Recently, the world became enraged when a Minnesota dentist hunted and killed the beloved African lion, Cecil. While Cecil’s murder was indeed horrifying, there’s an entire war happening in Africa surrounding the slaughtering of innocent elephants and people—and most of us know nothing about it.
Bryan Christy hopes to change that. The investigative journalist and wildlife trafficking reporter went on a mission to expose the inner workings of illegal ivory poaching and trade within Africa and Asia. Christy commissioned a taxidermist to create fake elephant tusks, equipped with hidden GPS trackers, which he then placed in the wild and followed as they moved.
Every year, approximately 30,000 elephants are slaughtered, and their ivory tusks sold on a black market, often for hundreds of thousands of dollars. But the issue goes even deeper than hunters and civilian criminals: In central Africa, militias and terrorist groups, like the Joseph Kony-led Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), use ivory as currency to acquire weapons, medicine and more. As Christy discovered, these groups will go to any length—including brutally attacking and murdering innocent people and national park rangers—to kill elephants and secure ivory. Now, Christy shares his story in the documentary Warlords of Ivory, will premiere on National Geographic Channel this Sunday at 8/7c as the first installment of the returning series, Explorer. We spoke with him about the dangers of his mission, what surprised him, and how we can help.
“People really underestimate the power of sharing the stories. China recently announced it’s going close its ivory market. The only reason… is because of the global outrage over what’s happening to the African elephants and to the people who protect them.”
You have been reporting on wildlife trafficking for quite a while. What motivated you to begin following and reporting on it?
I have an uncle who was an FBI undercover agent and he’s been my mentor for years now. I had finished a story on smugglers of rare coins and I didn’t know what to do next and he said: “Bryan do what you care about. Remember when you were a kid you used to spend all this time with wildlife, catching turtles and snakes and things? Why don’t you do something in the animal world?” His whole message is, “Follow your passion” and once I started doing that, it just opened up a whole world to me of victims that really needed a voice, and an area where I thought… the investigative work could be improved. And I love meeting new people and seeing the animals, so it’s really been a dream come true ever since.
When most people think of poaching, they think more of killing endangered species or innocent elephants. They think of Cecil the Lion. But in this documentary, you are focusing a lot on the human toll. Did you know that was going to end up being the focus?
It started as an elephant project documentary film, and I was going to play a part in that film, but not be the focus. But we went to central Africa on the project and I saw a level of violence that I had not understood existed in the ivory game. I’d understood it as an organized crime problem, the way it operates in east Africa. But in central Africa it’s truly a war zone, and it’s terrorist groups operating; it’s rebel militia.
And I couldn’t believe the role that park rangers were playing; that they are literally the front line against these terrorist groups operating in Africa. That was extraordinary to me because they’re so poorly understood; they’re so poorly funded. We had a team discussion and I said, “I think this is the story.” And I wrote a memo to headquarters from Garamba National Park and said, “Look, I’d like to pursue this as a magazine feature as well. The human cost has not been explained before.” I got the green light for that, so from then on it was both a magazine and film project.
For people who are unfamiliar, what should we know about the link between the ivory trade and terrorism?
A lot of people [in America] know the story now of Joseph Kony… from the “[Kony] 2012“ video that went viral a few years ago. They should know that guy is in the ivory game. They should know that we know roughly where he is—it’s not a mystery, and yet he’s still functioning. And we ought to recognize the role of Sudan. People know Somalia as a piracy state even though have no connection to Somalia. We ought to start knowing Sudan as a poaching state.
How did you come up with the idea to use GPS-enabled fake elephant tusks?
It might be because my background is as a lawyer. I’m a criminal investigator and so with my team I said, “Listen, we’re telling a crime story here. This is not an elephant story, and we need to think about this as a crime story. So when we use the word “elephant” or “ivory”… I want instead to say the word cocaine.” If you say that, you’re going to start framing the narrative the right way; you’re going to think about the victims the right way, and the villains the right way. Then you start looking at solutions that are more in line with what you might do for a drug trafficker.
So, with a guy moving cocaine, if you can get a tracker inside a cocaine shipment or get a tracker inside the money he’s using, that’s not that surprising of an approach. And it took me a couple of years; I tried to have fake tusks made a couple of years ago for a cover I did on ivory, and no one could do it to my satisfaction. This year, I did a story for Geographic on taxidermy and it put me in touch with cutting edge taxidermists. When I finished that story I went to one of the guys and said, “Listen, can you do this?” And that guy is George Dante. He loved it and he delivered. He said, “No one’s ever tried, but I’ll give it a whirl.” And it’s extraordinary.
