Ivory’s Trail of Terror

An investigative journalist used fake elephant tusks to trace illegal ivory’s violent path through Africa.

August 20, 2015

Photo: Brent Stirton/National GeographicIn January 2014, while X-raying a Vietnam-bound container declared to hold cashews, Togolese port authorities saw something strange: ivory. Eventually, more than four tons were found, Africa’s largest seizure since the global ivory trade ban took effect in 1990. DNA suggests that some of the ivory is from elephants killed in May 2013 at Dzanga Bai in the Central African Republic.

Poachers slaughter some 30,000 African elephants for their tusks every year. The killings are decimating the species, which experts say could go extinct within just a few decades. But elephants are hardly the only victims of the ivory trade. Next month’s National Geographic cover story, "Tracking Ivory," exposes ivory’s role in financing African terrorists and militias, who not only murder park rangers trying to stop them but also enslave, rape, and kill villagers, and turn children into soldiers.

Investigative journalist Bryan Christy devised a way to trace ivory’s violent path out of Africa. The scheme sounds like something out of Mission Impossible, he told NPR’s Fresh Air. Christy commissioned the production of a pair of artificial tusks that would be realistic enough to fool even the trained eye, then outfitted them with GPS trackers. It worked. The fakes looked and felt so authentic, Tanzanian officials arrested Christy for smuggling at an airport.

After planting them on the black market in the Central African Republic, Christy watched the tusks make their way north—all the way to the Kafia Kingi enclave in Darfur, Sudan, where notorious warlord Joseph Kony is suspected to be hiding.

Head to National Geographic to follow the ivory trail yourself and check out more pictures, video, and audio from this remarkable—and heartbreaking—investigation. And tune into National Geographic Channel on Sunday, August 30 at 8/7c to watch the film, "Explorer: Warlords of Ivory."  Every step of the way, you’ll be reminded that ivory is not only an elephant tragedy, but a human one. 

Photo: J. Michael Fay, Wildlife Conservation SocietyIn May 2013, poachers with the insurgent group Seleka massacred 26 elephants at Dzanga Bai, a mineral-rich watering hole in CAR.

Photo: Brent Stirton/National GeographicRangers practice their riding skills at Chad's Zakouma National Park, which 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.

Photo: Brent Stirton/National GeographicMembers of the Ugandan army’s dog-tracking team lift weights at the African Union base in Obo, CAR. The dogs are Belgian Malinois shepherds, famed for their use in military operations, especially in tough conditions like the dense central African bush.

All images from National Geographic's September cover story, "Tracking Ivory," courtesy of National Geographic.

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