Human Journey

Battle for the Elephants (Ep. 2): Criminal Traders Exposed

Aidan Hartley poses next to a giant confiscated tusk in Dar es Salaam government ivory room.
Aidan Hartley poses next to a giant confiscated tusk in Dar es Salaam / J.J. Kelley for National Geographic Television

Through a taxing series of twists and turns, I find myself on assignment in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, about to go undercover with Aidan Hartley. Hartley is a seasoned war correspondent and investigative journalist, and no greenhorn when it comes putting his life on the line to get a story.

Our goal is time sensitive and dangerous: capture video of criminal ivory traders selling poached ivory. Once embedded, we have just a 3-day window to operate in the city; we fear pushing our investigation further could trigger the slaughter of more elephants.

Complete figures are not yet available for 2012, but TRAFFIC reports “17 large-scale ivory seizures in 2011 alone—more than double the highest previous figure of eight seizures in 2009, and totaling an estimated 26.4 tonnes of ivory.”

While a second film team attempts to capture the demand for ivory in China, we are scouting one of the world’s main ports for smuggled ivory, acutely aware that our lives could be on the line. As the events play out, we’re forced to decide whether to follow the sellers on their terms or abort the mission.


Watch “Battle for the Elephants” on PBS

Aidan Hartley meets with an undercover informant before posing as an ivory buyer.
Aidan Hartley meets with an undercover informant before posing as an ivory buyer / 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.
  • Clem Human

    Asian countries such as China and Vietnam are a disgrace to our modern society. Conservation WILL fail due to the dreadful scourge of Asian superstition and their money that is being thrown at poor communities all over Africa to destroy their unique and precious heritage of wildlife via poaching. Despite efforts to save the rhino in South Africa, many corrupt game rangers and poachers under the control of Asian syndicates are killing about two rhino per day in 2013.

  • Future Zoologist Kiki

    We have to stop poaching , especially for elephants because these animals are becoming more endangered than ever before. As I mentioned before, elephants are not the only animals getting harmed. So many animals are vanishing because of us. We need to make a difference and stop poaching!
    I would like to see some elephants in the wild in their natural state before they are gone completely. One of my dreams is to go to the Congo, but also to do a safari!
    Protect elephants!!

  • CareforCreation

    I told myself not to watch this program last night as it would only be upsetting. I’m glad that I did though as it was very well done. I’m very impressed with the investigators abilities to remain cool and collected under such difficult situations. I couldn’t have done it myself — Changing the asian mindset on animal products seems an impossible task — it would be good to take some of these ivory collectors on an elephant hunt to see if that would have any effect. I for one would be happy to donate $$ to the Zambian government to ‘buy’ their ivory in order to burn it. Maybe that should be the next organized step …

  • Animallover101

    I wish we could do more for these animals.

  • Barbara Coleman

    I knew the elephant poaching was bad, but I did not realize how horrific this unconsciousble slaughter was till I watched this program. Although it was difficult for me to watch this, I felt compelled as I was fortunate enough to see these magnificent animals last year in Tanzania. Somehow we must take this profit motive out of the equation. We are fortunate enough to share this planet with these beautiful animals. We must respect & save them.

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