Hong Kong’s pivotal role in the global illicit ivory trade is set to be portrayed on the silver screen in an upcoming Hollywood blockbuster directed by Angelina Jolie and starring Brad Pitt.
The movie – titled Africa and produced by the company behind True Grit and World War Z – will focus on the extraordinary life of the world’s most famous conservationist, Richard Leakey.
“The average Chinese young person doesn’t know who Richard Leakey is, but if a superstar like Brad Pitt plays the part and says these things, many people will believe what he says,” said Leakey, who was in Hong Kong last week to discuss the illegal ivory trade.
Given the crucial roles that Hong Kong and the mainland play in the trade, the creators would “go out of their way” to promote the film in both places, Leakey says.
The 70-year-old Kenyan is an icon of the elephant conservation movement and is credited with dramatically reducing the number of elephants killed in the 1980s when he headed Kenya’s wildlife service.
His bold approach – including allowing his officers to shoot poachers on sight – put him in the crosshairs of traffickers and in 1993 he lost both his lower legs after his light plane crashed in a suspected sabotage.
When he presided over the incineration of 12 tonnes of ivory in Nairobi National Park in 1989, Leakey believed the tide had been turned in the battle against ivory traffickers.
However, since then, he has seen a dramatic reversal with increasing wealth in China again putting African elephants at risk.
Leakey said he hoped the movie would help change attitudes towards the precious “white gold” in Hong Kong and the mainland.
“The film will be sufficiently filled with luminaries that the Chinese public will go see it. The producers are very, very keen to make sure this film plays in Chinese theatres because they share my concerns about the market in China,” he said.
“People don’t know that elephants don’t shed their tusks once a year. People don’t know the slaughter. People don’t know that elephants could disappear forever,” he added.
China is considered the world’s largest market for ivory and much of the trade is conducted through Hong Kong using the city’s advanced shipping infrastructure.
Conservationists fear that unless attitudes towards the trade change rapidly in both jurisdictions, elephants could become extinct within the next decade.
“The creators certainly will go out of their way to promote it in China … The advertising budget will be very generous,” said Leakey, who did not rule out a premiere in Hong Kong or Beijing.
As for the screenplay, Leakey said moviegoers could expect a “certain amount of what Hollywood movies need … fire fights, car chases and pretty women getting in and out of beds.”
“So, it won’t all be true [to my life],” Leakey joked.