"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 audience."
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 relate?
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 their emotion."
What role does America play?
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.