GPS Trackers In Fake Elephant Tusks Reveal Ivory Smuggling Route

GPS Trackers In Fake Elephant Tusks Reveal Ivory Smuggling Route

8:12pm Aug 12, 2015
Rangers practice their riding skills at Zakouma National Park in Chad. The park has four mounted ranger teams because horses are the only way to effectively patrol during the wet season, when the elephants head to drier land outside the park.
Rangers practice their riding skills at Zakouma National Park in Chad. The park has four mounted ranger teams because horses are the only way to effectively patrol during the wet season, when the elephants head to drier land outside the park.
Brent Stirton / National Geographic
  • Rangers practice their riding skills at Zakouma National Park in Chad. The park has four mounted ranger teams because horses are the only way to effectively patrol during the wet season, when the elephants head to drier land outside the park.

    Rangers practice their riding skills at Zakouma National Park in Chad. The park has four mounted ranger teams because horses are the only way to effectively patrol during the wet season, when the elephants head to drier land outside the park.

    Brent Stirton / National Geographic

  • In May 2013 poachers with the insurgent group Seleka massacred 26 elephants at Dzanga Bai, a mineral-rich watering hole in the Central African Republic.

    In May 2013 poachers with the insurgent group Seleka massacred 26 elephants at Dzanga Bai, a mineral-rich watering hole in the Central African Republic.

    Michael Fay / Wildlife Conservation Society

  • In January 2014, while X-raying a Vietnam-bound container declared to hold cashews, Togolese port authorities saw something unexpected: ivory. Eventually, more than 4 tons were found, Africa's largest seizure since the global ivory trade ban took effect i

    In January 2014, while X-raying a Vietnam-bound container declared to hold cashews, Togolese port authorities saw something unexpected: ivory. Eventually, more than 4 tons were found, Africa's largest seizure since the global ivory trade ban took effect i

    Brent Stirton / National Geographic

  • Members of the Ugandan army's dog-tracking team lift weights at the African Union base in Obo, Central African Republic. The dogs are Belgian Malinois shepherds, famed for their use in military operations, especially in tough conditions like the dense cen

    Members of the Ugandan army's dog-tracking team lift weights at the African Union base in Obo, Central African Republic. The dogs are Belgian Malinois shepherds, famed for their use in military operations, especially in tough conditions like the dense cen

    Brent Stirton / National Geographic

  • Poaching has been curbed in Chad's Zakouma National Park, but rebuilding the park's herd, now at 450, will take years.

    Poaching has been curbed in Chad's Zakouma National Park, but rebuilding the park's herd, now at 450, will take years.

    Brent Stirton / National Geographic

  • Zakouma's Mamba Team 1 anti-poaching unit includes driver Issa Adoum (brown shirt). After Sudanese poachers killed his ranger father, Adoum refused diya, a traditional community payment. "Diya is for accidents," he says.

    Zakouma's Mamba Team 1 anti-poaching unit includes driver Issa Adoum (brown shirt). After Sudanese poachers killed his ranger father, Adoum refused diya, a traditional community payment. "Diya is for accidents," he says.

    Brent Stirton / National Geographic

  • Baby elephants are a welcome sight in Zakouma National Park in Chad. Thanks to stepped-up enforcement, the park hasn't lost an elephant to poachers since 2012. Without the stress of poaching, the elephants started breeding again, and more than 40 calves h

    Baby elephants are a welcome sight in Zakouma National Park in Chad. Thanks to stepped-up enforcement, the park hasn't lost an elephant to poachers since 2012. Without the stress of poaching, the elephants started breeding again, and more than 40 calves h

    Brent Stirton / National Geographic

  • Baby elephants are a welcome sight in Zakouma National Park in Chad. Thanks to stepped-up enforcement, the park hasn't lost an elephant to poachers since 2012. Without the stress of poaching, the elephants started breeding again and more than 40 calves ha

    Baby elephants are a welcome sight in Zakouma National Park in Chad. Thanks to stepped-up enforcement, the park hasn't lost an elephant to poachers since 2012. Without the stress of poaching, the elephants started breeding again and more than 40 calves ha

    Brent Stirton / Reportage by Getty Images for National Geographic Magazine

  • Journalist Bryan Christy traces the path of Africa's ivory smugglers in the cover story of National Geographic Magazine's September 2015 issue.

    Journalist Bryan Christy traces the path of Africa's ivory smugglers in the cover story of National Geographic Magazine's September 2015 issue.

