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


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.
  • Gaile Itami

    please do all you can to tell everyone what is happening to the elephants – their horrible slaughter. I get news of their lives daily and want to do all I can to help them better peaceful safer lives. I have friends who know nothing abut their slaughter
    please contact me at my e-mail if there is anything that I can do to help
    again my e-mail is nekoitami@gmail.com
    They are magnificant wonderful animals who do not deserve this horrible happening to them and we as a planet will pay a price for their slaughter

  • Judy Maxwell

    It’s appalling that our beautiful and wise elephants are being slaughtered like they are. China should be ashamed and they want more? The whole world needs to know about this. It breaks my heart to think that we will lose them all in just ten years if this draconian practice doesn’t end. And I mean NOW!!
    I am willing to do anything to stop this!! Beg,give money, protest
    What ever it takes we must do.

  • Judy Maxwell

    I have posted this on my FB and all my friends whether they like it or not. It sickens me to know that we only have ten years left before they are gone. It breaks my heart that they are being slaughtered by the thousands and for what? Their ivory. China is the biggest villain. They buy it to make religious symbols. What could be farther from religion than the slaughter of elephants. I will do anything to help stop this. Beg, give money, protest whatever it takes. The world has to know about this and China should be shamed.

  • Dr.D.S.srivastava

    It is necessory to aware all through articles like this.our ELEPHANTS are in peril.

  • dominik

    Unbeknown to the outside world the whole sale slaughter is in its post pinnacle stage now. where as it used to take the poachers only 2 to 3 days to fill their 4t truck with a handful of tusks they now take weeks and have to kill dozens of animals (+ estimated rate of wounded animals 30-40%).
    Stock piles regularly disappear (Maputo 7t “officially”, Pemba 2 containers at agriculture, etc, etc.). The poachers are extremely well equipped with heavy caliber rifles and AKs and have been caught with hundreds of rounds of ammunition, brand new army uniforms and bags of cash (thousands of dollars).
    They operate a flourishing buy back system paying 1500Mtn ($50) / kg to anyone who finds ivory from previously wounded animals. Corruption is thus rampant and no criminal charges have been brought partly because killing an elephant in Mozambique is still only a minor offence, punishable by a fine.
    As rangers can participate in the fine when paid it is generally in their interest to allow the killing and attempt to intervene later in a cat and mouse game. Whichever way the elephants get killed and we are dealing now with herds of up to 20 juveniles without a single lactating cow amongst them! The NGOs on site seem too busy administrating themselves and dealing with the lack of capacity and the rampant corruption. No support for private projects fighting on the front line. Here where donors dollars could actually be translated into elephants lives being saved bureaucracy and self importance prohibit funds being spent for the real thing. The situation is dire and thousands of elephants are being massacred every year. A recent areal count in Niassa came up with more than 2500 carcasses. In our province of Cabo Delgado no one has bothered to look yet but the score will be higher when eventually they do.
    Mozambique is currently one of the main suppliers of ivory for the Asian market and it looks to stay this way until supplies run out. So for now it is back to our rusty bolt action rifles and worn out boots to try and save some of these precious creatures from total annihilation.

  • Hardath Laloo

    Magnificent creatures they are, and just very amazing. It is sad that for craft, for decoration they are killed for their tusks. I can’t believe 12% of the elephants died because of this trade. It should be stopped by some international body! But as with all illegal trades, there are always some White Collars involved and thats why they all thrive! Sad

  • rematenaj

    I can’t even express how sad this makes me. As a person who loves elephants passionately, I don’t understand how you can kill one of these magnificent creatures for what amounts to teeth. I wish the Chinese and other consumers of Ivory would pull out their own teeth to carve! I am traveling to Africa soon so that I can see elephants in the wild before they are gone. The world will be much poorer without these intelligent, thoughtful and loving animals.

  • Phil Belinfante

    some facts, year 1900 some 10 million afrikan elefants, 1987 some 635,000 afrikan elefants , today 2013 maybe 300,000 or less,, western black rhinos 100% EXTINCT… white rhinos next to be extinct by 2020-2022 AFRIKAN ELEFANTS EXTINCT at this genocidal rate… boycott all made in china, support biglife.org, support sheldrick elefant orphanage …pls google these sites to learn more,, this is it,,, these are the very last days of the afrikan elefant… it doesnt have to end like this south afrikan courts n judges n govt are corrupt n gladly take the money along with kenya…uganda uses military helicopters to poach in kenya,,, its far worse than you are reading or can imagine..

  • Bellachella

    I can only imagine how much these intelligent and emotional animals are suffering. Every article about this is devastating; the massacre of these incredible souls is abhorrent and rage-inducing. We are witnessing an extinction of the African elephant and we are allowing it to happen. The Chinese is a sophisticated superpower; it could stop this slaughter if it wanted. Instead, it chooses to have ivory trinkets. Our governments are letting this happen. I don’t know what to do. The situation is desperate.

  • Sebastian

    I have just been doing voluentering work for a week at Elephant nature park in Chiang mai and I feel so sorry for this animals. That they are belived to die out in 10 years in Africa it’s a big lost for, they are so inteligent, beautiful and majestic! Its so sad that it’s always a piece of paper (money) who rules the world. In Thailand they are dying out aswell, thats because poachers and tourist. I belive its mainly beacuse of us tourist because its only 4 % that has tusks. Today there are only 2500 Asian Elephants left and of them only 1000 wild ones. I am sorry to change to Asian elephants but I think the problem is in our tourists hands. Stop riding, see them performing, see them at zoo’s and Circus shows! If you knowed how much they suffer I think you would start crying. When a domestic elephant separates from his mother he is only 4 years old, the owners puts him in a small wooden cage that where he can’t move. He will be there for one week and during the whole time they are stabing him, not leting him to sleep and not feeding him. All this to break his sould(google i if you don’t belive me). After the week he doesn’t even recognaise his own mother no more. You can think that it’s getting better now but it isn’t for the rest of his life! Sfter this they have to learn the elephant to obey and be calm so the mahout can ride him. Behind the elephants ears betwin ears and body they put sharp metal not alowing the elephant to move his head.
    For wild elephants it’s the same story except that when they steal the baby Elephant they have to kill the mother and Nanny because they are protective!
    At the nature elephant park they rescue elephants that has been threated very bad, she has an area there 35 elephants can walk free. They are not allowed to ride on or performing, they are just elephants. I enjoyed it there so much, and learned so many things. I can truly recommend it for eveyone and you will understand why when you go there!


  • Tanja Gallist – for Blood Ivory

    I would like to invite all those interested in this subject to use our new FB-Site Blood Ivory: https://www.facebook.com/BloodIvory?ref=hl. This new site is intended to accumulate all relevant current data, inform the public and generate awareness. I have found that trying to keep up with the various posts and news on this subject is difficult and I have therefore created this one site where all information can be found and accumulated. Please spread the word.

  • Muzzafar Khan

    The fight must continue.

  • 行動電源

    I understand high high quality work when I see it. Your content material is of higher quality and it’s apparent you hold yourself to a greater standard than most. Maintain writing like this and I’ll be back.

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