“In July 2016, The U.S. Banned All Trade In Ivory. Hong Kong Has Announced To End It By 2021. China Has Not Yet Provided Any Time Table.”
“Meanwhile, An Elephant Is Killed Approximately Every 15 Minutes.
“The Fight Continues.”
So reads the end card of The Ivory Game, a gripping documentary about dark realities of elephant poaching that has first launched on Netflix last November. The ending might need an update.
Just as 2017 came, so did new legislation from the Chinese government that moves to entirely ban the sale of elephant ivory by the end of the year. “I don’t think we’ve ever been more excited to have to make an edit,” says Kief Davidson, who directed the project along with Richard Ladkani.
The two spent four years with wildlife investigators, armed Tanzanian task forces, and even the poachers themselves to show the genesis of black-market ivory from all angles. Regardless, no one could have anticipated this kind of ending, the beginnings for an end to elephant trafficking. The timing couldn’t be better for The Ivory Game, which first premiered in September at the Telluride Film Festival, and now has been shortlisted to win the Oscar for best feature documentary this year.
“This never happens,” says Ladkani. “Having a story that you are documenting change so drastically over the course of your involvement. Obviously there have been a lot of people involved in this cause before we showed up, but we are proud to be a part of it.”
Though the filmmakers downplay what kind of impact their efforts had to the decision, that hasn’t stopped others from making the association for them. “[The Ivory Game] may have influenced the timing of this announcement,” noted Jane Goodall. “It highlights the international network of poachers and traffickers that has been responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of elephants across Africa and brought unimaginable wealth to unscrupulous business people.”
Despite the accolades, Davidson and Ladkani are first to admit that the success of their project is due largely to the subjects who trusted them with access to everything from militarized police raids to undercover investigations. There is no question that it is those thrilling Jason Bourne–like missions that helped set The Ivory Game ahead of preservation projects, which, though well-intentioned, frequently focus on the disgraceful act of animal killing rather than the solutions.
During one particularly unnerving piece of footage, activist Andrea Crosta, who was profiled by Men’s Journal, is interrogated when an ivory trader discovers a camera on one of his associates, who is discovered taking photos of contraband. There is also a few heart-pounding stings that involve investigator Hongxiang Huang that showcase the work being done by Chinese nationals against the third largest illegal trade.
On the other end of the battle is Elisifa Ngowi, the leader of the National and Transnational Serious Crimes Investigation Unit Task Force in Tanzania, who allowed them to tag along during their pursuit and eventual arrest of dangerous elephant poacher Boniface Matthew Mariango (also known as “Shetani” or “The Devil”). The manhunt lasted over a year, and due to their relationships with the task force, The Ivory Game directors were allowed to bring their cameras to capture its dramatic conclusion.
Ladkani says that getting the footage was always second to the rangers completing their operations. “They told us, ‘We’re not actors. This is a dangerous mission,’ ” he remembers. “They said if we slowed them down once that we would be done.”
Now with China’s ruling, Davidson says these men and women are gearing up for a last stand. “The guys we followed risk their lives every day to protect these animals, and now they are worried about a possible spike in killings,” he says. “There are 12 months left until the law is in effect, and they know they are going to have to be extremely vigilant.”