When Elephants Were Young is a 2016 documentary about wild and captive elephants in Thailand, one family’s relationship with elephants and street begging, and the efforts to reintroduce elephants to the wild. Through interviews with numerous people, the film shows the complexity of Thailand’s relationship with elephants, including the ivory trade, street begging, and captivity.

Overall, the film shared the intricacies and complexity of this issue fairly well. It could have been very easy (but ultimately misleading) to turn the story into one where the local population is blamed for the elephants’ decline in population and rise in captivity. But in reality, poverty is a driving force behind many captive elephants, as one person can make up to five times the pay of a farmer as a street beggar with an elephant in large part because of the tourism industry.

Tied into this issue of poverty are the tourism industry within Thailand, growing development, and the ivory industry. Tourists from all over the world pay good money to interact with elephants, which one of the only legal means of work for most elephant caretakers. Even for the few remaining wild elephants, their habitats are decreasing rapidly, as 95% of Thailand’s forests have been replaced with urban centers or rice fields. And because of a legal loophole, the illegal ivory trade thrives in Thailand. All of these issues mean that the wild elephant population has declined dramatically in the country.

When Elephants Were Young does a pretty good job of dealing with all of these issues in just 90 minutes and indirectly shows that merely returning captive elephants to the wild isn’t going to solve the decline in the wild population. There are countless other issues that we need to deal with in conjunction with addressing the declining population. If we want to see an increase in wild Asian elephants, we also need to be addressing poverty in nearby communities, restoring at least some of the elephants’ natural habitats, and confronting the legal and illegal ivory trade around the world. If we don’t address these issues, I doubt that the wild elephant populations around the world will be okay.

While the film does a fair job at addressing the complexities of captive and wild elephants in Thailand, there were a few moments in which the cinematography left something to be desired. During the interviews with Wok (a man who cared for an elephant and did street begging with her), his family, and a few experts, there were unnecessary close-ups of people’s faces. And peppered throughout the film are close-ups of elephant feet in chains, a powerful image but after a while, it felt like too much.

But ultimately, the film does a fantastic job at dealing with such a complicated issue in such a short amount of time. If you’re interested in wildlife conservation around the world, this is a great film to watch!

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