    National Geographic

Some 30,000 African elephants die each year as a result of poaching, and many of their ivory tusks wind up hundreds or thousands of miles away. Investigative journalist Bryan Christy wanted to track the route of the poached tusks, so he commissioned a taxidermist to create two fake ivory tusks, which he embedded with specially designed tracking devices.

"These tusks ... operate really like additional investigators, like members of our team, and almost like a robocop," Christy tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

Christy and his team tracked the smugglers as they transported the tusks north from Congo's Garamba National Park to Sudan. Frequently tusks are traded for arms or medicine in Sudan's Darfur region, but ultimately, Christy says, much of the ivory winds up in China.

"China is the biggest consumer of illegal ivory. ... Just a few years ago [China] purchased 60 tons of ivory from Africa, and it was that purchase that unleashed the notion that ivory is on the market again," he says.

Christy's article about tracking the ivory of African elephants is the cover story of National Geographic Magazine's September 2015 issue. The National Geographic Channel documentary Warlords of Ivory also reports on his efforts.


Interview Highlights

On the slaughter of elephants in central Africa

The damage being done to the elephant population in Africa is overwhelming. The generally accepted numbers now are 36,000 elephants killed every year. Over a three-year period — 2009 to 2012 — 100,000 elephants. And they're being killed by every manner conceivable: using AK-47s, poisoning waterholes, using poison spears, poison arrows.

In central Africa it's a war. You have rebel militia and terrorist groups killing elephants for ivory, taking that ivory, trading for arms, trading it for medicine. And one of the important things I learned in this project is, in many of these lawless states in central Africa, park rangers are the only protection [that] people on the ground have. So for me, this news story isn't about elephants, it's about violence, and these rangers represent the front lines between terrorists and people.

On tracking the path of the fake tusks over Google Earth

We're going to send them into a part of the world where it's too dangerous for us to go. And we inserted them originally on a path we knew to be the path that ivory takes out of Garamba National Park on its way north into Sudan. ... We watched it go from country to country north. It was extremely exciting to watch this idea, this creative idea, could we do it, march north, avoiding all roads as it moved north toward Sudan.

On the route the fake tusks took from the Central African Republic to Sudan's Darfur region

Journalist Bryan Christy traces the path of Africa's ivory smugglers in the cover story of National Geographic Magazine's September 2015 issue.

Journalist Bryan Christy traces the path of Africa's ivory smugglers in the cover story of National Geographic Magazine's September 2015 issue.

National Geographic

I interviewed a number of ex-soldiers with the Lord's Resistance Army, and they described hand-carrying ivory tusks on their shoulders 600 miles through incredibly dense jungle from Garamba National Park into the Central African Republic into South Sudan into Sudan, the Darfur region of Sudan, into a little area called the Kafia Kingi enclave, and there, they told me, is where Joseph Kony is today. 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."

On China recently announcing that it will phase out the production and sale of ivory products

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.

Copyright 2015 Fresh Air. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The slaughter of African elephants is wildlife story, but it's also a crime story involving smuggling and terrorism. It's difficult to track who's behind these operations. But investigative journalist Bryan Christy came up with an ingenious idea. He commissioned a taxidermist to create fake ivory tusks with specially designed tracking devices hidden within them. Christy managed to get his dummy tusks mixed in with real tusks as they made their way along ivory smuggling route in Central Africa. The path led to what is believed to be the hideout of one of the most notorious African war loads, Joseph Kony, who is responsible for the slaughter of thousands of people and for forcing children to become part of his army.

Christy's article about tracking the ivory is the cover story of National Geographic's September issue. It hits newsstands August 25, but went online today coinciding with World Elephant Day. The companion documentary, "Warlords Of Ivory," premieres Sunday, August 30 one the National Geographic Channel's Explorer series. Bryan Christy is a contributor to National Geographic magazine and is the director of their special investigations unit. Before we start, I want you to know there's a couple of brief, disturbing descriptions in the interview.

Bryan Christy, welcome to FRESH AIR. We're talking about elephants being slaughtered, being shot in the knees by AK-47s. How many elephants are we talking here?

BRYAN CHRISTY: Yeah, the damage being done to the elephant population in Africa is overwhelming. The generally accepted number is now 36,000 elephants killed every year; over a three-year period, 2009 to 2012, 100,000 elephants. And they're being killed by every manner conceivable - using AK-47s, poisoning waterholes, using poison spears, poison arrows, digging big pits with poison spears at the bottom of those pits or just pits that are sort of wide at the top for an elephant to step into and then narrow so it gets caught and suffocates. It's as bad as you can imagine.

GROSS: The slaughter of elephants, you say, is something you've never seen before. It's mechanized, militarized slaughter. Can you elaborate on that?

