‘The Ivory Game’: Exposing the illegal trade pushing elephants to extinction

That’s the blunt statistic closing “The Ivory Game,” Netflix’s latest foray into original documentary. Directed by Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson, and executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, the figure makes for a brutal full stop to their breakneck exposé of the global ivory trade.

It’s also a statistic that puts the African elephant on course for extinction. By Ladkani and Davidson’s calculation, 35,000 are being killed a year. In August, the Great Elephant Census revealed it had found just 352,271 animals in the countries it had surveyed.
Thriving on corruption, subterfuge and greed, the ivory trade is not just an African problem. Sprawling and nebulous, its complex web connects Zambian poachers and basement dealers in Hong Kong, Kenyan reserves and Vietnamese carving factories. Never far from the surface is the presence of organized crime.

Throughout the shoot the directors were in real and present danger — and some of their subjects still are. Many sequences were filmed deep undercover or while embedded in military taskforces. Not all their operations were successful.

On the eve of the documentary’s release in 190 territories — with the glaring omission of China — Ladkani and Davidson look back on the experience, and ask what more can be done.

“It stays with you”

The documentary, framed like a Paul Greengrass thriller, zig-zags across the globe following conservationists, activists and government forces tracking the bloody paper trail of ivory. Punctuating the narrative — with disturbing frequency — are images of elephants, shorn of their tusks.

Ladkani and Davidson are experienced, award-winning filmmakers with footholds in Africa. However neither had ever been confronted with the sight of a dead, decaying elephant.

“We weren’t prepared,” says Ladkani. “You can’t really be prepared. What actually throws you off, what everyone forgets to mention, is the smell. You approach an elephant, 100 meters away, and already you have this strong smell. It gets to you, the closer you get. It gets in your clothes. It stays with you for two weeks, you can’t get rid of it.”

A bull elephant killed by poachers on the border of Botswana and Namibia, it’s face hacked off with an axe or machete to retrieve it’s valuable ivory tusks.

It’s often days before a taskforce finds an elephant carcass. The reserves they roam are vast, and airplane is the transport of choice for surveillance. By the time conservationists can get close, often an elephant will have had been mutilated by poachers and visited by scavengers. Sometimes poachers hack off the animal’s face entirely.

“It’s a horrific sight, and something that stays with you,” says the director. “But what’s more powerful and gets you more emotional is seeing the faces of the guys we were filming… for them it’s like a lost child.”

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