the communications side with elephants, and hadn’t ever seen a wild elephant before, but she did know the project manager of the Elephant Orphanage Project Rachael Murton, who asked her to consider shooting an independent film project. She did and soon found herself in Zambia.

Each day, Bakos would go to the boma, a stable which protects the elephants from poachers and predators, and see the calves emerging from their stalls and fed their breakfast by the elephant keepers. For those under three years of age, the Elephant Orphanage Project had developed a special milk formula that provides them with the necessary nutrients.

Morning is an exciting time, she said, because the elephants are excited to visit with one another. The keepers allow the elephants to play for as long as they want before taking them out together as a group on a walk through Kafue National Park.

“The keepers allow the elephants to dictate what the schedule is for the day. (The calves) kind of know their routine but the keepers are trying to get the elephants to be wild. (The keepers) have to take care of them and be surrogate parents and keep them on schedules and feed them but it’s really about making sure the elephants are wild elephants,” Bakos said.

The elephants usually come back for a noon time meal, but if not, the keepers prepare milk and walk it out to wherever the elephants are since they need to eat every three hours. Bakos would go along on the walks, filming the elephants’ play and exploration. The elephants would return to the boma by sunset, have their evening meal, and then be housed in their stables for the night.

The months in Zambia were amazing, Bakos said. One aspect she picked up on and tried to capture on film were the strong, unique personalities of the elephants.

“Elephants especially, there’s something endearing about them, especially the babies, babies who have lost their families. When you interact with them you can tell there’s something missing in their lives. They’ve been traumatized. They’ve gone through a lot for their young age and the impact of that, it really touches you. You can see in their eyes and their actions and everything that they do. They have not had a normal life. They are missing their families. They’re missing their moms but they’re making do. They’re very resilient. They’re able to come together with a group of orphans just like themselves and kind of carve out a new life,” she said.

“Seeing the orphans on film filled me with emotion,” Murton said. “To see how much they have developed and matured over time is so rewarding as it gives us hope of their eventual release back into the wild. It was also a strong reminder of the bigger picture of our work — sometimes it is very easy to get caught up with the day-to-day challenges or details, but looking on from a wider angle was very inspiring and made me proud of my team and our work.”

‘Compel them to take action’

Initially Bakos planned for the footage to be a pilot of a TV series but in post-production realized the best way to reach audiences this go-around would be a documentary. Bakos is currently trying to get “Herd of Orphans” on the film festival circuit to get it in front of audiences and gauge reactions in North America and Europe. Next year she’ll be looking into on demand theatrical releases as well as distribution methods, either TV or internet, she said.

A big aim for Bakos is to get the film released in Asia since much of the demand for ivory comes from that region, she said. While international commercial trade in ivory was banned in 1989 through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), ivory continues to be traded through the black market. The National Geographic Society and Globescan, an international research firm, measured the level of interest and looked at the motives behind buying ivory in the U.S., the Philippines, China, Thailand and Vietnam in a 2014 study. The study found that people wanted ivory due to perceiving it as a status symbol to believing it makes a good gift. These are perceptions Bakos and Murton hopes change when showing potential consumers the consequences of the demand for ivory through “Herd of Orphans.”

“I hope the film will enable the viewers to connect with the elephant orphans and feel empathy for them,” Murton said. “They are the victims of ivory poaching and are such a tragic demonstration of the result of that trade. It is hard for people to sometimes really understand the challenges of wildlife conservation from a distance and get to grips with the necessary role of law enforcement officers on the ground who can prevent such tragedies and help protect the natural environment in which elephants can thrive. But the orphaned elephants are easy to connect to and identify with. They are such charismatic animals with strong family bonds of love and companionship. For a young elephant to lose its mother to satisfy the ivory demand is absolutely heartbreaking and I really hope that this strong feeling will be stirred in the viewers of Kelly’s touching film and compel them to take action.”

This isn’t the end of Bakos’ wildlife films. She is currently working on a neutral messaged documentary on the sea otters in Petersburg. By some they can be seen as a pest and to others a beloved part of Southeast. It can be a heated issue locally, she said, but she wants to gather all perspectives on sea otters, from fisheries to tourism, and then present the film come next spring to open a dialogue.



• Clara Miller is the editor of the Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at



The herd of elephants walk with their keepers out in the Kafue National Park in Zambia. Photo courtesy of Kelly Bakos.

The herd of elephants walk with their keepers out in the Kafue National Park in Zambia. Photo courtesy of Kelly Bakos.

Elephants returning to the boma. Photo courtesy of Kelly Bakos.

Elephants returning to the boma. Photo courtesy of Kelly Bakos.

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