GPS In Fake Tusks Exposes Ivory Smuggling Route

A pile of ivory tusks. Joe Mercier/Shutterstock.

Bryan Christy is an investigative journalist for National Geographic and he has been on a mission: “to hunt the people who kill elephants.” In an amazing feature detailed in the magazine’s September cover story, Christy got a taxidermist to design artificial, realistic elephant tusks and embed them with GPS tracking chips. He then followed the fake tusks as they swapped hands with notorious rebel militia and terrorist groups.

Poaching poses a serious threat to African elephants. Around 33,000 elephants are killed every year for their ivory. If current rates of population decline continue, the African elephant could become locally extinct within 50 years. Though the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the international trade of ivory in 1989, illegal markets continue to flourish. Conservationists have linked the surge in the illegal ivory trade with increasing demand from China’s growing middle class.

Armed with this knowledge, Christy asked prominent taxidermist George Dante to do something he’s never done before – create artificial tusks that were so realistic they could trick the most prominent players in the illegal ivory trade. The fake tusks were embedded with custom-made GPS devices.

“I will use his [Dante's] tusks to hunt the people who kill elephants and to learn what roads their ivory plunder follows, which ports it leaves, what ships it travels on, what cities and countries it transits, and where it ends up,” Christy wrote in his feature.

Christy was able to track the tusks as they were moved through dangerous smuggling networks. Christy told NPR’s Terry Gross of Fresh Air that the tusks were originally put on a known illegal ivory route from Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo to Sudan. Christy watched as the fake ivory traveled from country to country, going to parts of the world that were simply too dangerous for him to visit.

The fake ivory traveled “600 miles from jungle to desert in just under two months,” Christy wrote. In the end, Christy told NPR that the story isn’t just about elephant poaching, but about how this illegal trades funds terrorist groups and violence.

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