National Geographic's Explorer series, which racked up nearly 60 Emmys over its 25-year run, returns after a five-year hiatus on Sunday with a documentary strong enough to stand up against the best PBS Masterpiece Mystery show, and make no mistake: The filmmakers know it.
Warlords of Ivory is not only a gripping whodunnit, it highlights one of the most heinous acts perpetrated by humans on the animal kingdom, the mass slaughter of thousands of elephants for the purpose of selling their ivory tusks.
We already know this is taking place, of course, and that it has gone on for centuries, but in recent years, the repugnant trade has only increased, thanks to the availability of new "tools" for the poachers: helicopters to enable hunting from the air, and AK-47s to guarantee an even greater number of killings.
Bryan Christy, who has spent the past couple of decades covering international crime, serves as the anchor and crime-solver of Warlords, beginning by giving us an idea of how much carnage goes into the sale of ivory. He opens a single cargo container crammed full of tusks, both cut up and intact, and estimates that we're looking at the result of 400 elephant deaths, including infants.
Christy wants to find out where the ivory is going, to track the ivory from the Garamba National Park, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, near the border of the Central African Republic. Borrowing confiscated ivory from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Christy arranges for an expert taxidermist to create an artificial tusk that looks exactly like the real thing, with one major difference: It contains a secret tracking device.
The cameras can't follow Christy when he plants the device, but we're already hooked. Where will it wind up? Who are the poachers? At first, there's no movement on Christy's GPS monitoring device, but then, a blip appears on the screen, indicating the fake tusk is on the move.
The poachers, whoever they are, don't follow known roads, but, instead, head north through the jungle, covering on foot a distance equivalent to that between Washington, DC, and Detroit. The poachers venture deep into territory controlled by one of the most vicious and notorious militia groups in the world, who are not only profiting from ivory sales, but engineering its procurement and using the profits to buy munitions from one of Africa's most reviled terrorist states. We'll leave the actual identity of the culprits for viewers to learn on their own.
The success of Christy's experiment opens the door for further tracking, but if there is a weak moment in the otherwise superb documentary, it's in the area of what can really be done to stop the poaching as well as the terrorist activities funded by the ivory sales.
Christy meets with House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce, R-Calif., who is clearly impressed by Christy's findings, but at this point, we're sufficiently convinced of the magnitude of ivory poaching and its definite links to certain terrorist militia groups and possible links to others, to want to know what can be done to stop it.
Here, Warlords of Ivory falls short. Granted, it's not an easy problem to solve, but we do want more of an outcome than Christy's plan to expand his ivory tracking project.
Still, it's an eye-opener to the reality that an estimated 30,000 African elephants are slaughtered every year, and more than 100,000 have been killed between 2009 and 2012 alone. Most of the illegally obtained ivory is sold to Chinese buyers.
It's also good news that the Explorer documentary series itself is back. Over the course of its original 25-year run (1985-2010), the series, produced by the National Geographic Society, bounced around from channel to channel, before landing on the National Geographic Channel in 2004.
Now the series is back and will air once a month. That's not as often as earlier incarnations of Explorer, but it'll do, as long as Nat Geo creates important, well-researched and enlightening films like Warlords of Ivory.