“When you buy something made of ivory, where does the money
go?” This is the initial question that Kathryn Bigelow poses in her
three-minute Public Service Announcement “Last Days,” which had its world
premiere on Saturday at the New York Film Festival. The PSA deals with the
urgent issue of elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade, which is predominantly
funding many terrorist organizations in Africa.
The PSA, made in collaboration with Scott Burns and Megan
Ellison, is an aesthetic achievement that conveys the urgency of this issue
through quasi-animation and potent sound mixing. In reverse chronology, it
guides the viewer through the disturbing multi-faceted process in which
elephants are murdered, stripped of their tusks, and the sale of their ivory is
used to finance the nefarious activities of terrorist groups such as the Lord’s
Resistance Army in Uganda and al-Shabaab—the group responsible for the Westgate
Mall attack in Nairobi one year ago. The graphic surveillance recording of this
attack is used in the PSA, followed by the shocking fact that the sale of ivory
provides terrorists with roughly $600,000 per month. The most jarring image
was, perhaps, live footage of the mammoth creature at risk here—the elephant—and
the ultimate assertion that “sadly, there is no way to make extinction go
backwards.” Brilliant animation design by Samuel Michlap and audio mixing by “Zero
Dark Thirty’s” Paul Ottison aided Bigelow’s emotional imploration to audiences
to share the message. So immersive and captivating is the film that by the end
of the three minutes one forgets that this is only a PSA and not the title
credits for a full-length feature film. But as Bigelow justified, time is of
the essence. There simply isn’t time for a feature because an elephant is
killed every 15 minutes.
After the PSA played twice through, Kathryn Bigelow explained
her inspiration for the film. “I have been an animal advocate for as long as I
can remember.” After meeting with Hilary and Chelsea Clinton who had just
returned from Sub-Saharan Africa where an elephant herd was poisoned with
cyanide, Bigelow was moved to the point of action. On her choice to make it an
animated piece, she said, “It would be impossible for me to sit in the cutting
room and look at live footage of an animal suffering day after day. Not that
it’s easy to look at this necessarily, but it creates a mediated layer and also
I thought it might be a little more accessible and therefore reach a larger
Bigelow then led a panel of experts in this field to discuss
the importance of combating this issue to stop both animal and human suffering.
She was joined by Somali musician and activist K’naan Warsame; New York State
prosecutor specializing in environmental crimes Julieta Lozano; foreign journalist
and documentarian Peter Godwin; and economist and executive director of WildAid Peter Knights.
Here are some of the highlights of the panel’s discussion:
How was al-Shabaab born?
The terrorist organization predominantly featured in the
film is al-Shabaab, the Somali-bred group that receives half their funding from
the ivory trade. Warsame briefly explained the history of the “failed state” of
Somalia, which was without a formal government for years until the implementation
of the Islamic Courts Union—a group of leaders who attempted to bring structure
and peace to Somalia. But, the United States’ foreign policy makers were
skeptical and led a mission to destabilize the little bit of peace Somalia had,
which is essentially how al-Shabaab was born. Warsame said “al-Shabaab came out
of this vacuum, the void, the total hopelessness and loss to this country. They
come from a very particular failure, one which [Americans] had a large hand in.
When you watch this film, know that you can be part of the solution, but also
know that you were kind of a part of the problem and therefore it’s a
responsibility of yours.”
What is the link
between poaching and terrorism?
Peter Godwin and Peter Knights each explained how the ivory
trade is not simply about the killing of endangered wildlife, but it’s about
what the poaching enables. Godwin said, “In truth, as odd as it may sound,
conservation is really about people, not animals.” Knights added, “It’s about
human beings and human suffering too. This is the blood ivory moment. We know
about blood diamonds. This is exactly the same phenomenon.” Ivory is the
perfect resource for terrorist groups. In the eyes of these terrorists, an
elephant’s life means new machine guns, new satellite phones and even small
planes. “Poaching has become an extension of war and the clock is running down
fast,” added Godwin.
How do economics
Knights also explained the more nuanced issue of how growing
economies are fueling the demand of ivory. Most of the conservation energy goes
into trying to protect the supply of animals, but there are simply not enough
resources to do this. Knights said the focus must shift. “Nothing will ever
change unless we impact the demand. Ivory items are associated with wealth and
affluence and ostentatious behavior. So, it’s the goal to make these prestige
items socially unacceptable.” The predominant market for these items right now
is China, which has recently had huge economic growth, but many people are
uneducated about the chain of which they are intrinsically a part. Knights
continued, “There is a massive education that is needed. One of the best ways
to convey information is through dramatic storytelling like this short film,
which has a huge emotional pull. People will change their behavior because of
What role does
Julieta Lozano explained her work with the New York State
Department of Environmental Conservation. To the audience’s very audible shock,
Lozano revealed that after a major undercover investigation, 1 ton of ivory was
found being sold illegally across 150 small businesses in New York. That is
equivalent to 100 adult elephants and 2 million dollars in retail value. New
York is the second largest market for ivory after China and the next step is
targeting the demand. “This is why public sentiment is so important. This issue
does matter to New Yorkers and we need to lobby our legislatures to do
something about it.”
What can we do?
The panelists all highlighted the same fundamental idea.
Public opinion matters, and it can create change. Bigelow said that her goal
was to stop or stigmatize the demand so that ivory will become valueless. Knights
and Lozano also said that getting the public on board with this will put
the necessary pressure on legislatures to create new effective laws and bans.
And that is how “Last Days” will have its most profound impact. Knights’
WildAid, will globally distribute Bigelow’s film and will focus special efforts on China through more than 100 celebrity ambassadors and $164 million per
year of donated media space.
Godwin left the audience with this chilling message: “We are no longer on a
gentle downward slope here. I hope that we will not be the generation that
allowed this to happen.