CHRISTY: Sure. I've been looking at the illegal ivory trade for several years now. And I thought I understood it. And what I understood was the organized crime side of the illegal ivory trade. I understood what was happening in East Africa, where it does operate like organized crime, with people - local poachers killing elephants, taking the ivory, moving it up to a middle man where it's consolidated, moving it up to a businessman - working like a business.

What I didn't understand was what's happening in Central Africa. In Central Africa, it's a war. You have rebel militia, terror - and terrorist groups killing for elephants' ivory, taking that ivory, trading it for arms, trading it for medicine. And one of the important things that I learned in this project is that in many of these places, in many of these lawless states in Central Africa, park rangers are the only protection people on the ground have. So for me, this new story isn't about elephants. It's about violence, and these rangers represent the front line between terrorists and people.

GROSS: What are they armed with?

CHRISTY: The rangers?

GROSS: The rangers.

CHRISTY: Yeah, so I - it's incredibly sad. So there - I went out on patrol with rangers in Garamba National Park in the northeast corner of Congo. They are allotted, in the morning, a handful of bullets, a handful of rounds. It's like "Jack And The Bean Stalk" as you go out there. You see what they're given. They're given an AK-47. And these AK-47s, for the most part, are seized from poachers. They know they're not going to fire a third of the time. And they're sent out to fight some of the worst organized criminal efforts on the planet.

GROSS: OK. You'd think a park would be protected territory. But a park is where a lot of the violence is happening. It's where a lot of the militias hideout. What's going on in Garamba National Park?

CHRISTY: Right, Garamba National Park is under siege. It sits up in the northeast corner of the Congo. It's right above - right below South Sudan. And it is under siege from all directions. You have the South Sudanese military coming into Garamba poaching, Sudanese military coming into Garamba poaching and the Lord's Resistance Army, the LRA, run by Joseph Kony, coming into Garamba poaching.

GROSS: And he's a kind of proven monster. I mean, he's wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and war crimes.

CHRISTY: Absolutely. Joseph Kony, he's as bad as they get. His people are responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of people. They have done the most horrific things. I mean, slicing the noses and ears, lips off of their victims. And he is moving along borders using places like Garamba National Park as safe haven.

GROSS: And he's very relevant in this story because his militias are responsible for a lot of the elephant slaughter, and they sell the ivory for arms, for bombs. So we'll get to more of that a little bit later. But your story is, in part, a detective story in which you try to trace the path of this smuggled ivory so you can identify who's it going to and how is it getting there. So the scheme you came up with - well, describe the scheme you came up with.

CHRISTY: So I wanted to, you know - it's easy to get bowled over five by these statistics and the horror. I wanted to take the fight to the enemy and to do it in an aggressive way. And we, as a team, asked ourselves, OK, if we could do anything, what would we do? Let's think of ourselves as "Mission Impossible." What would we do? And the idea that I really loved was let's create a fake tusk, and put a GPS satellite-based tracker inside it. And then let's put it in the system. And in effect, what we've done is fill a suitcase with cash and hand it to the criminals with a tracker inside and say let's see where it goes.

GROSS: So you had to have a convincing but fake tusk in order to make this work and to have a GPS embedded in the tusk. How did you accomplish that?

CHRISTY: Yeah. So I sent out bids to taxidermists in some museums to create a fake tusk. And what came back to me made it very clear that we needed to create something that visually looks right, and that's not what I needed. I needed a tusk that if I handed it to somebody in the ivory smuggling business, they could take that tusk from my hands and believe it was real. So that task had to be the right weight. It had to have the right sound. Ivory has a sound when you knock against it with something hard. It has to have that - ivory is a tooth. It has to have that sheen that a tooth pulled from your mouth would have. It has to have - when you cut ivory in half, it's like rings on a tree. There are these lines called Schreger lines. It has to have those. These tusks we had hand-painted and then coated in the same - with the same process that NASCAR car cars are coated so that they could bump up against other things and maintain their integrity.

GROSS: It was so convincing, you were arrested at the airport in Tanzania (laughter).

CHRISTY: Yes (laughter).

GROSS: What happened?

CHRISTY: I was moving through - I - this - I was moving through Tanzania Airport with - I had two fake tusks in a suitcase. And they - I put them on the conveyor belt, and they went through, and I see the guy watching the x-ray. And he - I see him turn his head and start to study the x-ray. And he said I want to see that bag. And I picked up another suitcase and said this one? No. That's one.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CHRISTY: And so we opened the suitcase and lift out an ivory - an elephant tusk. And immediately, law enforcement from all over the airport swarm us. And I show him letters from National Geographic. I show him a letter from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that attested to these being fake. And half the people around me said you're an ivory smuggler. The other half are looking at the x-ray, seeing the transmitter inside and saying no, he's not an ivory smuggler. He's smuggling a bomb.

