In Marsabit, Northern Kenya, a small aircraft flies over a bulging river snaking through a spectacular landscape of clumps of shrub like woody trees surrounded by volcanic hills on the horizon. Two young elephants stop briefly for a drink from a gurgling stream formed after the recent rains in this otherwise arid stony landscape. A year old elephant calf gambols between its mother's legs, ramming her playfully, while she feeds on freshly-sprouted grass. Soldiers protecting these elephants also see the funny side. But on another day they find a recently-killed bloating carcass of an old matriarch. She has toppled over on her right side. One leg is stretched out while another is slightly curled. Her hacked trunk smeared in blood is lying like a dead snake slightly away from her body. A swarm of flies is buzzing over the lifeless still body. The soldiers notice a hole pierced by a bullet that went straight to the elephant’s heart. It must have been a swift but a gruesome end to a magnificent animal. This is the fate that ruthless poachers want for elephants in Africa and Asia in their greed for ivory.
Adorable playfulness of young calves, touching family ties, and heart-wrenching scenes of brutally-killed elephants are part of the real-life espionage thriller, The Ivory Game, which premiered on 4 November on Netflix last week. The Ivory Game is an epic documentary that goes undercover into the dark and sinister underbelly of ivory trafficking. Award-winning director Richard Ladkani and Academy Award nominated Kief Davidson filmed undercover for 16 months in China and Africa with a crack team of intelligence operatives, undercover activists, passionate frontline rangers and battle-hardened conservationists, to infiltrate the corrupt global network of ivory trafficking.
The film has two narratives running parallel to each other. One tracks the poachers wreaking havoc in the bushes in Africa. The beautiful wild places turn to macabre killings and supply locales. The other investigates the glitzy shops, in China and Hong Kong, where beautifully-carved ivory pieces are displayed for astoundingly high prices that the rich buy to embellish their homes. This ravenous demand from the Eastern countries is driving the killings in Africa. The film also follows undercover investigators who risk their lives to capture, on hidden cameras, the incredible stockpiles of ivory stored as contraband in villages and godowns in and around Hanoi in Vietnam. These are the storage and transit spots that feed the shops displaying ivory as well as hubs of illegal trade in ivory.
The film opens with Elisifa Ngowi, who heads the Intelligence, National & Transnational Serious Crimes Investigation Unit in Tanzania, leading a police squad to raid a hideout used by a gang affiliated to Boniface Mariango, alias Shetani, The Devil. Shetani ran a network of around 15 syndicates engaged in killing elephants for ivory across Tanzania and parts of Kenya. In subsequent years, he spread his network as far as Zambia and Mozambique in Southern Africa. He is single-handedly believed to be responsible for killing over 10,000 elephants in the past decade, becoming the most notorious elephant killer in history of Tanzania.
In Ngowi’s raid that night, he finds a crudely made gun for killing elephants. The man caught has scrape marks on his shoulders from carrying heavy load of ivory (a big tusk can weigh around 15 kgs). Such scenes depict how deep rooted wildlife crime is. It also shows the ease with which people can be lured into killing animals for a quick buck, despite over 90 percent of profit being pawed by the trader.
The Ivory Game is an epic documentary that goes undercover into the dark and sinister underbelly of ivory trafficking
Craig Millar, Head of Security, and Richard Bonham, Director of Operations, Big Life Foundation are flying in a small plane over the Amboseli area in southern Kenya. This is a beautiful landscape of riverine swamps in middle of dry open scrub forest. From the plane, the two are tracking movements of an elephant herd headed for the maize fields belonging to a human settlement. Such areas form epicenters of human-elephant conflict as elephants are attracted to the agricultural fields for food and water. The farmers value their crop in an already unproductive landscape. Instances such as these lead humans to poison or kill elephants in retaliation. These can be initial steps in becoming an active poacher. Later that night, the herd end up in the farms with Craig and his team only just managing to pacify the antagonised villagers. He promises them to electrify the boundaries of the fields, keeping elephants out and humans in. The villagers buy his word this time but warned if he differs from his promise they’d have no hesitation in killing the elephants.
Most of the demand for ivory comes from China. The world thinks Chinese will kill, buy and eat anything that slithers, crawls and moves. An unlikely hero of this film is Hongxiang Huang, an investigative Chinese journalist, who is out to prove that the Chinese can also be the good guys in this fight against the ivory trade. Due to his nationality, none of the ivory traders suspect his intentions. Huang plays an important role in posing as a prospective buyer and enabling the police in apprehending traders in Kampala and later gathering crucial undercover information in Vietnam. Other seasoned investigators like Andrea Crosta of Wildleaks in their own investigations find top Chinese military and police officers closely involved in perpetuating illegal ivory trade in China and other Asian countries.
Towards the end of the film, Shetani and his affiliates had spread their nefarious network in Zambia around 2014. Until this time, Zambia hadn’t seen the ill-effects of elephant poaching. Ngowi alerts his counterpart in Zambia, Georgina Kamanga, about Shetani’s footsteps entering Zambia. With her own intelligence network, she raids a house in Lusaka. She catches ivory traders red handed with stock of tusks from which elephant blood has not even dried. Shetani is eventually caught by Ngowi’s team in Dar-es-Salam after being on the run for over three years.
In the past five years, nearly 1,50,000 elephants have been slaughtered for their tusks. Over 1,000 soldiers have lost their lives in protecting the elephants from the poachers. If this rate of killing continues, the world will lose African elephants in the next 15 years. The Ivory Game with its fantastic natural shots and real-life tradings of ivory hopes to spark an emotional outcry among opinion leaders, politicians and audiences around the world in saving an iconic species of the natural world.