Ivory poaching is an African crisis with global significance. It’s also a crisis that has been going on for decades. In 1989, the Discovery Channel and the BBC collaborated on a documentary on the “Ivory Wars” that constituted a spike in the illegal poaching and sale of elephant tusks that threatened African elephant conservation during the 1980s. An international ban on the illegal sale of ivory was put into place in 1989. However, in 2008, a legal sale of ivory to China and Japan helped to cause a new wave of elephant killing, poaching, and shipments of ivory to the Far East, resulting in a global black market that currently threatens to decimate Africa’s elephant population.
The BBC and Discovery have teamed up again for Ivory Wars, which explores how the poaching of ivory in Africa has escalated since 2008, and follows the trade from Africa to China and other parts of the world. The first half of Ivory Wars—which airs on 23 June on Discovery Channel—explores the African context of the ivory trade, and its particular effect on the elephant populations of Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo. A voiceover narration outlines the main points of the crisis, helped by talking head interviews, grainy footage from conservation groups, and panoramic and close up shots of African elephants in their natural savannah and forest habitats. These wildlife sequences emulate the spectacle of BBC documentaries like Zambezi, and provide a sharp juxtaposition with clips that document elephant deaths and raids on poachers by wildlife rangers and security forces.
The jarring effect of this juxtaposition sets up Ivory Wars’ switch in its second half towards a broader survey of the international ivory trade. Here the testimony and footage emphasize today’s illegal trade, the ways that ivory passes from Africa to China via Malaysia. One memorable clip shows border controllers in Malaysia uncovering half a ton of illegal ivory in a shipping container, and other images are supplied by this production’s hidden cameras. These show how easy it is to buy ivory in both Africa and China, as well as the high prices it commands. One hidden camera in a Chinese department store demonstrates the extent to which ivory has become a luxury item for Chinese consumers, many unaware of its origins.
Ivory Wars provides an admirable level of information in an hour. Such concision is in keeping with Ivory Wars’ development as a Panorama special for the BBC. This investigative documentary series—including Euro 2012: Stadiums of Hate and Murdoch’s TV Pirates—has a reputation in the UK for providing comprehensive coverage of controversial subjects. Some interviewees in Ivory Wars do offer solutions, including tighter trade regulations in Africa and the better education of Chinese consumers about ivory’s origins and trafficking. But for the most part, the documentary explores this disturbing story in detail, giving viewers a range of evidence on which to base their own conclusions, while also underlining that the elephants suffer physical trauma.