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Battle For The Elephants

Old bulls gather in the Chyulu hills of eastern Kenya, Africa.
Courtesy of J.J. Kelley
Old bulls gather in the Chyulu hills of eastern Kenya, Africa.

Airs Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV

“Battle for the Elephants,” a groundbreaking, new, one-hour special produced by National Geographic Television, explores the brutal slaughter of African elephants for their tusks, fueled largely by China’s demand for ivory.

The film tells the ultimate wildlife story — how the Earth’s most charismatic and majestic land animal today faces market forces driving the value of its tusks to levels once reserved for precious metals. Journalists Bryan Christy and Aidan Hartley take viewers undercover as they investigate the criminal network behind ivory’s supply and demand.

In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, one of the world’s main ports for smuggled ivory, Hartley poses as an ivory buyer and uses hidden cameras to film poachers negotiating the sale of large quantities of tusks. In China, Christy explores the thriving industry of luxury goods made from ivory and the ancient cultural tradition of ivory carving.


The film is based in part on an article by Christy, published in the October 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine, titled “Blood Ivory.”

“If the current situation remains the status quo, we are facing the very real possibility that elephants living in the wild will go extinct in the coming decades,” said John Heminway, writer, producer and director of “Battle for the Elephants.” “In Africa, wildlife conservationists, particularly in Kenya, are risking their lives to protect these animals, but they are losing the fight. The market for smuggled ivory is too lucrative for poachers to resist, and our research suggests demand for ivory in China is only going to rise.”

“There’s no more important and timely story of the plight of wildlife than ‘Battle for the Elephants,’” said Beth Hoppe, chief programming executive and general manager of general audience programming at PBS. “How we regulate the sale of ivory can potentially determine whether wild elephants live or become extinct. This is a critical piece of documentary journalism that will hopefully help raise significant awareness of the issue for people throughout the world.”

Since the opening up of the Chinese market and the growth of its economy, ivory, once a precious material available only to the ruling elite, has become increasingly available to the growing Chinese middle class. The film traces the ivory trade and its impact on Africa’s elephant population over the course of the past two centuries.

In 1800, an estimated 20 million elephants lived in Africa. With the rise of industrialization and the mass production of items made from ivory, such as combs, billiard balls and piano keys, the elephant population was cut in half. By 1913, as the United States consumed more than 200 tons of ivory a year, only 10 million elephants remained. Post-war ivory consumption continued, and by 1989 the elephant population was reduced to 600,000.


A worldwide ban on ivory sales in 1989 led to a rebound in the population, to about 1 million. But in 1999 and 2008, due to pressure from countries in Asia and southern Africa, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) allowed two sanctioned sales of ivory.

A Voice for Elephants blog

“A Voice for Elephants” is a forum for thinkers about elephants and the ivory trade, and a rally point for those who want to get involved.

Elephant Ivory Poaching

On this map, see where elephants are losing ground - and where the smuggled ivory goes.

Behind The Investigation

For a behind-the-scenes perspective on this story, we interviewed Oliver Payne, articles editor for National Geographic magazine and editor of “Ivory Worship.”

How To Help?

Get involved with organizations fighting the illegal ivory trade.

Behind The Words

To hear more from author Bryan Christy, listen to "Behind the Words," National Geographic Magazine’s podcast.

According to Christy, these two sales gave cover to ivory smugglers in China, and the underground market exploded. According to CITES, 25,000 elephants were killed in Africa last year, though other observers say it could be many more. In Tanzania alone, poachers kill 30 elephants a day. The International Fund for Animal Welfare estimates that 84 percent of the ivory sold in China is illegal.

“Battle for the Elephants” features those in Africa on the frontlines studying elephant behavior and leading the deadly fight to protect the animals from armed poachers.

At the Amboseli Trust for Elephants in Kenya, Deputy Director Soila Sayialel explains how the elephants’ highly evolved society, keen intelligence and ability to communicate across vast distances and to love, remember and even to mourn, are far more complex than ever imagined. She also describes how the rise of poaching has caused disturbing changes in elephant behavior, including increased agitation, stress and aggression in the presence of humans.

Hartley meets with Khamis Kagasheki, minister of natural resources in Tanzania, which stores the world’s largest stockpile of elephant tusks in the world — 90 metric tons. Kagasheki agrees to allow Hartley and the camera crew to take the first-ever footage of the vast warehouse that stores thousands of tusks, valued at $50 million.

Unlike Kenya, Tanzania, one of the poorest countries in the world, has not agreed to burn its stockpile, arguing that the money from a sale could support conservation efforts. An official says that if an international agency were to buy the tusks with the intention of burning them, they would eagerly sell them.

Observing a master carver in China painstakingly create a priceless piece of art from ivory, Christy acknowledges the exquisite beauty of the craft and the deep importance of ivory in Chinese culture and tradition. However, he poses the central question: “Is this craft or this species more valuable?”

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Watch Preview on PBS. See more from Battle for the Elephants.

The elephant, Earth’s most charismatic and majestic land animal, today faces market forces driving the value of its tusks to levels once reserved for gold. This groundbreaking National Geographic special goes undercover to expose the criminal network behind ivory’s supply and demand. It also demonstrates how the elephant, with its highly evolved society, keen intelligence, ability to communicate across vast distances and to love, remember and even to mourn, is far more complex than ever imagined. More revelations are sure to follow, but only if the outspoken and courageous crime investigators and conservationists showcased in this program prevail.
Elephants in Crisis