A scene from The Ivory Game (Toronto International Film Festival)

A scene from The Ivory Game (Toronto International Film Festival)

Executed produced by Leonardo Di Caprio, this new documentary points out that human beings, even at this late historical date, are still struggling to value the lives of charismatic megafauna. As of just a few decades ago, elephant populations in Africa were thriving. Now they are threatened, and the cause of the danger is unambiguous. These remarkable animals are facing extinction because of poachers killing them for their ivory tusks. These poachers are just responding to market forces, so the real aim of the film is to expose the thriving market and start a dialogue toward ending it. In this aim, the film is a smashing success.

In addition to shedding light on the millions of dollars in ivory being funneled from African countries, such as Kenya and Tanzania, to wealthy Chinese buyers, the film sheds light on how special these creatures are. It is true they have impeccable memories, and we see how the violence they’ve encountered wears on them, depresses them, and has lasting impact on the surviving members of their families. Elephants also pass on knowledge, and killing key members of a community disrupts the transmission of survival skills down through the generations, leaving others less able to live.

The globetrotting aspect of the film gives it something of a Mission: Impossible or James Bond feel. We dart from Kenya to Hong Kong, from Hong Kong to Britain, to Beijing and back to Tanzania. We also meet those involved in stopping the racket, such as Craig Millar, a security head for the Big Life Foundation and a heroic expat straight out of an Ernest Hemingway novel. There’s also Andrea Crosta, an Italian activist and co-founder of WildLeaks, a site dedicated to exposing crimes against wildlife.

Hongxiang Huang, a Chinese activist-journalist, poses as a Chinese buyer to entrap poachers, sellers, and distributors. Huang puts himself in dangerous situations and takes viewers along with him on these risky encounters via hidden camera. He is motivated by a deep desire to make sure there is at least one “Chinese good guy” in this sad story and that the Chinese role is not just as rapacious consumers of ivory.

While the material certainly has enough scope to keep anyone’s head spinning, it is clearly and manageably presented. In addition, the ensemble of human players always takes a backseat to the elephants and the issue of stopping the trafficking. Other conservation documentaries, such as Emptying the Skies (2013), become overly fascinated with their eccentric cast of characters, sometimes at the expense of a full treatment of the issue at hand, but that is not the case here.

The film accomplishes the tricky balancing act of presenting the depressing scope of the ivory trade without making it seem like a totally hopeless fight. The forces fueling the underground marker are numerous and capable, but they have prospered largely because they have operated in the dark. The hope conveyed by the film is that the bright light of international scrutiny will, slowly but surely, make this injustice a thing of the past.

Directed by Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani
Released by Netflix
Austria. 112 min. Not rated