Every so often a movie genre comes into being, and “The Ivory Game,” a documentary about the black-market ivory trade, feels as if it’s riding the urgent edge of a new category: the non-fiction animal-rights thriller. The movie, which counts Leonardo DiCaprio as one of its producers, has links to “Blackfish” (2013), the powerful and influential exposé of killer whales in captivity, and “The Cove” (2009), which won the Academy Award for best documentary for its muckraking look at the mass killing of dolphins in Japan. All three films explore violations of animal rights, and in each case some of the investigations were done surreptitiously — hence the thriller angle. In “The Ivory Game,” we’re told that the volunteers who go undercover to expose the poaching of elephants, and the illegal selling of tusks, are risking their lives, and the reason that’s true isn’t mysterious. It’s all about the money, which is huge: a global racket of ivory trafficking, defined and patrolled by violence.
The film’s co-directors, Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson, lay out the scale of this situation — and the tragic significance of it — in a series of sobering statistics. Over the last five years, 150,000 elephants have been killed for their ivory. With elephant populations in Western and Central Africa decimated, the killing has now spread to East and Southern Africa. Criminal networks smuggle the ivory into China (laundering it in Hong Kong), where it gets carved into luxury items, fueling a multi-billion-dollar trade. One of the most terrible things about the epidemic of elephant killing is that it creates a vicious circle of profit: The fewer elephants there are in the world (in 1979 there were 1.3 million; now there are just 400,000), the more valuable their ivory becomes. The more that happens, the more that poachers want to kill off the remaining elephants.
In “White Hunter, Black Heart,” the 1953 roman à clef about director John Huston’s attempt to become a big-game hunter (it’s an amazing novel that Clint Eastwood made into a disappointing film — he was totally the wrong actor to play a Hustonian dictator-manipulator), the Huston character says: “It’s not a crime to kill an elephant. It’s bigger than that. It’s a sin to kill an elephant.” And that’s exactly why he wants to do it — not because he’s some sort of animal sadist, but because he’s a macho sophisticate compelled to test his mettle as though he were the missing link between Hemingway and Norman Mailer.
He’s right about the sin, though. Killing an elephant isn’t like killing other animals. It’s worse; it’s more of a case of soul murder. Much of “The Ivory Game” was shot in Tanzania, Kenya, and Mozambique, and there are loving shots of the elephants, who with their ancient wrinkled hides, loping gaits, and meditative auras it’s easy to develop emotions about the way that so many of us do about our dogs — the feeling that they’re deeply spiritual fellow creatures. The film explains how elephants, who live to be 60 or 70, have memories rooted in that slow buildup of years and in the loyal families they form. They’re a matriarchal society, with the mysterious vibratory sensitivity of dolphins, and the notion that the human race could now be on the verge of wiping them out is beyond unthinkable. It’s not just cruel or obscene (though it is very much both). It’s dystopian. If we allow elephants, as a species, to be extinguished from the planet, then what’s next? What does it say about who we are and what we’re becoming?
Elephant poachers, like all organized criminals, have snuffed their humanity for money, and “The Ivory Game” shows us how the ivory-for-money racket works. Ivory trading is outlawed all over the world, but a legal loophole exists in China, where five tons of the stuff is allowed to be distributed each year. This opens the door to the illegal market: How can you tell if the ivory you’re buying is legal or not? You can’t. There are 400 ivory-carving workshops in the Beijing area, where the illegal trade is overseen by a secret government higher-up, who orchestrates police protection for it. The movie takes us inside ivory boutiques, where we behold some of the items — not just statues and knickknacks but intricately carved and decorated whole tusks that can fetch $200,000 apiece.
The dramatic big game in a documentary like this one is the poachers themselves, and that’s where the movie is at once suspenseful and slipshod. It presents us with an elephant killer who’s at the center of the evil: a mysterious figure named Boniface Malyango, known as Shetani — or, The Devil. He has never been photographed, but we see a drawing of his face, and he’s presented as a kind of Pablo Escobar/Osama bin Laden figure. He’s the awesome supervillain a movie like this one needs, but “The Ivory Game,” when it comes to showing us undercover activity, generates isolated tidbits of drama without connecting the dots of the big picture. An investigator gathering evidence in China winds up having his hidden camera discovered — a scary moment. But why, exactly, is he allowed to get away? (It isn’t clear.) Then “intelligence” leads to clues as to Shetani’s whereabouts. But how does that happen? We haven’t a clue. Then he gets captured, and we really have no idea how that happened.
There will, of course, always be another “devil” gangster poacher to take his place. The eradication of ivory trafficking comes down to governments — or, as the film puts it, “The destiny of elephants is entirely in the hands of one single person: the president of China.” That’s because the United States, in July 2016, banned all ivory, and until China does the same, the market for it will thrive. This is clearly an issue that’s building, and “The Ivory Game,” as a Netflix production, is theoretically in a position to influence the outcome. There are moments when the movie tugs at your heart, but the subject matter, because it’s so epic, deserves an even more probing and definitive treatment.