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The Ivory Game, from executive producer Leonardo DiCaprio and directors Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson, is a compelling, comprehensive look at how the booming international ivory trade may very well drive the African elephant to extinction in a manner of years.
The filmmakers showcase a wide range of perspectives on the crisis at hand, working closely with intelligence agents, wildlife experts and activists, investigative journalists, rangers and many others. The Netflix Original documentary covers aspects of the ivory trade from the poaching of the elephants all the way to the booming markets in China. The amount of research and preparation that went into this is staggering and highly professional.
The frequent shifts between people and locations not only help in crafting an exhaustive look at the problem at hand but give The Ivory Game a sense of forward momentum and urgency: you’re never in one place with one expert for too long. Despite the movie’s sweeping sense of scale, the focus is narrow and immediate: this isn’t meant to inform you of the history of the ivory trade, but rather to give you an idea of what it’s like in modern times, and how it threatens the future of the African elephant.
While the tone and structure certainly imply that the movie is a call to action, The Ivory Game makes it readily apparent that change must from high levels of government, both in terms of financial support and political pressure, with China being singled out particularly. It’s not until the credits that the audience is given a link to the official site, which provides more information and lets people how they can find a way to help or contribute to many of the organizations featured in the movie.
This results in a weird dissonance – the frequent reminded of the need for big money and contacts in high places stresses the importance of the crisis, but does also put up a kind of barrier to the average viewer. The Ivory Game makes you want to do something about these cruel acts but often reminds you that only a select few in high circles can do much of anything about it.
The movie does end on a hopeful, if urgent note, playing into the tried-and-true formula of documentaries that wear you down with relentless pessimism before ending on a glimmer of hope for the future, yet it works. When the stakes are real, the formulaic approach makes for a solid foundation.
What struck me the most was a scene in which a group of landowners threatened to kill elephants that trespassed on their lands – as one of the experts points out, elephants are a threat to the livelihood of farmers, who may turn to violence to defend their land; that violence, in turn, could easily lead to poaching. It’s a complication that makes you realize the situations isn’t always as clear-cut as we thought or even would like it to be.
The Ivory Game serves as a well-crafted and much needed reminder of an ongoing, and very urgent crisis. The African elephant could very well be completely extinct very soon and poachers are actively working to that effect – the fewer elephants there are in the world, the more the demand for their product rises. While it could have been a little more forthcoming with its call to action, it’s undoubtedly a fascinating and troubling look at a complicated problem.
The Ivory Game is available on Netflix.