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How fake elephant tusks with GPS trackers helped reveal central Africa’s ivory smuggling route

A pile of 15 tonnes of ivory confiscated from smugglers and poachers is arranged before being burnt to mark World Wildlife Day at the Nairobi National Park
Reuters/Thomas Mukoya
Each pair of tusks is one dead elephant.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Each year, over 30,000 elephants are poached on the African continent, mainly for their ivory. Bryan Christy, an investigative journalist with National Geographic, decided to track how ivory is smuggled. He commissioned a taxidermist to create two fake elephant tusks, embedded with GPS tracking devices, and these were planted in the Central African Republic’s (CAR) ivory smuggling chain.

Through the GPS trackers, Christy and his team monitored the tusks using Google Earth, as they were transported from the south of CAR, eventually landing up in Kafia Kingi, a disputed area in South Sudan that’s also claimed by Sudan.

Kafia Kingi, according to National Geographic, is one of the territories believed to be a base for Joseph Kony’s Lord Resistance Army (LRA). Over the past two decades, the LRA has become known for egregious crimes, including kidnapping children and turning them into soldiers. Kony himself has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

Christy interviewed a number of ex-LRA soldiers who confirmed that the militia was involved in the ivory trade. They described how they hand-carried ivory tusks from the Garamba National Park, into CAR, South Sudan, Sudan, and eventually into the Kafia Kingi enclave. ”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,'” said Christy in an interview with NPR.

An interactive map on National Geographic’s website shows how the modified ivory tusks move from southeastern CAR, where they were planted, to Kafia Kingi and on to Ed Daein, a city south-west of Darfur. From there, ivory makes its way to export hubs throughout the African continent like Khartoum, Accra and Maputo, from where they’re eventually exported. Most of the ivory lands up in China, where it’s carved into jewellery, chopsticks and other consumer goods.

Christy said China could play a role in curbing the poaching of elephants for their ivory. Earlier this year, the Chinese State Forestry Administration imposed a one-year moratorium on the imports of carved ivory; a few months later it said it would start to phase out its domestic ivory industry, which drives the demand for poached tusks. But it hasn’t said how long the phase-out will take. ”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. Taking China out of that market could be game-changer,”said Christy.

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