Leonardo DiCaprio Takes on Elephant Poachers & Illegal Traffickers with “The Ivory Game”

The statistics are devastating. Every 15 minutes, an elephant is killed to feed the demand for ivory trade, which is illegal nearly everywhere in the world. More than 150,000 African elephants have been slaughtered in the past five years, and if it keeps up at this rate they could be extinct within 15 years.

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At the turn of the century, there were 3 million elephants on earth; by 1979, that number had been reduced to 1.7 million. Today, only 400,000 remain. In the past decade, than 1,000 rangers have died protecting elephants from poachers. But, there simply aren’t enough people on the ground to do the work, and so, by the time you finish reading this story, another elephant will have lost its life.

The Ivory Game, a new documentary film from executive producer Leonardo DiCaprio, now airing on Netflix, takes us to the heart of the crisis, going on the ground in Africa to track poachers and undercover in China, where the illegal trade thrives under the cloak of legality. Directors Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson spent sixteen months documenting the treacherous pipeline, assembling a team that put their lives at risk to save the elephants from extinction.

The film features a wide array of people working in different capacities, from government officials and rangers to foundation directors and journalists, all of whom have one goal in mind: to stop the senseless slaughter of these magnificent creatures to serve the insatiable demand of collectors for reliquaries of death masquerading as decorative arts.

The Ivory Trade introduces public enemy number 1: a man known as Shetani, which is Swahili for “the devil.” Shetani, whose real name is Boniface Matthew Mariango, is the current kingpin in the ivory trade with 10,000 elephant deaths linked to his name. The film reveals how he hires locals like a 64-year-old Masai man and pays them 6% of the going rate, pocketing 94% of the sale for himself.

This stands in stark contrast to graciously tempered scenes of death, where rangers discover the bodies of an entire family clustered together to protect themselves. While there is not much in the film dedicated to the elephants while they are alive, The Ivory Game makes note that elephants live well into their 60s organized in large family units passing wisdom down from one generation to the next and paying homage to their fallen comrades. When one elephant is killed, the family is destroyed—and elephants never forget what they have witnessed.

In stark contrast, Chinese journalist Hongxiang Huang and “Omega,” an anonymous activist, went undercover to film the Chinese dealers who doctor records to traffic illegal ivory under the cover of the country’s legal quota. Huang observes he is able to go undercover easily because, “Local criminals never imagine a Chinese could be on the right side of the battle.” It is a sad and telling indictment of his people, whose love for ivory drives illegal trade, resulting in the psychotic consumption of one of Nature’s most amazing creations.

The Ivory Trade attempts to end on a positive note, seeking resolution on several fronts, offering a vision for the future of humanity working together to protect elephants from our greed. Earlier this year a 105 tons of Kenyan ivory was destroyed, while Hong Kong announced it would phase out the legal ivory trade by 2021. But mainland China gave no timetable for the end to the illegal trade, reminding us that a very real danger remains.


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.


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