There are many reasons why animals become endangered, some of them attributable to human activity — such as habitat loss, pollution, excessive harvesting of species for food and the releasing of invasive species into the environment.
But in the case of African elephants, human culture may, in the end, be the thing that drives them to the brink of extinction. Far too often, they aren’t being killed for food or to make way for human expansion or agriculture, but for vanity.
On Wednesday, Feb. 27 (check local listings), PBS airs the National Geographic special “Battle for the Elephants,” in which journalists Bryan Christy and Aidan Hartley reveal the criminal trade in “blood ivory” — as Christy called it in an October 2012 article — to be made into decorative and religious objects, particularly in China.
“The most shocking thing, I would say,” explains Christy, “is that the Chinese government is building capacity for huger ivory consumption. They have built the world’s largest ivory-carving factory, anticipating growth. They are sponsoring students in school to study ivory carving.
“The kind of scenario that pulls on your heartstrings, at the same time being pulled by the wildlife, is these dying crafts in these countries that have this long history of carving. In this case, the reality is it’s not conserving these individuals; it’s building a new business.”
Once available only to the ruling elite, ivory has become a hot commodity among China’s growing middle class. A worldwide ban on ivory sales in 1989 led to a rebound in elephant populations. But in 1999 and 2008, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species allowed two sanctioned sales of ivory.
According to Christy, these sales gave cover to ivory smugglers in China, causing the underground market in elephant tusks to explode. Christy looks not only at the money being made but at the culture driving the demand.
“It comes down to, to large degree, the belief system you were raised with,” he says. “That’s why I took on this story — a study in belief.”