The ivory game

The numbers are horrific. About every 15 minutes an elephant is killed. That adds up to 150,000 elephants killed in the past five years. At this rate, the African elephant could become extinct in 15 years.

These deaths are driven by the ivory trade. Criminal networks smuggle ivory into China, where it fuels a multi-billion trade.

A recent documentary film on Netflix, “The Ivory Game”, looks into the ivory trade and how it is driving elephants to extinction.

The film is directed by Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson. Leonardo di Caprio is executive producer. It looks at poaching in Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia. And at ivory markets in China and Vietnam. This is a film about wildlife activists taking on poachers and criminals.

Craig  Millar is Head of Security at Big Life Foundation in Kenya. He compares his work to fighting against an avalanche:

“No matter how many men we have, no matter how many guns we have, you just feel like you’re fighting against an avalanche that there’s no way you can stop.”

He argues that,

“Traders in ivory actually want extinction of elephants. And that is probably the biggest danger. The less elephants there are, the more the price rises. The more the price rises, the more people want to kill them. And this is an ever ongoing circle, that’s just going to end up bringing about exactly what they want. Extinction.”

Ivory and terrorism (again)

In China, the film follows the work of Andrea Crosta, Head of Investigation at Wildleaks. In 2011, Crosta co-authored a report published by the Elephant Action League, a US-based NGO. The report claimed that the ivory trade was helping to fund global terrorism.

The report linked the ivory trade with Al Qaeda’s East Africa branch, Al-Shabaab. But the claim, as journalist Tristan McConnell points out in the New York Times, was based on just one anonymous source who said that the Shabab earned “up to 40% percent” of its money from ivory.

In The Ivory Game we meet, Elisifa Ngowi, Head of Intelligence, The Task Force (NTSCIU) in Tanzania. Ngowi tells us that,

“Fighting anti-poaching is also saving our country from terrorists. Some of the poachers, they go hunting for elephants, sell the ivory, get money, buy more arms for their jihad war, which is terror war.”

Ngowi presents no evidence, and no one in the film asks him for any.

A 2015 report by the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, a UK think tank, described as “largely wrong”, the claim that Al-Shabaab received funding from the ivory trade.

Christy seems to have moved on from terrorism driving the ivory trade. His focus is now the legal ivory market in China. He says,

“The reason why thousands and thousands of elephants are slaughtered every year is because we have a legal market in China.”

Shetani, the devil

In Africa, the hunt is on for Boniface Mariango, alias Shetani (the devil). He’s the film’s all round Bad Guy. Ngowi tells us that Shetani is,

“the number one wanted poacher right now, responsible for more than 10,000 elephants as a single man.”

In Manyara, northern Tanzania, we see the arrest of a 64-year-old Maasai man. “Sixty-four years old,” Ngowi says. “He can still carry a gun and kill an elephant. Jesus Christ.” Unfortunately, in the film, no one asked to the Maasai man why he had become a poacher, or what might be done to help people like him avoid getting drawn into the ivory trade.

Instead they ask him how much money he made. He got US$250 for two elephant tusks. No doubt, a lot of money. But it amounts to about US$7 per kilo. In China, the tusks could be sold for US$3,000 per kilo.

Ngowi tells us that Shetani takes around 94% of the ivory money, leaving only 6% for the poacher.

Ivory wars

There are several references to the war against the ivory trade in the film. Ngowi says,

“It is more than fighting a war. The most difficult part is to identify the enemy. The business itself is conducted secretly. The buyer is secret, the seller secret, the killer is secret. So everything is secret. Very different from conventional war.”

And Ian Craig, the Director of Conservation, Northern Rangelands Trust, in northern Kenya, tells us that,

“I see that we’re at a watershed in the elephant crisis. Helicopters and guns and anti-poaching, and intelligence, with all the energy and the best resources in the world, we can’t win this war. There’s simply not enough men to patrol the ground or cover the ground. You need a political solution to this problem.”

But the film makes no attempt to speak to the people on the receiving end of this war. We learn nothing about why villagers are driven to poaching, except for a theory (presented by Craig Millar) that human-wildlife conflict leads them to killing elephants because they destroy their crops. Millar’s solution is to build a fence to keep the elephants away from farmers’ fields.

All we hear from the villagers facing the loss of their crops, is that if Millar doesn’t build a fence, they will kill the elephants.

Funding elephant conservation

In the film, we see Craig travelling to London on a fund-raising trip. He is personal friends with the Duke of Cambridge. He says,

“My mission is to find good, serious money to invest into elephant conservation in Africa. And that money has to come from somewhere. We need to build fences, we need to put in water, and just managing elephants costs money.”

For Craig, selling government stock piles of ivory to raise funding for elephant conservation is not an option. While he acknowledges that the ivory in stockpiles is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, he says there are examples across Africa of ivory being stolen from government stockpiles. He adds,

“If that ivory doesn’t go away, we’ll never stop this poaching. So we need to destroy it.”

At the end of the film comes an announcement that US President Barak Obama and China President Xi Jinping have announced that they will ban commercial trade in ivory in their respective countries. China and Hong Kong are home to the largest ivory market in the world, while the United States is one of the world’s largest wildlife markets. This is the first we’ve heard about the US in the film.

The film provides a fascinating insight into the gruesome trade in ivory. There’s the excitement of following activists as they go undercover to expose illegal ivory deals. We see elephants in vast, majestic landscapes. And we see the result of the ivory trade: dead elephants.

But I would have like to have seen more about the ivory trade from the perspective of the villagers involved in killing elephants for their ivory. What drives them into the trade? Is it really human-wildlife conflict? Or are there other factors? And what possibilities might there be to address the problems that drive them into killing elephants in the first place?

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