“Tuskers” Is an Action-Adventure Comic That Draws Attention to the Crisis of African Elephant Poaching
Here’s why the team behind it thinks a graphic novel is the right medium for highlighting the elephant poaching crisis.
Javier Barrios, a screenwriter and manager of the television and film script library at the Writers Guild of America, has twin daughters with twin obsessions: pandas and elephants. In the process of learning everything he could about these animals alongside his children, he came across a harrowing 60 Minutes documentary about the crisis of African elephant poaching and the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Africa’s first orphanage dedicated to rescuing and raising abandoned elephants.
Barrios, whose films often have an environmental bent — one of his first scripts was about the collapse of the cod fishing industry on Canada’s East Coast — knew he wanted to tell this story. He began writing a treatment for a feature film about a herd of elephants forced to flee their homeland to the sanctuary of an elephant orphanage hundreds of miles away.
Unbeknownst to Barrios, his friend and collaborator Marc Gaffen, a writer and crew member on TV shows like The Bernie Mac Show, Grimm, and New Amsterdam, had seen the 60 Minutes documentary as well. Gaffen knew his friend would be interested in it, so he brought it up the next time they were together. Barrios showed him the treatment he’d written — and Gaffen knew instantly he wanted to be a part of it.
“I kind of finagled my way onto his project,” Gaffen says with a laugh. “It was a great Jedi mind trick, like, ‘You will have me as a co-writer.’”
He’d just come off of creating a graphic novel adaptation of Grimm, and he suggested to Barrios that they turn the treatment into a graphic novel so that they could tell the story not only from the point of view of the human characters, but from that of the elephants as well. And he suggested they bring on Daniel Govar, the artist he’d worked with on the Grimm project, a veteran of Marvel, DC, Valiant, and Dynamite Comics. Govar, whose son is also animal-obsessed, immediately jumped on board. (He’d just finished illustrating a Kickstarter-funded comic called Mr. Trunk Builds a Wall, starring a very different sort of elephant.)
Tuskers isn’t your typical anthropocentric conservation narrative
Tuskers follows a herd of 14 African elephants who must flee their home in South Sudan for the safety of an animal sanctuary in Kenya as a vicious poaching militia chases them; they are guided on their journey by a group of wildlife conservationists.
The story unfolds from the perspectives of several central characters, both human and elephant. Among the humans are Dr. Zuri Erivo, the caretaker of an elephant orphanage in South Sudan who leads the herd on their trek; Sgt. Elias Delgado, a former U.S. Army Ranger grappling with the trauma of his battlefield experiences in Afghanistan; and Joseph and Rafi, the leaders of the EcoGuards, a group of conservationists who routinely risk their lives to protect and lead elephants to safety. Abdalla Karumba, a vicious warlord who slaughters elephants for their ivory to pay for weapons and accumulate power, heads the private militia they’re fleeing.
Four elephants lend their perspectives to the story: Detroit, a baby elephant who has witnessed the brutal killing of her family; Esampu, a take-charge youngster whom the writers describe as the “big sister” to the herd; Roi, a lively prankster who’s adept at stealing food; and Daphne, the matriarch, who grew up in Dr. Zuri Erivo’s orphanage after being gravely wounded by a leg snare.
Barrios and Gaffen’s aim with the graphic novel is twofold: first, to tell a compelling story, naturally. “It’s one thing to have a message, but you have to entertain as well,” Barrios says. But second, and just as important, the writers aim to draw attention to the brutality of elephant poaching and the ivory trade, and the grave threat it poses to African elephants. At the beginning of the 20th century, they note, the African elephant population was estimated to be around 12 million. By the beginning of the 21st century it was estimated to be around 350,000 — a 97 percent decline.
Making Tuskers a graphic novel allowed the writers to go beyond the sorts of conservation narratives they’d seen in the past. Other stories were “mostly just [about] humans, you know, ‘We shall save the day,’” Gaffen says. “The hero of our story is the elephant named Detroit. He’s the heart and the real protagonist of the graphic novel. And that’s something you couldn’t get in movies right now. That’s what makes the format of the graphic novel really special: It allows us to highlight the whole herd of characters.”
