A review by Brandon Navratil
The Ivory Game is a full-length documentary produced by Red Bull’s Terra Mater Film Studios and Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Productions, in association with Malaika Pictures and Appian Way. As a Netflix original with executive producer Leonardo DiCaprio, this film explores the current epidemic of elephant slaughter and the illegal trade of ivory into black markets in Asia. The run time is 1 hour and 52 minutes.
Director Richard Ladkani is an award winning director and cinematographer who has made over 50 documentaries for cinema and TV. Director and Producer Kief Davidson is an Academy Award-nominated director who has also created multiple films that aim to entertain and inspire. Together they filmed undercover for 16 months penetrating the illegal trade of “white gold” and uncovering the corruption behind this world crisis. While their efforts bring the situation to the world stage in a visually compelling, dramatic, educational, and hopeful way, the film follows the efforts of individuals on the ground making great efforts to stop this crisis.
In 2014 Paul Allen launched the most comprehensive conservation study in African history with the Great Elephant Census. Over 350,000 square miles in 18 countries were surveyed with strict protocols to produce high quality data on how many African savanna elephants were left, where they were living, and where they were being poached. In the last 100 years African elephant populations have been reduced by 97%, with 30% of that occurring between 2007 and 2014. Poaching is having a devastating effect and quickly bringing this iconic animal to the brink of extinction. Estimations at current poaching rates predict 50% of the remaining elephants could be killed in the next 10 years.
With mindsets from traffickers that fewer elephants will raise prices, ivory is now more valuable than its weight in gold. Elephants are some of the most intelligent creatures in the animal kingdom, with a complex social structure, capacity for emotions, memory, and recognition of death that makes them a truly iconic symbol of nature. In combination with these factors they play a vital role in their ecosystems and if completely removed, it is thought the biodiversity of those areas could collapse. If we cannot stop this mass killing, illegal trade, and eventual extinction of one of the most recognizable animals in the world, then what species can we really save?
The film starts off with dramatic nighttime footage of an intelligence raid on a village in Tanzania with the aim to find and arrest “Shetani”, the most infamous elephant killer in the country. The use of guns, bulletproof vests, and intensity of the individuals involved during this police raid show the truly striking truth behind stopping elephant poaching. Then, as the introduction begins, you are hit with the startling fact that in the last 5 years over 150,000 elephants have been killed for their ivory. Get ready for a shocking wake-up and to be immersed into the true reality behind the ivory trade.
As the populations of elephants in West and Central Africa almost completely lost, the slaughter is spreading to East and Southern Africa. The intro then explains smugglers bring the ivory to China where it is carved, painted, and sold into a multi-billion dollar industry. Back to the front lines, the first character we meet in this saga is Craig Millar, the Head of Security for Big Life Foundation, Kenya. He tells the camera that some elephants have learned their tusks are valuable and occasionally actually try to hide them, especially when they know humans are watching. Such a startling idea exemplifies the severity of the situation. Loading bullets into rifles, a response is organized by the team to search for the source of ten shots fired in the bush one evening.
“The poachers prepared to shoot at you and you need to be prepared to shoot back.” -Craig Millar
This is the scenario he and his team head into. Air support, ground vehicles and foot patrols are utilized to search the vast area. It is a dangerous game but exemplifies what the front lines of wildlife conservation for this species have come down to.
Transitioning to the other side of the crisis with footage of extravagant displays of ivory carvings of Buddha heads, swords, and various sculptures, we are introduced to the next character of the film. Andrea Crosta is the Founder and Head Investigator of Wild Leaks. Andrea explains China has a legal market on ivory trading, but the government only releases about 5 tons a year. With the demand in China much higher, hundreds of tons of illegal ivory are being trafficked in every year.
“Trafficking is a serious business. There are powerful individuals making a lot of money and they are able to control politicians, security officers. So you don’t easily go to police to report a crime. This is strictly dangerous, you risk your life,” Crosta states.
This is why he started Wild Leaks, the world’s first initiative for wildlife crime whistleblowers. A short video is sent to him with no message and footage of many tusks lying around. Little connections and info like this may allow Crosta to discover where the tusks are located or came from.
