“When you buy something made of ivory, where does the money go?” asks an onscreen question at the start of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Last Days,” a remarkable three-minute PSA on the subject of elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade that premiered on Saturday at the New York Film Festival. The unsettling answer: a veritable roll call of the world’s leading terror organizations.
Directed by Bigelow from a treatment she devised with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, and produced by Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, the visually stunning short combines staccato 2D animation with flashes of live action to trace the insidious flow of ivory income backwards from the point of sale — in markets and tourist shops from Manhattan to Shanghai — to the point of slaughter, culminating in the pointed assertion that “sadly, there is no way to make extinction go backwards.” Along the way, other startling facts fill the screen, including that endangered species trafficking is the world’s fourth most lucrative transnational crime (after drugs, weapons and human trafficking); that one elephant is killed every 15 minutes; and that, at the current rate of poaching, the entire species could be extinct in just over a decade. The beneficiaries of this, according to “Last Days,” are militant groups like Nigeria’s Boko Harem, Sudan’s Janjaweed Militia and Somalia’s al-Shabaab, whose 2013 assault on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya is seen here in terrifying fragments of surveillance and camera-phone video recorded during the attack.
“I’ve been an animal advocate as long as I can remember,” said Bigelow, introducing a post-screening panel discussion for which the filmmaker was joined by Somali-born singer-songwriter and poet K’naan Warsame; New York County Assistant District Attorney Julieta V. Lozano; journalist and filmmaker Peter Godwin; and activist Peter Knights, whose nonprofit WildAid organization has been leading the charge in the global anti-ivory campaign. Bigelow traced the origins of the project to a meeting with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, shortly after Chelsea had returned from a trip to sub-Saharan Africa, where she had learned of the dramatic uptick in elephant-poaching numbers.
The “Hurt Locker” director chose to work in animation for the first time, she said, because “it would have been impossible for me to sit in a cutting room and look at live footage of an animal suffering day after day.” She also heaped praise on her collaborators, including animation designer Samuel Michlap (a veteran DreamWorks Animation production designer) and three-time Oscar-winning sound editor Paul Ottison, who worked on “Last Days” on nights and weekends while juggling various feature projects.
Bigelow then turned things over to Warsame, who offered a brief history of Somalia’s political chaos, including the “covert and overt” efforts of the Bush administration to topple the Islamic Courts Union, which had brought a fleeting sense of stability to the troubled region for a few years in the early 2000s. “And out of that came al-Shabaab,” he noted — a group estimated to receive more than half of its income from the sale of ivory. “These elephants are basically ATM machines for them,” added Bigelow.
To the audible surprise of the audience, Lozano explained that New York City is actually the world’s second largest Ivory market (after China), citing a 2012 undercover investigation into multiple retailers (mostly in Manhattan’s diamond district) that resulted in the seizure of one ton of ivory worth in excess of $2 million — the equivalent of 100 adult elephants. And while the sale of new ivory has been illegal ever since a 1989 worldwide ban issued by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, violators in New York can be charged only with the lowest-level (or Class E) felony on the books, resulting in a maximum four-year jail sentence or more likely (for offenders with otherwise clean records) probation. However, a law signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in August reduced legal exceptions to the ivory ban by prohibiting the sale of all ivory objects, including antiquities, unless an item is both at least 100 years old and consists of less than 20 percent ivory.
The Zimbabwe-born Godwin, a former London Times Africa correspondent, stressed that “conservation is all about people, not animals,” pointing out that, until relatively recently, 80 percent of elephants lived outside of national parks and game reserves in ordinary villages and communities, but that “poaching has now become industrialized and militarized.” With their enormous size and highly socialized behavior, elephants make “a ludicrously easy target,” he said, with poorly trained and armed wildlife rangers serving as a very inadequate line of defense. In Zimbabwe, poachers have even taken to poisoning known elephant watering holes with arsenic, resulting in excruciating deaths for the majestic animals. “We’re no longer on a gentle downward slope here,” Godwin cautioned. “We are rushing towards the endgame of an extraordinary beast. I hope that we will not be the generation that allows this to happen.”
But to effect any real and meaningful change, Knights observed, you must first connect with people on an emotional level and only afterwards assail them with facts and figures — a process in which he hopes Bigelow’s film will prove invaluable. Likening the ivory issue to the highly publicized conflict-diamond campaigns of the 2000s, he stressed the need to curtail not just ivory supply but also demand, especially in China, where rapid economic expansion has led to an increased market for high-end luxury goods. “Nobody can bully China into anything, but they can be persuaded,” he said, adding that more than 100 Chinese celebrities (including Jackie Chan and Yao Ming) have lent their support to the anti-ivory campaign.
WildAid’s next high-profile media volley will come in the form of “Saving Africa’s Giants with Yao Ming,” a Nov. 18 Animal Planet special in which the basketball superstar travels to Africa and meets with those on the front lines of the ivory wars. The org will also distribute Bigelow’s film worldwide through its website.