The Ivory Game is a monumental film about the trafficking of ivory which is decimating a species and smashing the homeostatic balance of ecosystems throughout sections of Africa and Asia. The documentary by Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani is a high-stakes adventure following heroes who inhabit a sinister world of corruption, mutilation and murder of people and elephants. These heroes and the filmmakers risk their lives and well being to expose the villainy of the ivory trade. The filmmakers follow undercover journalists, heads of intelligence units, investigators, advocates, conservationists and security as they attempt to gain knowledge and apprehend the villains that promote terrorism against this most wondrous of mammals and then turn their ivory profits into arms sales to promote jihad.
To completely reveal the illicit ivory game, filmmakers segment the film into plot arcs and move back and forth from Africa where the poaching occurs to China where the ivory is carved and marketed. They alternate visits to Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, West Central and East Africa interviewing officials, advocates and experts who reveal how and where the ivory is illicitly procured then indicate how the elephant tusks reach the greatest brokers of ivory products in the world who are in mainland China. Throughout, we are given a detailed account of how a tremendous network of “workers” from poachers to transporters to shippers to carvers to tony, high-end store owners make their profits off the mutilation and death of elephants.
Contrary to popular belief, ivory “treasures” in the form of carvings, jewelry, etc., have not themselves been banned. International trade in ivory is a billion dollar business and has found legitimacy through governments which have stockpiled ivory then allowed those in high places to steal from the stockpiles. Those in government cast a blind eye toward licensed broker-dealers in ivory who launder illicit ivory by mingling it with legitimate, registered ivory collected legally over decades. No one knew the laundering was happening until whistleblowers began to come forward. Because of Davidson’s and Ladkani’s efforts, the hope is that there will be a groundswell of support to politically pressure China to ban its ivory trade completely.
Davidson and Ladkani spent sixteen months filming undercover to expose from start to finish the illicit blood soaked conflict ivory. In the film they show some of the remaining elephant herds. They go on vigils monitoring particular elephants roaming in Africa’s wilds, variously traveling with advocates and experts like Craig Millar (Head of Security for Kenya’s Big Life Foundation), and Georgina Kamanga (Principal Intelligence and Investigations Officer for the Department of National Parks in Zambia), via helicopter and plane to investigate reported incidents of poaching in the hope of capturing the predators before the elephants are slaughtered. Often they arrive too late: we see shots of carcasses rotting in the high grass, elephant faces hacked up with gaping wounds where majestic tusks once gleamed.
Millar’s knowledge of elephant society is prodigious. During voice over commentary he educates us that elephants are sentient beings, their consciousness is acute. He discusses how male elephants hide their tusks having intuited that humans want them as prizes. He also shares how knowledge of survival is transmitted to the calves by the mothers and supporting female community; without them the calves will not be raised properly or be able to raise their own progeny to survive. This adds to the reasons why elephant populations have been decimated as a side-effect of poaching.
On their travels through African countries, Davidson and Ladkani scout out poachers at night with Millar. They also follow investigators on sting operations set up from whistleblower tips. Elisifa Ngowi (Head of Intelligence, Serious Crimes Investigation Unit in Tanzania), whispers the identity of the notorious Shetani who rules like a warlord and whose tentacles of power control 14 syndicates of the illicit ivory trade. Ngowi tells the filmmakers that Shetani means “The Devil.” During cutaway scenes Elisifa Ngowi speaks in awe of “The Devil” whose name and reputation as a murderer of people and elephants proceeds him. Filmmakers manage to capture Shetani’s long awaited arrest and interrogation in an “Ah Ha” moment that leaves Ngowi in shock. “The Devil” had eluded Ngowi for years and now, he finally has been apprehended. Perhaps a thousand fewer elephants will die (under Shetani’s reign 10,000 elephants have been slaughtered), and certainly, his detention will prevent his arms deals for jihadis.
Davidson and Ladkani also follow Andrea Crosta (Executive Director/Co-Founder of Elephant Action League and Founder of WildLeaks), and Hongxiang Huang Chinese journalist and activist who accomplish dangerous undercover work to expose key individuals who transport and sell raw ivory before and after it moves through gateway countries like Thailand and Vietnam then eventually ends up on container ships which arrive in Hong Kong. From Hong Kong, the gateway to mainland China markets, the tusks will be taken to carving factories. During the process, the illicit ivory is alchemized, merged into registered legal stocks of ivory. The illegal ivory, laundered with registered, legal ivory held by various licensed owners, becomes untraceable.
Only through sting operations and anonymous whistleblowers was it revealed that this process of laundering illicit ivory with legal ivory was happening. Once the illegal ivory is merged with the legal no one can tell that the highly polished, gleaming statues, Buddhas, sumptuously carved, hand-painted polished ivory tusks, jewelry, and all manner of objects d’art which sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars are probably illicit. Nor do purchasers care that their treasures have been procured through poaching. Ivory is, sine qua non, a symbol of power, status and wealth that the rich revel in. If you own ivory artifacts, the notion that it is created through bloodshed and corruption is all the more a forbidden, potent lure.
China has not banned the sale of ivory treasures, experts and officials point out. Ivory merchants pray for the extinction of elephants. Why? When their extinction is assured, prices will skyrocket because the supply of ivory once and for all will be finite.
Filmmakers’ editing, lustrous panoramic, and infared nighttime cinematography, including undercover camera angles, create dramatic, “in your face” and on the ground cinema verite that is completely engaging and makes for edge-of-your-seat excitement. The illegal ivory game is accomplished in secret and secrecy cloaks every aspect of the trade. Thus, the risks that the investigators and the filmmakers take are visceral, palpable and vital to bring the truth to the fore.
Elephants are a keystone species. The impact of their loss on wildlife populations and habitats will be completely realized in fifteen years. Fifteen years (an approximation which may be over-generous), is the date given for the final extinction of the elephant species in the wild if the poaching and predation of elephants continues at the present rate. Thus far because of illicit trafficking of ivory, one elephant is killed every fifteen minutes. In the last five years the elephant population in the has decreased from 100,000 to 50,000. The staggering numbers of their decline are repeated a few times in the film as a reminder. Researchers, park rangers and others have been studying with dismay what is an exponential increase in the murder for profit of the largest mammal on earth and one of the most sentient of beings whose intelligence and family networking are likened to primates and cetaceans.
The only ones who stand between the killers and the elephants are the network of investigators, foundations and government officials in the film who have determined to protect the species despite the notorious matrix of poachers, dealers, traffickers, middle men and brokers who will stop at nothing to make their billions of dollars. And there are others; an aware global public outraged at the slaughter of these magnificent beings.
The public’s awareness and activism against the possible extinction of elephants, filmmakers hope to use as a further weapon to instigate an immediate ban of the ivory trade in China. At the film’s conclusion filmmakers highlight how you can respond to this grave crisis. This must-see documentary opens in wide distribution on November 4th, is on Netflix and will be screening at the IFC Center in NYC.