Battle for the Elephants (Ep. 1): The Plight of the Elephant

With just seven days remaining before Bryan Christy‘s Blood Ivory article hits the newsstands, we’re down to the wire. A complete story is within our grasp, but it’s uncomfortably obvious that we don’t yet have enough. Our legal team insists that we remove ourselves from the field before “Blood Ivory” is released. Sensing the pressure, the reality is that we either deliver now or come up short.

An ivory sculpted Buddha
An ivory sculpted Buddha / John Heminway for National Geographic Television

Anticipating the scramble, we had split into two teams. I’m on the ground in Dar es Salaam posing as an ivory buyer with Aidan Hartley. Our goal is simple: capture the bad guys on film, red handed. Our second team is in China, their objective is much more complex: explore the driving forces behind the growing demand for ivory.

Since the opening up of the Chinese market and the growth of its economy, ivory—once a precious material reserved for the ruling elite—has become increasingly available to the growing Chinese middle class. To help tell this story our team is with one of the top experts in the world, and the author of the upcoming article that coincidentally could get them kicked out of the country, if exposed. Bryan Christy takes the film team to an artisan carver who has been working for two years on one piece, valued at more than a million dollars.

Hearing my colleagues describe the ornate detail that went into this one carving, I feel the complexity of this problem hit me like a ton of bricks. Bryan tells me, “When I see craftsmanship like Mr. Leung’s and learn how many years he spent creating his masterpiece, I am overwhelmed with the mathematical equivalency between the beauty of ivory carving in China and the beauty of an elephant in the African wild. But the beauty on one side of the scale is bought with the blood of the other. That’s how I know the scale is not equal—elephants and people who protect them are dying. And that’s how I know one side must be stopped.”


Watch Battle for the Elephants on PBS

See “Blood Ivory” author Bryan Christy in National Geographic’s “Battle for the Elephants” on February 27 at 9 p.m. Check local listings.

Old bulls gather in the Chyulu hills of eastern Kenya.
Old bulls gather in the Chyulu hills of eastern Kenya / J.J. Kelley for National Geographic Television




Meet the Author
J.J. Kelley is an Emmy nominated filmmaker and adventurer focusing on issues of conservation and wildlife crime. A producer and director of photography at National Geographic, Kelley’s work has appeared on The National Geographic Channel, NOVA, The New York Times, Outside Television and PBS. He is also the co-creator of the adventure production company, Dudes on Media. In addition to winning over 40 film festival awards including, Paddler Magazine called his Emmy nominated second film, "Paddle to Seattle" “the best feature film about paddling produced in the past decade.” Kelley is an Appalachian Trail Thru-hiker, biked across Alaska, kayaked from Alaska to Seattle, and traveled the length of The River Ganges. He regularly stops in the studios as a guest on National Geographic Weekend and recently starred in a television commercial for Nature Valley.