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How Ingenious Fake Elephant Tusks Helped Track The Illegal Ivory Trade

Implanted with GPS and given to unsuspecting poachers, the tusks tell the story of how poaching funds warlords in Africa.

When Bryan Christy, an investigative journalist for National Geographic, wanted to dive into the ivory trade–finding out what happens to the tusks from the 30,000 African elephants that are killed each year–he realized that he wouldn’t be able to safely follow the tusks as they traveled from warload to warload in places like South Sudan. So he came up with an ingenious solution: a fake tusk implanted with custom GPS.

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Working with an expert taxidermist who usually works on museum exhibits, a team built a tusk so realistic that it landed Christy in jail when he tried to take it through airport security in Tanzania.

After planting the tusks in the black market near Mboki, a small village in the Central African Republic, Christy watched on Google Maps as the tusks slowly traveled towards South Sudan, and were held at terrorist hideout. Later, a temperature sensor indicated that the tusks were probably buried underground.

In a cover story for National Geographic‘s September issue called “Tracking Ivory,” Christy tells the story of how poached tusks fund terrorist organizations like Joseph Kony’s rebel group. In 2006, Kony forces moved into Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. At the time, it was home to 4,000 elephants. Now there are fewer than 1,500, as fighters–and maybe even the national military–poach the animals and trade the tusks for arms.

Ill-equipped park rangers try to fend off poachers, but are losing the battle. Christy writes:

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. . . 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.

Most of the ivory is ending up in China:

A booming Chinese middle class with an insatiable taste for ivory, crippling poverty in Africa, weak and corrupt law enforcement, and more ways than ever to kill an elephant have created a perfect storm. The result: Some 30,000 African elephants are slaughtered every year, more than 100,000 between 2010 and 2012, and the pace of killing is not slowing. Most illegal ivory goes to China, where a pair of ivory chopsticks can bring more than a thousand dollars and carved tusks sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Now, there might be a little bit of hope: China is finally stepping up controls on the ivory trade. And maybe African governments–or wildlife conservation groups–can take inspiration from Christy and use fake tusks of their own to track poachers down.

A documentary about the research called Explorer: Warlords of Ivory will air on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday, August 30.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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