Elephant man

Simon Trevor on White Gold and his long campaign against the ivory trade.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

African Elephants in White Gold:
African Elephants in White Gold: "This time around it's much more serious because there's less elephants and more demand."

White Gold, Sydney's Pollack's Out Of Africa, starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, along with Michael Apted's Gorillas In The Mist starring Sigourney Weaver have one man in common, Simon Trevor, the director of White Gold.

On the red carpet at MoMA for the film's premiere he told me - "We couldn't sit by and watch all those elephants being killed without trying to make everybody aware of this."

Sigourney Weaver, Albert Maysles, Barbara Kopple, Meredith Vieira, Iman, Christie Brinkley, Stacy Bendet, Hanneli Mustaparta, Tara Subkoff, Kyleigh Kuhn, Mia Moretti with Cleo Wade, Cynthia Rowley, David Schwimmer with Zoe Buckman, among others, walked the red carpet with Chuck Close and producer Arne Glimcher in support of the cause.

Simon Trevor on the red carpet at MoMA:
Simon Trevor on the red carpet at MoMA: "We couldn't sit by and watch all those elephants being killed without trying to make everybody aware of this." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Trevor's documentary on the organised poaching of elephant tusks, narrated by former US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, puts an end to fantasies of glamour and harmless luxury based on ignorance and lies.

In New York City, near Lincoln Center I spoke with Simon Trevor in depth on the importance conservation must play for the African Elephant, the impact of illegal ivory trading, and his journey into filmmaking.

Anne-Katrin Titze: The story you were telling us at MoMA, when you were presenting White Gold, about an elephant near your house, who came up to a woman with a 50-year-old ivory bracelet is unforgettable. I believe I thought about it for a moment every day since. This is at the core of your efforts, isn't it?

It is well known how smart elephants are, how their remarkable memory serves them well and that they have a matriarchal head.

Simon Trevor: For me, that's the core. For me personally. I've lived in the Tsavo National Park for over 50 years, that's the main elephant park in Kenya, in fact it's one of the main elephant conservation areas in the whole world, African Elephants. During that time, I've seen ups and downs in the poaching and it always comes back to demand. In the Seventies, international tourism was a demand, because people didn't understand what it meant to kill an elephant. They didn't even understand why elephants had to be killed to take their tusks. Lots of people still believe that tusks just fall out.

At the centre of the problem lies profitable misinformation. In White Gold, we see footage of elephants mourning their dead, caressing the bones and skulls of dead family members with their trunks.

AKT: Some people don't even realise fully that ivory comes from dead elephants and treat it as though it were precious wood or something like that.

ST: They don't at all. Around the mid-Eighties, there was a walrus ivory trading business up in Greenland and those areas. And tourists bought carved walrus tusks. They over-killed the walrus till the tusks were running out, so they imported African ivory, elephant ivory, to maintain the tourist business in Greenland. I mean, how ridiculous can we get?

AKT: Now we are at a very critical point for elephants.

The African Environmental Film Foundation production White Gold is an exemplary wake-up call from collective consumerist slumber.
The African Environmental Film Foundation production White Gold is an exemplary wake-up call from collective consumerist slumber.

ST: Steadily over the years elephants have gone down in numbers. Since 1979 the scientists say that 900.000 elephants have been killed for their ivory. Quite frankly, the demand now from the East, primarily from China, from Vietnam, Thailand and that's because those economies are growing… More and more people can afford to buy ivory and this could mean the end of the elephant, if this is not stopped at the present rate. I believe it will be stopped. This time around it's much more serious because there's less elephants and more demand.

AKT: Your film is so important to bring awareness.

Simon Trevor's films make it appropriately difficult to feign oblivion as to where the luxury item came from.

ST: This is the third time in my life that I made a film like this. Each time trying to stop the trade, trying to stop people from buying ivory.

AKT: Do the films match up with the timing you just described? One in the Seventies, one in the Eighties and the third now?

In Lausanne, Switzerland, CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species), a global organization of 178 member nations, established an Ivory Trade Ban.

Anne-Katrin Titze in Ryan McGinley's EDUN endangered African Elephant T-shirt.
Anne-Katrin Titze in Ryan McGinley's EDUN endangered African Elephant T-shirt. Photo: Ed Bahlman

ST: That is correct. The first one I finished in 1979 it was called Bloody Ivory and had tremendous effect on governments, on presidents, on stopping the trade. India, Australia, even the United States. That was the beginning of closing off that loophole, that the CITES conference in 1989 stopped. Then there was Elephants Of Tsavo and Wanted Dead Or Alive, which we did in 2001, narrated in nine different languages. Film has that enormous impact, it really does.

Many people are told or want to believe that the tusks fall out and re-grow like a clipped fingernail. A comfortable untruth.

AKT: A lot of it is about awareness. Because our society works to not think about where the objects we use come from. Where our clothes come from. You mention it in White Gold that many Chinese customers are told that tusks regrow.

ST: Yes, that's true. Also, I realise, I've lived in Africa all of my life, so when I come to a society like New York, which I've been to many times over the years, you look at all those people walking down the street. They are all trying to survive. For those people to concern themselves with elephants, it's amazing. I give them full credit for it. At the same time, they could be buying a piece of ivory without realising what they are doing.