Extensive research lends nuance and realism to the narrative
Although the graphic-novel format tends to be associated, in the popular imagination, with the flash and hyperbole of superhero comics, Tuskers takes a more nuanced, realistic approach — even to the villains of the story. “We have this whole section about who the poachers are and how they came to be poachers. Yes, they’re doing awful things, and they’re the villains and antagonists in the story. But there is a social, economical reason why they’re doing what they’re doing,” Gaffen says.
“That’s what this story hopefully does: It shows you that everyone has interesting, tragic, sad backgrounds, but it’s what they do today, and the decisions they make, that makes them who they are,” he adds. “We [humans] will decide if we will have African elephants or if we won’t have African elephants in the future.”
“We will decide if we will have African elephants or if we won’t have African elephants in the future.”
It’s also thoroughly — Gaffen goes so far as to say obsessively — researched. Barrios says his approach as a screenwriter is to amass hundreds of pages of material. “A lot of articles will cover things I already know, but they’ll have a nugget of something [extra],” he says. “I’m a firm believer that no matter what story you have, research fills in those little seams that you would not be able to make up on your own. Like, ‘I didn’t know that they did A, B, and C to remove the tusk’ — just little details that are crucial to the details of the story.”
They also took advantage of a service offered by the University of Southern California that connects writers with experts in the field they’re researching. “USC got us in touch with experts from the World Wildlife Foundation, so we got to have a conversation about the current poaching situation,” Gaffen says. “We also had email conversations with people on the ground in Africa, who were actually there and actually dealing with this stuff.”
Many of the characters in Tuskers, as a result, are based on real people and situations. Dr. Erivo, for example, is inspired by Dame Daphne Sheldrick, founder of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. To map out the personalities of the elephants, they drew on traits they observed in videos from Sheldrick and other elephant orphanages in Africa.
A particularly poignant aspect of the story is the relationship between Sgt. Elias Delgado and baby elephant Detroit. “You have Elias, who has this trauma, who is trying to find his life again,” Gaffen says. “And his mirror is Detroit, the baby elephant who saw his family massacred. You have these two broken hearts, who both have survivor’s remorse, who are trying to find their strength to live again.” In real life, Gaffen notes, elephants who witness the death of loved ones may “die of broken hearts. An orphanage might bring them back and be able to provide them with a place to sleep, with care, with a new herd, milk, but [some elephants], they refuse to drink, they refuse to eat, and they die.”
Tuskers doesn’t shy away from the violence of poaching — but it’s ultimately a story about hope
Death looms large in Tuskers. The first pages open with a scene of graphic violence, as Detroit’s family is murdered and their faces hacked by poachers to harvest their tusks. The artwork is done in black-and-white, with splashes of orange for emphasis; in these scenes, the blood, too, is orange. And such will be the fate of the herd if they don’t make it to the orphanage.
Depicting the violence honestly, accurately, “was important to me,” Gaffen says. “I felt like there was no point in telling the story if you’re just going to gloss over the truth of it and do the Disney version. This is also one of the reasons why we decided to self-publish on Kickstarter — when we would tell people about this, they were very put off by seeing the elephant with its face cut off. But I’m a true believer that in order to wake people up from apathy, to get them to really care, they need to see the true-life horror of what’s going on.”
But ultimately, the story is one of hope, Gaffen and Barrios say. “It’s about starting over and challenging the horrors of what’s really happening in life,” Gaffen says. “In storytelling, you have to have real tragedy to get to the real hope.”
“In storytelling, you have to have real tragedy to get to the real hope.”
That spirit of hope doesn’t just pervade the story; it’s what animates the creators as well. Gaffen says he hopes to open readers’ eyes “to devastation they may not know about. To have them learn about the intelligence and the emotional depth that elephants have. They’re smart. They think. They feel. They love and they mourn. And it’s not just about them — I want people to learn about these conservationists, these people who devote their lives to helping these animals and educating people.”
Hope drives Barrios, too — the hope that he can play a part in making a better world for his children. “One of the things that keeps me up at night is, well, what kind of world will my daughters inherit when they grow up? I want to be able to highlight something important that can bring about positive change.”
And Govar says, “The plight of the elephant, I hope that [readers] understand just how critical it is. I hope the takeaway is that we have to do something. We will see their extinction if [poaching] doesn’t stop. I want to be able to look my son in the eye and say, ‘I did something to try and keep elephants in existence.’”
— Rebecca Hiscott