Standort: / Meldung: "The Ivory Wars"

Chris Cummins

Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds.

18. 11. 2016 - 19:45

The Ivory Wars

The clock is ticking. African Elephants face extinction. Meet the people prepared to risk their lives to stop that happening.

It was the moment the ivory wars arrived in Austria. This week customs officials seized a total of 564 kilos of smuggled ivory from two small apartments in Vienna. It’s the largest amount of illegal ivory ever found in Austria and has a street valley of half a million euros.

Reality Check Special

Extinction of the African elephant, Saturday 19.11.16 at 12 midday and afterwards for 7 days on demand.

And yet that astonishing haul is just a drop in the ocean of the worldwide ivory trade that is decimating elephant populations in Africa.

Conservationists say that an African elephant is killed every 15 minutes. In the dead of night, armed gangs of poachers gun them down to harvest their tusks, which are particularly coveted in the black markets of the Far East but also in Europe and the US. This rate of slaughter is unsustainable and scientists are warning of the serious possibility of African Savannah Elephants becoming extinct within a generation.

The death of the elephants

Wild Heart

I’m haunted by the prospect that for my grandchildren these magnificent, intelligent and sensitive animals will exist only in their picture books, to be marvelled at in a wistful way, the way that when we were kids we looked at images of Woolly Mammoths. It is one of the great biodiversity crises of our age and a great ethical crisis too. How can we tell our grandchildren, or perhaps even our children, that we let this happen, on our watch, because we were too busy looking elsewhere. It’s also the theme of an engrossing and thrilling new documentary co-directed by the Austrian director Richard Ladkani and the American Kief Davidson called The Ivory Game:

“The facts are shocking,” says Ladkani. “30,000 elephants are being killed every year and this rate has been sustained for the past five years and it doesn’t look like it is going to slow down.” Right now, he says, after ravaging eastern Africa, the poachers have begun hitting countries further south such as Zambia where the first massacres of elephants have been reported.

These are not just numbers. Each elephant has a distinct history and distinct personality. Craig Millar, is the head of security for the Big Life Foundation in Kenya and is one of the compelling protagonists of Ladkani’s documentary. Built like a rugby forward, but with a quiet, soft voice, he waxes lyrical as he tells me of his passion for the elephants that he is trying to protect:

“There are specific ones you always look out for on your rounds and you get a special connection. They recognise you too.” He tells me how the elephants mourn for their dead and have deep connections with each other, recognising each other from miles away: “They have a way of communicating that we still have no idea about how it works.”

Those elephants

©Terra Mater Factual Studios Richard Ladkani

Millar may seem like a gentle giant like the iconic mammals he has sworn to protect, but he is often one of first to respond where shots are heard in the African night. He and his rangers pack their guns and head off into the darkness and uncertainty in a jeep – speeding to the site where gunfire was reported.

"That's why we carry a gun"

This means rushing to the front line of a war against heavily armed, well-organised men who are prepared to shoot to kill – and not just at elephants. “You’ve always got to be aware that something could go wrong and that’s why we carry a gun,” says Millar.

“Sometimes it is really risky and I know I have been in situations which I wouldn’t like to repeat. Sometimes there is no risk because the poachers have already gone.”

All too often, as a new day dawns, he finds a mutilated cadaver.

“It’s always really a big shock and a disappointment but you’ve got to try and use it as a motivation to work harder,” he says of discovering the remains of the slaughtered elephants. “I try not to think about it too much but it is different with different animals; when you know the elephant it is really hard to just move on.

The Elliot Ness of the Ivory Trade

In such a case Millar has to document the killing site as well as he can and then hand over the evidence to the law enforcement officers in the hope that they should track down the elephant killers. In Tanzania that means officers like Elisifa Ngowi, another of the protagonists of the documentary The Ivory Game, who rounds up poachers in dangerous night-time raids but can’t help feeling sympathy for them: “They are victims of their circumstances,” Ngowi says.