How confident were you that they would get picked up and thought to be real?
You never know. Ivory people buy ivory to carve into it. So, that could happen at any moment in the course of an ivory transaction. They’ll try to light it or scratch it to see if it’s fake. If it’s just going to a small village, they might cut it up into bracelets right there. They might cut it up if it’s too big. If it’s a big six foot-long tusk, they might think that’s too vulnerable a thing to move around the country, so they might say, “I gotta cut this in half” just to be able to transport it easily. I had to pick a size that I thought would be small enough to move with but big enough that they wouldn’t think of it as scraps; that they’d want to keep it in a single piece.
How did you figure out how to get them into the market?
We went through many scenarios and I had a list of ways that I thought might be good ways to introduce ivory on the ground: Just trying to sell them to somebody, putting them in a backpack. The way ivory moves in the beginning, it’s usually a guy on a motorbike with a backpack full of ivory moving to an aggregator. So, [we thought], “Let’s buy an old motorbike and wreck it on the side of the road.” And [we] had a backpack as if the guy wrecked and ran away, or had been chased or something. We practiced dropping ivory from a very slow moving white aircraft. We explored all those options and more to get it into play.
You tracked tusks for almost two months. Were you surprised by the route you saw them take?
I was. Most ivory is going out through the ports [in Kenya and Tanzania recently]. I thought my ivory would probably head east, and instead it went north directly along the border of South Sudan and the Central African Republic, and then into an area of Sudan called the Kafia Kingi enclave, which is [a] section of Darfur. I talked to people who described that area as being where Kony is and where he has been trading ivory for arms. And the market that they described, Songo, is exactly where my tusks went. And they behaved in that little area as if they had exchanged hands. They’d sit in Songo for a couple of days and I could watch them, and they’d sit just outside of the market for a couple days, and then they’d move south…as if someone else had them, and then moved again… east toward the capital of Sudan.
What’s the last known place you saw them?
The last place we saw them is the place that’s on the map in the magazine, Ed Daein. That’s the last place I heard from them. There are a number of reasons that they could have gone dark: The batteries may have died, although our statistical prediction is that the batteries have until later this year, in the best case. But the batteries could’ve died. They could have been discovered and destroyed.
But we also have a digital thermometer that we’re able to read, and that thermometer says they’re in a place a couple degrees cooler than the average air temperature, so that suggests they’ve been buried or in some other place. So, they might be in a container and on their way to Asia, which is what I’m hoping, I mean, I’m hoping that they’re still alive—they’re like a RoboCop for me; they’re like a team member. I’d love to get a ping from them in a couple of weeks from Beijing, and I’d get on a plane and go and knock on the door and say, “Hey, I think you have my tusks here.” That’d be great, right?
So, now that you’ve learned at least part of the route the tusks have traveled, what’s the next step?
Well, our big step is telling the story. As a criminal investigator journalist, you have to rely on other elements of the ecosystem to do their jobs. My whole team has done our job, I feel, and now it’s up to other elements of the law enforcement ecosystem to do their jobs.
So, it’s up to local journalists to pick up the story so that local people can be empowered to take action. And it’s up to the U.S. government officials to engage with China to reduce or close the Chinese market. It’s up to the international diplomatic community to take action against Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, who’s indicted for war crimes and who backs the Janjaweed rebel militia in Darfur, and has financially supported Kony for years. There’s an indictment against him and yet he was able to travel to South Africa last month and leave, despite calls for his arrest. And he’s coming to New York in the next couple weeks for the U.N. meetings, and it’s left to be seen whether he’ll be able to come and go without being arrested. Diplomatic immunity does not extend to heads of state charged with genocide by the international criminal court, so he can be arrested if governments choose to.
You mentioned part of this is people becoming more familiar with the story locally and hopefully being inspired to take action. Is there anything that “civilians” can do to help the fight?
People really underestimate the power of sharing the stories. China recently announced it’s going close its ivory market. The only reason… is because of the global outrage over what’s happening to the African elephants and to the people who protect them. And that’s all about sharing stories. I’m investigating these stories, you’re telling these stories, people on the ground are sharing these stories, and it’s critical. And it’s especially important because a good portion of ivory trafficking and elephant poaching is driven by corruption, and the best weapon against corruption is public exposure—and that’s the role of journalists. Journalists tell the stories and it’s up to civilian populations to share the story.