In the September 2015 issue of National Geographic, journalist Bryan Christy’s story, “Tracking Ivory,” began with a brilliant idea: Design artificial elephant tusks, complete with GPS devices, and monitor where they travel.
With help from experts, the tusks became a reality and journeyed across Africa.
While Central Africa has lost 64% of its elephant population in just a decade from poaching, effectively tracking and eliminating the illicit ivory trade will do substantially more than just protect wildlife. The illegal profits from this trade help support some of the most violent militias, terrorist organizations, and paramilitary groups throughout eastern Africa.
The map below shows the tusks’ path:
Courtesy of National Geographic
592 miles, 53 days
To start, Christy asked taxidermist George Dante and Quintin Kermeen, founder and president of Telemetry Solutions, to lend their expertise to the project.
Real ivory is tough to impersonate. First of all, it won’t melt when you hold a flame to it. Genuine ivory also has “Schreger lines” — small imperfections on the cut-end of the tusk, much like rings on a tree trunk, that show the elephant’s age.
Despite these challenges, Dante created such a believable version that Christy and his editor were detained for a night at an airport in Tanzania. Officials thought the tusks were real even though Christy and his editor had notes from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Geographic certifying the tusks were artificial.
After navigating a few other hiccups, Christy dropped the tusks directly into the ivory supply chain through the coastal city of Mboki in the Central African Republic.
In the first 16 days, the tusks moved 242 miles, averaging about 16 miles a day, to cross the border into Sudan.
On day 19, the tusks entered Kafia Kingi, a disputed territory in Sudan likely controlled by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a murderous, fringe Christian organization led by Joseph Kony. Since the 1980s, the LRA has sought the overthrow of the Ugandan government and the imposition of Kony’s interpretation of a Christian theocracy.
The tusks stay in Kafia Kingi for three weeks.
On days 42 through 52, they started traveling faster, likely in vehicles instead of on foot.
After traveling 592 miles, on day 53 temperature sensors hinted the tusks were inside a building or buried underground, their last known location when the story published.
Photo by J. Michael Fay, Wildlife Conservation Society/National GeographicIn May 2013, poachers with the insurgent group Seleka massacred 26 elephants at Dzanga Bai, a mineral-rich watering hole in the Central African Republic.
Ivory as a savings account
During its decades of existence, the LRA has terrorized areas in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — formerly Zaire — with the mass rape of women and girls, the enslavement of young boys as child soldiers, and brutal acts of mutilation that have included cutting off lips and women’s breasts.
Courtesy of National Geographic.National Geographic’s September 2015 issue, on newsstands now.
Michael Onen, a defector from Kony’s army presence in Garamba National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site famous for its elephants, told Christy that Kony uses the ivory as a savings account.
By collecting it, the LRA can stockpile potential wealth for years, which it can trade later for ammunition and supplies to continue fighting.
With Kony’s presence in Garamba, evidence of his men slaughtering elephants has become apparent around the park. Christy heard the clicking of guns while navigating the grasses, and carcasses lay near undetonated hand grenades. Kidnap victims even told stories of being fed elephant meat.
When Christy asked a group of children in a village 30 miles outside of Garamba how many of them had visited the park, not one raised a hand.
“How many of you have been kidnapped by the LRA?” received the opposite response.
Despite a team of armed men patrolling Garamba’s front lines against Kony’s men and other terrorist groups, Garamba has lost thousands of elephants since Kony moved in 2006, when 4,000 elephants prospered.
Zakouma National Park in Chad has fared even worse: 90% of its population has been lost since 2002, most from 2005 to 2008 at the hands of poachers, according to Christy.
Cross-border ivory trade
The LRA isn’t the only armed group to make use of the ivory trade for funding. In exchange for ivory, Christy notes that the LRA received heavy weapons from contingents of the Sudan Armed Forces in the war-torn Sudanese region of Darfur.
The Sudanese-backed Janjaweed militia, which has been responsible for many of the atrocities in Darfur, are also believed to be involved in the cross-border ivory trade, including high-profile poaching activities in Cameroon.
Over the border in the Central African Republic, the Sudanese-backed Seleka rebels have also capitalized on the ivory trade. Christy notes that, according to another LRA defector, the Seleka sold a stockpile of approximately 300 elephant tusks. The wealth from this trade allowed the group to have enough weapons to overthrow CAR’s President François Bozizé in 2013.
Since the largely Muslim Seleka overthrew the CAR government, the country has been racked by a spiral of counter-revolts and bitter Christian revenge attacks against the country’s Muslim minority that have bordered on ethnic cleansing.
Photo by Brent Stirton/National GeographicRangers practice their riding skills at Zakouma National Park, in Chad. The park has four mounted ranger teams because horses are the only way to effectively patrol during the wet season, when the elephants head to drier land outside the park.