The Ivory Game (2016) Review

The Ivory Game is a 2016 Netflix original documentary about the rampant killing of African elephants for their ivory and the lucrative black market that feeds a growing demand in China.

The Ivory GameIt’s not a new problem, but one that persists as highly-organized poachers, led by crime lords paying big money, continue to slay elephants for their tusks. They work in all parts of Africa, decimating herds in unsustainable numbers, leaving behind rotting corpses and broken herds. The ivory is sold in China where the practice is still legal, though corrupted by black marketeers who feed the demand. In China, the tusks are carefully sculpted and painted for ornamental decorations, selling for up to hundreds of thousands of dollars or more a piece, supporting a multi-billion dollar industry.

To combat this, organizations are in place that attempt to curb the slaughter and sale at both ends. We meet Craig Millar, the head of security at the Big Life Foundation in Kenya, who, along with his small team, patrol a land far too big to keep eye on, typically finding dead elephants rather than being able to save them. He gives these beasts a sense of place and value, explaining that these are essentially unknown creatures whose intelligence and understanding is at present beyond our grasp, whose behaviors indicate not only a highly-complex communal system but an awareness of their own tusk’s value, even making attempts to conceal them when humans are watching.

He is on the hunt for a man named Shetani (The Devil), who is the world’s most successful elephant poacher, or at least one most responsible for their killing, currently credited with over 10,000 elephant deaths. His organization spreads far and his hunters are working hard to do the unimaginable, to reduce the elephant population to almost absolute extinction, therefore making the demand and price for their tusks that much higher. It’s a disturbing prospect.

The Ivory Game
The Ivory Game, 2016 © Netflix

This isn’t a far-fetched reality as 150,000 animals have been slaughtered in the last 5 years, with a countdown pegged at less than 15 years before they are totally gone. We then follow Andrea Crosta, one of several investigators who infiltrates shops in China wearing tiny hidden cameras, documenting the illegal trade by interviewing sellers and buyers. And there are Chinese on his side, working in Africa in police operations, activists desperately putting their own lives on the line to make a change in their home country. Hongxiang Huang is an investigative journalist who repeatedly struggles to expose the practice at the lowest levels, often at great risk, least of which is being labelled a traitor in his own land.

Directed by Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani, The Ivory Game is a tense, troubling examination that puts viewers right on the battle fields with horror movie-esque night vision action moments as the fight over land is also an issue as man and elephant become forced to share fertile soil for survival. We travel through back alleys in Beijing and into the dens of the collectors in Kenya who are earning tiny percentages for their work but is more than they can earn otherwise. It’s all a hard truth to swallow.

The filmmakers never make this an interview-style documentary, allowing the action to propel the compelling, emotional story, jumping from country to country, person to person with action movie film-style. It’s an incendiary visually-arresting experience, accompanied by a score that would also feel at home in an action thriller, but it doesn’t detract from the point, that at its heart, these people are fighting terrorists bent on the wholesale destruction of a species that now relies on us to stay alive.

The film makes a strong case for conservation, of course, connecting dots that reveal how deeply embedded the problem is, uncovering how it starts, and what simple but unfortunately expensive steps could greatly stop the killings. Naturally, it’s a political issue and extends well beyond the few seemingly obvious parties involved. But if anything, The Ivory Game is a call to action and should inspire those watching to learn more.

The Ivory Game (2016)

Film Credits

Directors: Kief Davidson, Richard Ladkani
Genre: Documentary
Language: English