'the ivory game' brings the elephant poaching crisis to the world stage

Executive-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, 'The Ivory Game' is the new Netflix film exposing the horrors of elephant poaching and ivory trafficking. We met its directors to discuss the importance of the issue.

Nov 22 2016, 3:01pm

"I think we're both filmmakers that like to make films that have a message and a meaning," says director Richard Ladkani, in earnest. He's speaking on behalf of his creative partner, Keif Davidson; together, they plunged into the unknown upon making The Ivory Game. The film — which recently made its premiere on Netflix — is a timely documentary about the illegal ivory trade market in Africa. In short: business-savvy poachers are slaughtering African Elephants at a rapid frequency.

In conversation, the directors discussed the environmental issues facing the ivory trade market, executive producer Leonardo DiCaprio's involvement, and more.

Since you've been entrenched in this world, have you discovered any environmental risks posed by elephant life?
Richard Ladkani: There is an aspect of elephant conservation which is that elephants are the only kind of animals that can't be locked up in a park without having the park completely destroyed. The elephant is the only animal in the world that actually destroys its environment completely, and fearlessly, and disregards anything if it is kept in a confined space. That is interesting because it has happened in a few areas where they keep them fenced in, because the elephant is a nomad animal that needs to roam like 60 miles within a week.

Can you speak to the morality of killing elephants?
Kief Davidson: The mass killing, obviously, is due to greed. It's all about money. It's all about cartels and these dealers making as much money as they can while they can and forcing extinction on the animals. Then, on a smaller scale, luckily, there's also killing happening like when we showed the scene with the farmers and the elephants that are raiding crops, and human and animal encroachment are coming together. That really is the next thing that we have to start looking at as the next problem. Even if poaching comes under control and the price of ivory goes down —  ideally if a ban in China, if a date actually comes through and that ends — we're still going to be faced with the problem of how wildlife and humans occupy the same space. Fencing seems to be the solution, but there's a lot of work to be done around fencing for sure. Efforts, as you can see in the film, are being made to try to contain and protect the elephants, because unfortunately the elephants are not able to protect themselves. They're reliant on humans to do that and protect them from people that are very, very destructive and greedy.

Was there something you took away, especially about the environmental issues, that you had no idea about going in?
KD: I think when we first started looking into this topic, we were quite surprised at just how widespread the killing actually was. We both knew that there was killing happening, in Africa particularly, and that it was a lot. But when we start hearing numbers that were coming out, 30,000 to 40,000 elephants per year getting killed, one every fifteen minutes, that was shocking to us. I think most people don't know these facts, and it's something that people do need to know about, because that's such a staggering rate. You can't keep going at that rate. As we said before, we want our kids to be able to see this, not just see it in history books, not just in a zoo. We just got this film out on Netflix last week in 190 countries, 87 million people worldwide. It's really at a crucial time too. China recently said that they will ban the ivory trade, they have just not set a date yet. So we're hoping that perhaps this film can help in that, and word will sort of spread so that a date will be set, and we hope more than anything else that the date comes quickly and that they say they're going to ban it immediately and not in five or ten years. If they say, "Well, we'll ban the trade and phase it out in ten years," most of the elephants will be gone in ten years.

How heavily was DiCaprio involved in the shaping of the film?
RL: DiCaprio became involved at the end of October last year, so about a year ago. He was looking for a project that had environmental impact, something he would truly care about. We heard about his love for elephants because he's been donating a lot of money to the Elephant Protection Fund. We knew he would be an amazing person to get this film to, so once we sat down with him and actually showed him a trailer and scenes from the film, he immediately said, "That's it, I'm in 100%. How can I help?" The idea for him was to be somewhat like an influencer and an ambassador to the film, someone who can multiply the message that we want to carry: that this is happening and that elephants are going extinct and people need to rise up and do something about it. We wanted him to become involved, and he became involved and we're very happy about that. He kind of helped us through the post-production process, basically helped us with final decisions on music and structure and drama, things like that. He gave his notes and we tried to make the best of it and have a great film. He has his other film as well, that he's promoting, where he's in it and it's his baby and has been for many years, but at the same time he has our film and he will surely become more vocal about it as time goes by so we get the message out. As we're delivering this film to 190 countries and so many different languages, it's amazing to see this go global. We're getting messages from Japan, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Namibia. People are seeing the film and saying, "Thank you, it's so important." Finally, we can explain to people what we're doing and what this is all about.


Text Sam Fragoso
Images courtesy of Netflix