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 travelled 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 organisations, and paramilitary groups throughout eastern Africa.
The map below shows the tusks’ path.
592 miles, 53 days
Real ivory is tough to impersonate. For one thing, 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 believebale impersonation 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 (CAR).
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 (LRA), a murderous, fringe Christian organisation 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 travelling faster, likely in vehicles instead of on foot.
After travelling 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.
Ivory as a savings account
During its decades of existence, the LRA has terrorised areas in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo 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.
Michael Onen, a defector from Kony’s army presence in Garamba National Park, a UNESCO world heritrage 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 un-detonated 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 their hands. “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 (CAR), the Sudanese-backed Seleka rebels have also capitalised 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 government of CAR, the country has been wracked by a spiral of counter-revolts and bitter Christian revenge attacks against the country’s Muslim minority that have bordered on ethnic cleansing.
All the images in this story are from “Tracking Ivory” in the September 2015 issue of National Geographic, on newsstands now.
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