Warlords of Ivory: How Africa’s illegal ivory trade funds terrorism

Ryan Berenz

The critically acclaimed documentary series Explorer returns to National Geographic Channel on Sunday, Aug. 30, at 8pm ET/PT. Each monthly episode of the series will go deep into a story ripped from the pages of the current issue of National Geographic magazine. In the premiere episode, Warlords of Ivory, special investigative correspondent Bryan Christy, a veteran of wildlife trafficking wars, traces the path of destruction left in the wake of Africa’s illegal ivory trade — a path rife with misery, crime and terrorism that spreads like a dark stain across the map of the world.

Christy and his team had an expert taxidermist craft realistic-looking elephant tusks and implanted them with wildlife-tracking GPS devices. “We can track it anywhere in the world,” he says. “I can watch it on my iPad, and it is essentially another member of our investigative team out there.”

By inserting the fake tusks into the illegal ivory market, Christy is able to trace the path that the tusks take from buyer to seller and also trace where the money is exchanged. He explains:

“No one has ever shown the path of ivory from the bush to the market. People have identified seized ivory here. They’ve caught a poacher there. They’ve caught a guy carving. You can put those together, but no one’s followed it all the way through once.

We also introduced these in one of the most violent places in the world. The story, up until now, has been largely a story of organized crime. And our last project together exposed the organized crime side of the ivory trade. That’s big powerful businessmen in places like Kenya and Tanzania.

In this project, we went to the heart of Africa, Central African Republic, the Congo, and were on the ground with a new face of ivory poaching, that is warlords funding themselves. This tusk that the tusks that we’ve introduced do two things. One, they give us the path that ivory is taking, and they follow a path speaking to the danger they go a place we couldn’t go. It’s very exciting. We basically put a tracker in a suitcase of money. Ivory is money to these poachers and traffickers. We put a tracker in a suitcase of money and handed it to them. Let’s let your system move against you.

I’m very excited about both the results we’ve achieved and the chance that this is going to raise the bar for investigations at large. I want more creative ideas. One of the things the core principle of this was if this were a drug investigation, what we would do? Putting a tracker in a suitcase of money is basic drug trafficking sort of police work, but it’s never been done in the wildlife arena, and that’s one of the principles we’re working toward.”



Photo: Brent Stirton/National Geographic

About Ryan Berenz 2107 Articles
Some things I like (in no particular order): Sports, Star Wars, LEGO, beer, 'The Simpsons' Seasons 1-13, my family and the few friends who are not embarrassed to be seen with me. Why yes, I am very interested in how much you like 'Alaskan Bush People.' #LynxForLife