When African elephants are killed for their tusks, where does the ivory go? According to a new -- and ingenious -- investigative report by National Geographic that followed the paths of two fake elephant tusks as they traveled through Africa, the answer to this question reveals a disturbing, violent truth about the illegal ivory trade.
In a report entitled “How Killing Elephants Finances Terror In Africa,” reporter Bryan Christy explains how he used two sham (though extremely convincing) elephant tusks embedded with GPS trackers to follow an ivory smuggling route in central Africa.
“These tusks … operate really like additional investigators, like members of our team and almost like a Robocop. We're going to send them into a part of the world where it's too dangerous for us to go,” Christy told NPR’s Fresh Air in a recent interview.
By following the tusks, Christy says he’s found a blood-soaked, ivory-studded path right into the heart of Sudan, “which has no elephants left” but where their tusks are funding terrorist groups like the Janjaweed and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.
This is a side of the ivory trade, Christy says, that is neither well-documented nor well-known.
“East Africa is ground zero for much of the poaching,” he wrote in his report, adding:
“Locals, including poor villagers and unpaid park rangers, are killing elephants for cash -- a risk they’re willing to take because even if they’re caught, the penalties are often negligible. But in central Africa, as I learned firsthand, something more sinister is driving the killing: Militias and terrorist groups funded in part by ivory are poaching elephants, often outside their home countries, and even hiding inside national parks. They’re looting communities, enslaving people, and killing park rangers who get in their way.”
“In central Africa it's a war,” Christy told Fresh Air. “For me, this news story isn't about elephants, it's about violence.”
According to an interactive map showing the fake tusks’ journey, Christy's bogus ivory traveled from the Central African Republic -- where it was planted in the black market in a small village -- into Sudan. On Day 19 of their journey, the tusks are said to have entered Kafia Kingi, a purported safe haven for the Lord's Resistance Army.
“I interviewed a number of ex-soldiers with the Lord's Resistance Army, and they described hand-carrying ivory tusks on their shoulders 600 miles through incredibly dense jungle from Garamba National Park into the Central African Republic into ... a little area called the Kafia Kingi enclave, and there, they told me, is where Joseph Kony is today. And there, they told me, 'We trade the ivory with Sudanese armed forces. We are trading ivory with the military of Sudan, exchanging it for arms and medicine,'” Christy told Fresh Air.
Marty Regan of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations told Christy that “ivory operates as a savings account for Kony.”
Kony, one of Africa’s most wanted terrorists, has evaded capture for years.
He's been indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. The United States and the African Union have both attempted to track him down.
“For more than two decades, the Lord’s Resistance Army has murdered, raped and kidnapped tens of thousands of men, women and children in central Africa,” President Barack Obama wrote in a letter to Congress in 2011. “The L.R.A. continues to commit atrocities across the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan that have a disproportionate impact on regional security.”
An estimated 36,000 African elephants are killed every year for their tusks. Experts estimate that the animal may be extinct in the wild by 2020 if this rate doesn’t abate.
Ivory’s biggest consumer is China.
For more on Bryan Christy’s investigation into the illegal ivory trade, and how he’s been using fake tusks as a way to infiltrate one of the most lawless corners of the world, read his report here and catch the companion documentary, "Warlords Of Ivory," which premieres Sunday, August 30.
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