The poaching of African animals has been a troublesome issue for decades. Occasionally making global headlines, it’s an easy, righteous cause to take up, but one that has also managed to vilify Africans as enablers and unknowing, uneducated proponents of species extinction. Essentially, from so far away, it’s easy to take the moral high ground. In reality, though, external forces — buyers from around the globe — are creating the demand for novelties like ivory. Such is the truth that “The Ivory Game” takes on. The new Netflix documentary from Kief Davidson (“Open Heart”) and Richard Ladkani follows police task forces, park rangers, investigative reporters, and undercover activists as they attempt to halt the impending extinction of the African elephant.
Starting from the source — the actual (illegal) killing of elephants in Tanzania and Kenya — “The Ivory Game” follows the “white gold” from African dealers to Hong Kong ports, to small shops throughout China. The braided narrative works its way back and forth, continent-hopping to introduce the key players and tag along as they challenge the treacherous multi-billion-dollar industry any way they can. In more ways than one, it’s this structure that makes the film as watchable as it is, but also holds it back from being the emotionally potent film it aims to be. Each of the narratives is engaging, but the quick jumps back and forth make it impossible for any single story to garner the emotional force it deserves.
“The Ivory Game” begins with Elisifa Ngowi, the head of intelligence for the Task Force in Tanzania. He and his officers are hunting down a kingpin-like poacher named Shetani (i.e. “The Devil”) who they believe runs several sophisticated poaching syndicates. But, alas, every time they kick down a front door, Shetani has just disappeared through the back. While Ngowi is tracking the poachers, Craig Millar, head of security at the Big Life Foundation in Kenya, is attempting to prevent them from poaching at all. Millar and his team spend their days and nights roaming the vast savannahs keeping an eye on their elephants, scaring off poachers, and preventing local residents from attacking elephants that destroyed food crops.
A continent away in China, Andrea Crosta, head of investigation for Wildleaks, the first “wildlife crime whisleblower initiative,” and Hongxiang Huang, an investigative reporter, go undercover to gather evidence of the illegal importing and selling of ivory. China, they explain, has become the world’s biggest market for ivory, in part because a small amount of it is legal, making it nearly impossible to discern legal ivory from illegal ivory. Crosta, Huang, and a host of hidden cameras go deep into the industry and expose dealers bragging about having tons of ivory (when their license allows them far less). In the end, what they uncover is a complicated, often bureaucratic mess, complete with loopholes and leniencies that have created an intense demand — one that is far removed from the ugly realities of the product’s source.
This dizzying level of information — all of it connected, but tenuously so — works to make “The Ivory Game” a portrait of a complex and vicious system, but at a cost to the film’s substance. It jumps easily from the bloody, tragic origin of ivory, to the elegant, clean product it becomes, and in doing so it highlights the power of disconnect, the way a product, even worlds away, is still inexorably linked to its source. The film, though, despite continually returning to the elephants and their majestic uniqueness, never seems sure about what to make of this connection or how to truly mine it. And, in failing to do so, it misses its ability to say something, instead simply remaining an earnest alarm about the knotty and dangerous “ivory game.”
Frustratingly, the film also comes off as an overly dramatic episode of HBO’s “VICE,” all ominous music, slow motion, and imposed gravitas when such extravagances aren’t needed to impart the damning urgency of the truth. And for all “The Ivory Game” does to say that not all Africans are okay with poachers and not all Chinese buy ivory, it is uninterested in the conditions that foster poaching — the willingness to put one’s life on the line for incredibly minuscule sums of money (the costs rise a hundred fold or more once in China).
Nonetheless, “The Ivory Game” (which was exec-produced by environmentalist it-boy Leonardo DiCaprio) is a searing look at the cost of ivory and the bravery of the men and women who have dedicated themselves to ending the cycle despite resounding apathy from most of the world. A better film, though, would have taken aim at the roots — of poaching and ivory as a status symbol, why so much of Africa is valued only for what can be taken out of Africa — but this one, like the political film that it is, still manages to incite the necessary outrage. [B]