Connecting back with Craig Millar on the Kenya-Tanzania border is the scene of a massacre. Millar describes the scenario with the elephants so close, the poachers must have been well-organized with an ambush setup. The elephants would’ve guarded the little ones, but they stood no chance. Millar then explains how traders in ivory want the extinction of elephants because, with less around, the price of ivory rises. The more it rises, the more people than want to kill them, and this is the ongoing circle that will eventually bring about African elephant extinction, unless we continue to do something about it.
The audience is now introduced to Elisifa Ngowi, the Head of Intelligence for The Task Force in Tanzania. He explains their number one target is Shetani, meaning “the devil”, due to his cruelty in the killing of over 10,000 elephants. They have no picture of Shetani, only descriptions, but have six informants working on his movements. Showing an arrest of a local man with two large tusks, we learn he was only paid $7 US per kilo, but in China it would fetch $3,000 per kilo. This is an example of the money traffickers are in it for.
“In the past it’s always like white people are the good guys, the local black people are the bad guys, and the Chinese people are the extremely bad guys. And I think it would be different if we could have some Chinese actually being the good guys in this ivory war.” – Hongxiang Huang
Huang is a Chinese activist and investigative journalist with a passion to help wildlife. The film also introduces Ofir Drori, an undercover investigator and ex-military Israeli officer. In Kampala, Uganda, they collaborate on an arrest of an individual wishing to sell 200 kilos of elephant ivory. There is the very serious reality of investigators facing traffickers alone, with the chance of being discovered, harmed, or killed as a result. Like Millar with bullets ready to fire back at poachers, the frontlines of wildlife conservation can be a very dangerous game for journalists or anyone involved.
Richard Bonham, the Director of Operations for Big Life Foundation, flies around an agriculture area with Millar to view elephants that are encroaching on the fields. After this flight the film shows the most dramatic footage yet. During the night elephants have wandered into the fields and the villagers formed a mob. As the viewer you can see the seriousness and vindication on the faces of the villagers for wanting the elephants out of their fields. Millar diffuses the situation by using flash bombs to scare away the elephants. Then he engages the crowd with a solution of an electric fence. However, the fence is only a potential solution if funded by outside sources, while the wildlife conflict with local people is still a quick step to poaching.
In the next sad footage, Kenya’s most famous elephant Satao was killed by poison arrows. His tusks almost reached the ground and he was believed to be one of the world’s largest living elephants. You can sense the emotional impact this has on the characters in the film. The news received wide coverage and was a loss to the whole world.
“How have we got to this stage as a human race? When we just lay waste to anything, to anything we value, just gets consumed. I don’t know if it’s ever going to make a difference or if we’re ever going to do enough, but we got to try. That’s all there is to it really.” – Craig Millar
In undercover footage a Chinese merchant explains the massive flaws in the legal system in Hong Kong. Detailed accounts of ivory stocks were not kept when it was outlawed in 1989. Therefore, currently merchants can use illegal ivory to replenish their stock without detection, legalizing it through this process. The government seems to have no way of regulating this. Andrea Crosta explains his worry of having this type of footage but not knowing who to share it with and, if shared with the wrong person, “then, bye bye.”
In Millar’s view there is one present solution to stop wildlife conflict with local humans and that is electric fencing. He meets with Ian Craig, the Director of Conservation for the Northern Rangelands Trust. Craig has decades of experience in conservation and feels there aren’t enough men or resources to stop the problem, that it needs a political solution. In stunning footage we see a stockroom of the Kenyan government’s confiscated ivory: over 7,000 pieces, or 55 tons.
Joining back up with Huang we are now in Hanoi, Vietnam, where he is investigating a village just outside the city. Through his investigative work it appears corrupt government officials protect the village. The transport of ivory into China, as explained by one merchant, is through paying off border officials on both sides. This village appears to be a hub for importing and exporting illegal ivory.
