What do a 2012 viral video, ivory carvings, terrorism, and investigative journalism have in common? They all come together in Warlords of Ivory, the first episode of the relaunch of National Geographic’s Explorer.
In the one-hour episode, which premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. ET, National Geographic magazine chief correspondent and special investigations unit founder Bryan Christy investigates the illegal ivory trade by planting incredibly realistic fake ivory with tracking devices.
First, though, he gets arrested for bringing the fake ivory into a country. It’s a dramatic and tense story, and where the story ends up is surprising. I talked to Bryan Christy about his reporting and how that came together with the TV show.
In March of 2014, he and a film crew went to Garamba National Park where elephants had recently been slaughtered, their tusks cut out with chainsaws. “I saw a face of trafficking and poaching that I didn’t know existed–the war side of the ivory trade,” he said. “I’d been doing East Africa organized crime ivory trafficking.” He was traveling with a film crew, and they’d working on a project that began “on the heels of a multi-year investigation. (Referring to the special investigations unit at National Geographic magazine, he said that “one of the hallmarks of that unit is that we continue investigations even after the stories run.”)
Christy decided that “this, the human side, the crimes against humanity element is worthy of another article of some kind.” He contacted the magazine and got almost immediate permission to write it. “We were building the tracker at the time,” he said, but “we were unsure where we were going to introduce it.” Now they had a place: Central Africa.
They’ve been filming ever since, all the way up to July. “We ran right up and past the deadline, to be honest,” he said. Christy also “went beyond the film” without camera crews for the magazine article, including to places “where I knew the violence was pretty high.”
The danger of cameras
As an investigative journalist who travels to dangerous places and has contact with people who, for all kinds of reasons, probably don’t want to be reality TV stars, it seemed to me that producing a television show alongside a work of journalism would be a challenge.
“I had refused to work with film crews in the past, because it’s often impossible to get these stories the way you want with cameras floating around,” Christy told me. “In some of these countries, they don’t allow journalists, so cameras are a real danger.” That said, he added that “you can get cameras into war in ways you can’t get cameras into mafia-like situations,” which made some filming for this project easier.
He worked with a small crew, who he’d previously worked with on 2013’s Battle for the Elephants. “So, I trusted them.”
Christy called that crew “a ‘mission impossible’ team. We had one guy that could climb the side of a building with no problems, no matter where we were. There’s one shot in the film of me in the bush with a dead elephant carcass. To get that top-down show, Pablo Durana climbed up a tree that probably had 50 vultures in it, and had had those vultures in it for weeks. Imagine giant predatory birds sitting in a tree for weeks at a time, what that tree would be like. We had both skills and commitment that was really unrivaled.”
Besides climbing bird crap-filled trees, they also used technology to film. “We did some extraordinary shots with drones,” Christy told me when I asked about certain shots in the film. “We use a drone in an area where it’s crowded, so how do you use a drone in that area? We just presented it to everyone as a toy, so we weren’t sneaky about it, and were able to get some aerial shots. And we got permission in some countries from the president’s office to be able to film places that had never been filmed before.”
How an episode of television might impact the ivory trade
As that video makes clear, elephants are in trouble, killed for their tusks that are sold then mostly to the United States and Asia. Warlords of Ivory exposes one part of the poaching trade, but there’s still more to be done. “There’s so much room for improvement in exposing these guys that I think we do have lots more opportunity,” National Geographic’s Bryan Christy told me.
Interestingly, Sunday’s episode of Explorer may create paranoia that may help hinder the ivory trade. “I’m also pleased about the disruption possibility of all this,” he said. “If word gets out that trackers may be in containers, it’s going to psychologically impacts that business. People are going to have to scan entire shipments, which is really difficult to do, one by one. … But my real hope is that this … inspires other people to come up with more creative, more aggressive ways to expose the criminals.”
Even if that happens, will governments act? “That’s a challenge: what do you do with the information you have? Our foremost job is as journalists to get the story out. We felt and had been reassured that’s the most important thing we could do,” he said. “One of the things about Sudan is that there is no cop to go. Generally a journalist doesn’t go to the cops anyway; you tell the story and expect them to act. But in Sudan, the government of Sudan is in bed with Kony. Law enforcement on the ground there isn’t an option. … I’m looking forward to seeing whether any additional action is taken by the United States government either around Kony or around the protection of rangers on the ground.”
Whatever happens, Christy added, “I’m not giving up on this. I’m not finished, personally.”