Tracking Fake Elephant Tusks with GPS in Africa Drives Home Solution in China


The intersection of elephant survival as a vigorous species in Africa and terrorist organizations symbolizes one of the biggest challenges for wildlife conservation. The September 2015 National Geographic Magazine cover story, The Human Toll of Ivory Poaching, lays bare the human suffering that results from this intersection. The story was also recently featured on NPR's Fresh Air, where you can hear how National Geographic investigative journalist Bryan Christy used "Mission Impossible"-like tactics to track smuggled ivory using GPS trackers in fake elephant tusks. It's an amazing story (e.g., Christy was arrested at the airport as an ivory smuggler because his fake tusks looked so real) that provides a fresh perspective on the challenge and provides focus for a solution.

Evidence of the relationship between global ivory trade and international organized crime - or even terrorism - has been building for years. Various reports have indicated that militant groups associated with warfare and terror - such as Darfur's Janjaweed militias, Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army in Central and Eastern Africa, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and al-Shabaab in Eastern Africa - have been involved in poaching of elephants and other animals in Africa to fund their activities.

The problem has been one of evidence - a clear picture of the pathway of ivory, say, from poacher to middlemen to transporter to consumer, involving these kinds of nefarious actors.

But Christy's investigation takes us a step closer to understanding both the pathways and actors involved in the global ivory trade. His dramatic story follows a pair of fake ivory tusks outfitted with GPS trackers through some of the world's most impoverished and dangerous countries on their way to eventual export from Africa to China, most likely, and then potentially the United States or other countries where ivory markets still abound.

This investigation highlights how the stakes couldn't be any higher.

Around 30,000 African elephants die each year as a result of poaching. Experts believe that if these trends continue African elephants could be extinct within a few decades. And the human toll is unimaginable: poorly-outfitted park rangers are killed on the front lines; ivory trade-supported armed groups kidnap boys to raise the next generation of killers and girls for sex slaves; and whole communities are ravaged that get in the way.

The conservation community has tried-and-true measures in its conservation tool kit (bring stakeholders together to develop conservation plans, litigate against governments to enforce protective laws, educate and raise awareness, etc.). But very little has prepared the broader conservation community for this. One can hardly invite the Lord's Resistance Army to a stakeholder meeting on elephant conservation. And if the most populous country in Africa, with the 20th largest economy in the world, can't even Bring Back Our Girls (save hundreds of girls kidnapped by Boko Haram), it can hardly be expected to join other countries in crushing the region's illegal elephant poaching and ivory smuggling that helps fund armed guerilla movements.

So how can we save Africa's elephants and cut off this source of funding for militant groups?

Demand for ivory has to be the focus. As noted by the Fresh Air piece, "If China gets out of the ivory game it will collapse economically the price for ivory, and take ivory out of the picture, at least reduce its role as a way of financing war."

Fortunately, China has agreed to phase out the production and sale of ivory products, although many questions remain about how and when this will be accomplished and how strict the prohibition on sales will be in practice. While action in China is vital, other nations have significant illegal ivory markets, such as Thailand, that also need to be eliminated. And there's action in the United States to curb demand as well. Both New Jersey and New York have put in place strict laws to close ivory markets and California may be next. In addition the Obama Administration recently released proposed rules that will prohibit most interstate sales of ivory across the United States, although those rules should also be strengthened before finalization.

Now this is something the conservation community can do: get out its tool kit and work with China, with other countries like Thailand, and in the United States to ensure promises are kept and that ivory markets are closed as soon as possible.


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