AKT: At the MoMA event, there were a lot of fashion people, and at the reception after the film, I was talking to several who were wondering what they should be doing with the ivory pieces they already own. Your film has the great effect that ivory becomes a shameful object.

Tempted by a tiny elegant ivory egg spoon? Quite like the rabbit fur collar on your anorak is no longer harmless, once you open the door to knowledge, ivory has to lose its allure.

White Gold US poster
White Gold US poster Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

ST: If we can make it socially unacceptable. In a way like wearing fur. I did notice people wearing fur, but today you don't know if it's artificial. The cruelty in the fur trade is akin to the cruelty in the ivory trade and any wildlife products. Today we are a global community, people can become aware and physically do something. I read about what you are doing as a wildlife rehabilitator.

AKT: There are many areas where something can be done.

ST: Yes, you just got to look at the facts and figures. For instance, lions have been almost eradicated across Africa because these people wanted to shoot the males to put them up in their rooms and look at them. I mean, it's so ridiculous. Forget the emotional side of it, statistically, sustainably, trophy hunting no longer works in Africa.

AKT: Please explain what you mean by it no longer working.

ST: For instance, if you go for a trophy elephant, to shoot it you pay $100.000 but you are actually shooting the breeding genes, the strongest genes. The hunters would say for years, "but we're shooting the old ones." Well, scientists have now proof that the male elephants don't breed successfully or at the highest level until they're 35 years old, which is precisely the time when the hunters started to shoot them. So if you shot, say, only ten elephants in an area of several hundred, you are taking out the breeding males. So, in fact, they'd been doing the worst possible damage without understanding it. Same with the lions. They always killed the big males which are the ones breeding. The lion has a breeding time of only ten years before he is ousted by other male lions.

AKT: What came first for you, your love for film or your love for wildlife?

ST: First of all I was a National Park warden in my adult life, I was a game warden. That was you might say love or respect for wild animals. You must never lose your respect. I had to give that up because during the First World War in England, when I was a baby, my ears were damaged by bombs. As an adult, the doctor said that I [had to] stop firing a gun, and as a game ranger you have to occasionally. From early on, I had film in my blood. When I was a teenager, I loved filming animals, so I naturally progressed to film.

AKT: In an e-mail you told me to say hello to Meryl Streep from you. You filmed the wildlife footage in Out Of Africa. Sigourney Weaver told me that she knows you since Gorillas In The Mist in 1988.

ST: Yes, I started in television. Eventually I started trying to make my own films. To do that, I went out working as second unit on feature films. These were pretty awful in the early days, kind of Tarzan-like. Then Out Of Africa came along and I was given the chance to work as second unit director, I couldn't turn that down. It was the greatest cinematic experience of my life, actually. Working with Sidney Pollock as the director. He gave me total freedom. He told me: "You give me Africa, and I will tell you whether I like it or not!"

Director of White Gold Simon Trevor:
Director of White Gold Simon Trevor: "I've lived in the Tsavo National Park for over fifty years." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: That's great.

ST: That was my brief. And very, very rarely do you ever get a brief like that.

AKT: And Gorillas In The Mist?

ST: I was at that time working on one of my own films and I think there was a pregnant mongoose. And I said to Michael Apted, the director, when they came to see me, "you got to wait, because this mongoose is going to give birth." And he looked at me in horror, and said "I can't do this film without you." I said alright. Ten weeks of climbing the volcano in Rwanda, but working with Sigourney. She was absolutely amazing.

AKT: A long history - and there she was at MoMA to support and intoduce your latest film. What happened to the mongoose?

ST: I missed that time around. After I finished Gorillas In The Mist and of course, next time around I was able to get film of her [the mongoose] with her baby.

AKT: Good decision.

ST: That's how it all began. By becoming a filmmaker I've been able to do more for conservation by about 15 years ago forming the African Environmental Film Foundation and giving up commercial filming totally. Now I'm making these films about environmental issues for Africans in their own languages.

AKT: So White Gold is an exception to reach a world-wide audience? Hillary Rodham Clinton did the narration for the English version and you told me right now you are putting together the version in Mandarin with Jackie Chan?

ST: Yes, we're finishing the Mandarin version to show it to Chinese audiences. We just discovered that White Gold means something entirely different in Mandarin so now we have to change the title.

AKT: You must have had some tough decision making in what you show and what you don't show in White Gold, a delicate balance to reach a wide audience?

ST: That's very true. Since 1970, I've seen 40.000 elephants killed. Though it hits me every time in the heart, I can see it, I can look at it. To someone who has never seen that, it's horrifying. If you turn people off, you don't accomplish anything. When I made my first documentary about this in 1979, Bloody Ivory, I said "no children" in the previews, because it was pretty tough. Somehow a 12 year old girl got in. Afterwards I asked her and she said "it was horrible but it's real. It's not an acted film and we have to face it." Often it's the children, who maybe being naive, they are more truthful.

AKT: Hans Christian Andersen's The Emperor's New Clothes.

ST: There you are! Absolutely. I made this other version for Africa. White Gold, which will hopefully go on US television runs the risk of coming and going. Because that's the way life is over here. In Africa, you go to a village and you hang a screen on a tree and a thousand people show up and they want to see it again and again.

The African Environmental Film Foundation and Pace production of White Gold is an exemplary wake-up call from collective consumerist slumber.

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