“I would say the destiny of elephants is entirely in the hands of one single person, the president of China.” – Andrea Crosta
Through an inside Chinese source Crosta received information that a company with 300-400 carving shops for ivory has a big government official in the company getting paperwork and helping illegal ivory appear legal for sale. This may not be startling from all the information we have gathered, but the question remains: Would such high ranking officials be involved with the trafficking if the president was firmly against it? Like Ian Craig said, the solution to the problem seems to be a political one.
In another type of political situation Ngowi explains Shetani has developed operations from Tanzania into Zambia. This is where we meet Georgina Kamanga, the Head of Intelligence for the Zambia Wildlife Authority. At another carcass site in the Lower Zambezi National Park where the entire head of the elephant was removed, they discover a bullet that was not made in Zambia, potentially from Shetani’s operations encroaching into the area.
“Losing elephant from Africa is just a slow erosion of humanity. Then what’s next? We’re just going to lose the rhino, we’re going to lose the giraffe, we’re going to lose the lion. Suddenly we’re going to have an empty world, full of people, but nothing wild.” – Ian Craig
In a dramatic sequence of footage in Beijing, Crosta and his Chinese informant “Omaga” are caught taking undercover footage while examining wildlife merchandise. Crosta is able to escape to the bathroom and unwire himself. Omaga makes it out with incriminating footage. She risks her life by allowing Crosta and Wild Leaks to go public, do whatever they can and hopefully bring about investigations. As a result her face will be known and potentially putting her in serious danger, so she has to leave the country and disappear. Omaga is risking her life for this cause, as many people are in the film, and the audience is really brought into their realities. As it is pointed out later in the film, men are being trained to stop or kill other men that are willing to kill them and elephants for ivory. It doesn’t have to be this way, but currently it is, and the fight needs people like Omaga to make sacrifices for conservation.
In an equally dramatic start to the next scene, men with machine guns surround Shetani’s house and make the arrest Ngowi has been attempting for 3 years. His team finally puts the most infamous elephant poacher in Tanzania behind bars. For a man who has been personally responsible for the killing of over 10,000 elephants, this is a big step in the conservation of African elephants.
In some of the last scenes at a WildAid Press Conference in Hong Kong, a member of the Chinese parliament is openly talking about the ivory trade. She presents evidence Wild Leaks investigations came up with asking for a complete ban on ivory trading in Hong Kong. Moments like this, Satao’s death, and other events bring worldwide coverage to the issue. No matter how big, serious, or impactful an issue is, if the world isn’t properly educated on the reality of the situation it is difficult to get them involved. This film shows the true reality, fight, and war going on behind ivory.
During the conclusion the presidents of the U.S. and China claim their respective countries will stop the domestic trade of ivory. In a striking shot, multiple piles of ivory are set ablaze. The screen reads that in 2016 Kenya destroyed its entire stockpile of ivory, 105 tons. At that time there was still more than 600 tons of ivory in government holdings throughout Africa. While there are differing opinions on how to deal with these stockpiles, there is no doubt that destroying them removes their potential to further support the trade. In some of the last words on the screen, the U.S. banned all trade in ivory in 2016. Hong Kong announced they would end it by 2021, but China has given no timetable for theirs. Meanwhile, during the release of this film in late 2016, one elephant was killed every 15 minutes.
In an update published in the Independent article on January 30, 2017, China announced its plan to effectively close all shops for domestic ivory trade by the end of 2017, showing a promising timeline for enforcing their highly anticipated ban of ivory. The Ivory Game brings audiences to the frontlines of the war on ivory. You really come away from the film knowing there is a war going on, people are risking their lives, and many serious factors play into keeping elephants around. It is not just an issue for African countries or Asia; it is a global issue as elephants are a global resource. They are one of the most iconic species on the planet, the largest land mammal, and the world would truly be a different place if they went extinct due to the greed of humanity. There are many people fighting to keep them around and if you want to learn more, get involved, or watch the film, check out the links in the article. This is one issue we can solve before it is too late.
Tags: africa, african elephant, China, elephants, endangered species, ivory, Kenya, poaching, tanzania, wildlife conservation, Zambia