McGRAIN TURNS LENS ON AFRICA'S ELEPHANTS
From birds and sculptures to elephants and film, Todd McGrain feels the responsibility to help protect animals.
The Portland resident has made an impact through his The Lost Bird Project, and now he has opened eyes with his documentary film "Elephant Path (Njaia Njoku)," which has been shown at several film festivals, including the Portland EcoFilm Fest last weekend.
It's about the endangered forest elephants of Central Africa, and the people who guard them from poachers.
As for fulfilling work achievements, it ranks right up there with McGrain's efforts to save and document birds. He started the film five years ago.
"I do feel compelled to tell stories of extinction," says McGrain, a native of upstate New York who has lived and worked in Portland, at least part time, the past 20 years. "With The Lost Bird Project, my motivation was to try to work hard to keep people aware of extinct birds as part of our natural heritage. If it's easy to forget, it's much easier to prevent species from disappearing.
"It's easier to get ahead of elephants (endangerment) than with birds, as there are all these voices calling alarm. I found that inspiring. 'Maybe I should do the best I can to sound the alarm for a species like the Forest Elephant, which I had never heard of.' I didn't know there were three species: Asian, African and forest."
The forest elephants live in a Central African rainforest that covers the southern part of the Central African Republic and northern part of both Congo countries, Cameroon and Gabon. It's the second largest contiguous forest in the world after the Amazon.
"They're smaller elephants, and they have a very different lifestyle than the savanna elephants (of Africa)," he says. "They're smaller, with rounder ears. They get tusks much younger, and their ivory is finer and harder and a little pinker. Consequently, it makes their ivory very uncommon and very popular (for poaching).
"If we don't stop the poaching of the forest elephants, most experts say they'll be extinct in 10 years."
Estimated population is 50,000, but it's difficult to count, as the elephants live in the forest. "There were 14,000 killed in 2017; you can imagine what (poaching) bodes for the forest elephant," McGrain says.
So McGrain has done something about it.
He started The Lost Bird Project about 20 years ago, focusing on sculptures of birds. He has had installations at museums in the United States (including a Smithsonian) and elsewhere, and locally at Tom McCall Waterfront Park. He's earned a Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and Audubon Award for Art Inspiring Conservation.
His work to create permanent public memorials to birds driven to extinction in modern times led to the documentary "The Lost Bird Project," on which he consulted and which also served as impetus for him to do his own about the elephants.
"Filmmaking is collaborative and it draws me out of my life as an artist," the Southeast Portland resident says.
McGrain was working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where he met people in the Elephant Listening Project who educated him on the plight of the forest elephants.
With a film crew, he ventured to Central Africa four times for about a month each time. McGrain worked with the Bayaka indigenous people, who operate as trackers for tourists but who also stress conservation of the animals.
Forest elephants build paths through the forest — hence, the name of McGrain's documentary — while also eating fruits and nuts, which leads to more fruit and nut trees growing.
The movie features the work of an American biologist, a Bayaka tracker, a Bantu eco-guard and an Israeli security contractor, who form an unlikely alliance to protect and study the majestic animals.
Traveling to and from Central Africa was not easy, he says, as political instability makes it a "mess." Rebels are destabilizing the Central African Republic, which, like other African countries, sees foreign companies work in their land to extract iron, timber, diamonds and more for profit.
The film has been well-received, says McGrain, who's the director, producer and editor. Andrew Stern serves as executive producer.
"It's a quiet film of living in the shoes of people who walk those elephants' paths," he says.
A sculpture artist for 25 years, McGrain says that being a sculptor is still his true love — "it's the place I'm happiest, in the sculpture studio" — but being a filmmaker has drawn him out of his comfort zone.
He's now working on a movie about the SmartFin project. SmartFin is developing surfboards with sensors to document data around coral reefs.