The helicopter

©Terra Mater Factual Studios Anita Ladkani.jpg

After he makes his arrests, Ngowi often hears the same story from the poachers, who often come from deprived rural villages. They have been approached by a man will have come up to them and offer “quick money and big money.” When Ngowi asks what that means, they tell him they are paid around $5 for a kilo of the tusks although the gangsters who organise the trade in the city are selling the ivory for around $1000 per kilo.

Chasing the Devil

Now it becomes like a typical Mafia story. Elisifa Ngowi tries to turn the poachers, persuading them that they have been manipulated and cheated by the ivory trade Kingpins like, for example the elusive figure that features in the Ivory Game documentary known as Shetani, or The Devil. “I tell them that bosses don’t go to the bush and don’t face the dangers that the poachers are facing the lions, the leopards, the snakes and the elephants themselves.”

He gives the captured poachers a choice, asking them whether they prefer to go to jail to protect the bosses who have exploited them or would they rather co-operate and help the investigators understanding the ivory networks?

burning of ivory

©Terra Mater Factual Studios Anita Ladkani.jpg

This starts from the men who collect the ivory from the poachers, who provides the ammunition, even the food. “Sometimes we get from one single arrest a list of 30 other people involved in the poaching industry.”
Through his raids and painstaking detective work we see in the documentary “The Ivory Game”, how investigator Elisifa Ngowi, in a scene of glowing self-satisfaction, finally gets his man Shetani – a shadow he has been chasing for years.

"There will always be someone willing to kill an elephant"

It’s like the moment in the Untouchables when Kevin Costner’s Elliott Ness sees Al Capone sent down. And Ngowi tells me that it won’t be so easy for the next king-pin to take Shetani’s place because “there is no gangster left that is unknown to us.

A heartening strike for the elephants but Austrian director Richard Ladkani says law enforcement alone cannot save the species:

“As long as there is a market for ivory in China they will keep killing elephants in Africa. You can put guns and helicopters and drones into the anti-poaching efforts but it’s not going to stop because there will always be someone willing to kill an elephant for as little as ten dollars.”

Suppress The Demand

China is key – most of the black market ivory ends up there. In the documentary “The Ivory Game” anti-poaching activist Andrea Crosta makes the astonishing claim that “one person holds in his hands the fate of elephants: the president of China.”

Conservationists says this is an exaggeration but agree that it is vital that the demand for ivory is stemmed from the Chinese side. Serious efforts have to be made to crack down on the illegal imports, to properly investigate those who are involved in the trade and the corrupt officials that allow it to continue.

Before that happens, however, these secretive channels have to be exposed, studied and understood. Here Hongxiang Huang, a brave young Chinese undercover reporter, has played a very important role.

“Since I was very young I always had a passionate about wildlife,” he told me, “and I always asked what contribution I could make.”

Chinese investigator

©Terra Mater Factual Studios Anita Ladkani.jpg

Huang says that the Chinese are so very prevalent as buyers of illegal ivory that, while working as a journalist in Africa, he found himself in a unique position. “When you go to meet traders, as a Chinese they rarely suspect you. They will tell you everything and you can freely take photos.”

That’s not to say his work has not been extremely risky. Working with a partner, hiding a camera in a bag under a layer of tampons, we see in “The Ivory Game” , Huang being invited into the den of dangerous ivory traders and then, disastrously, being rumbled by the gangsters:

“Yes my work is dangerous,” says Huang, “but so what? From my perspective if you decide you should do something, it is because it is important not because it is easy. If it is important you should just take that risk and do it.”

The team

©Terra Mater Factual Studios Richard Ladkani

The team and protagonists of The Ivory Game

The illegal ivory trade is powerful – but on this show, a Saturday Reality Check Special with me Chris Cummins, we will be meeting more people like Craig Millar, like Elisifa Ngowi and like Hongxiang Huang – people who are prepared to risk their lives so that African savannah elephants can survive as a species. People who, sharing my fear that the majestic elephants of Africa could be pushed to extinction by human greed and stupidity, have stood up and said “Not on my watch.”

They are an inspiration in this desperately important struggle.