GROSS: Oh, no (laughter).

CHRISTY: Yeah. So...

(LAUGHTER)

CHRISTY: Things got very heated. And finally, they brought in their wildlife expert. And he picked up the tusk, and he examined it exactly the way I had to make sure it was real. And he looks at the end and says look at these lines. He says to everybody else, these are called Schreger lines. This man is a liar. He's a smuggler. And they grabbed me and took me into an interrogation room for several hours and then kept me in custody overnight.

GROSS: How did you get out of that one?

CHRISTY: I called the embassy, the U.S. embassy of course, and they were very accommodating. But I also - I mean, I knew down deep that these were fake and we could destroy them and prove that they were fake ultimately.

GROSS: I should say you used to be a lawyer. That was probably a helpful (laughter) a helpful trait to have at this point. But anyways, this kind of proved that you were on the right track because these are professionals who are supposed to spot smuggled ivory. And they were convinced that your fake ivory was real. So that was a good thing, especially once you were released from detention.

CHRISTY: Yeah. It was good on two counts - one, that our ivory passed muster with experts, and two, that the Tanzanian government was enforcing the law.

GROSS: Right, right. Well, before we find out what happens next in your story, we need to take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Bryan Christy. He's an investigative reporter and National Geographic magazine contributor. And his investigation into ivory smuggling is the cover story of the September issue of National Geographic magazine. So let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is investigative reporter and National Geographic magazine contributor Bryan Christy. His investigation into ivory smuggling is the cover story of the September issue of National Geographic magazine, which goes on newsstands August 25, but is available online starting today. His investigation is also the subject of the film "Warlords Of Ivory," which premieres Sunday, August 30 on the National Geographic Channel.

So let's pick up where we left off. You're detained in Tanzania for smuggling ivory, but the ivory is fake. You're trying to get fake ivory with a GPS in it into the smuggling system so you can track it. So here you are. You get your ivory back from the people who had confiscated it. And now, your job is to get it in with the smugglers' ivory so you can track where the smugglers are taking it. How do you do that without people finding out who you are or endangering your life?

CHRISTY: Right, so that's one of the challenges. And I have to say, this is one area where it...

GROSS: You don't want to give away too much.

CHRISTY: I don't.

GROSS: I can understand that.

CHRISTY: But in general, you know, the challenge is to get it into the system in a way that's believable and moves on. And we - particularly in the film, we demonstrate a number of ways you can do that. You can do a buy-sell transaction. You can put it on the back of a motorbike and wreck that motorbike as if you were a smuggler and had an accident and ran away. There are lots of examples like that, and we explored them all.

GROSS: So you managed to get the tusk into the system with the smugglers. And you could follow it on your computer?

CHRISTY: Yeah, using Google Earth.

GROSS: Using Google Earth, OK. So it was taking a path that was too dangerous for you to follow. What's going on on the path that it's taken? Where is it traveling, and why is that area so unsafe?

CHRISTY: These tusks - and in this case, we embedded two into the system - operate really like additional investigators, like members of our team and almost like a Robocop. We're going to send them into a part of the world where it's too dangerous for us to go. And we inserted them originally on a path we knew to be the path that ivory takes out of Garamba National Park on its way north into Sudan. And the ivory had several directions that it could go. It could go east to the ports in Kenya. It could go west to Togo in West Africa, or it could go north, the most dangerous route in Africa where the most terrorist activity is happening. We watched it go from country to country north. And, I mean, it was extremely exciting to watch this idea, this creative idea - could we do it? - march north, avoiding all roads as it moved north towards Sudan.

GROSS: Avoiding all roads, that means it was hand carried.

CHRISTY: Right. So it - as we profiled it, it was moving at about 12 miles a day, which is about what you would move if you were walking, and avoiding all roads, which is consonant with someone who wants to avoid detection and taking a path that was similar to a path a former Lord's Resistance Army poacher had taken.

GROSS: You actually interviewed somebody who had hand carried smuggled ivory. What did he tell you about how it was done?

CHRISTY: Yes. I interviewed a number of ex-soldiers with the Lord's Resistance Army, and they described hand carrying ivory tusks on their shoulders 600 miles through incredibly dense jungle from Garamba National Park into the Central African Republic, into South Sudan, into Sudan, the Darfur region of Sudan, into a little area - a little area by African standards - called the Kafia Kingi enclave. And there, they told me, is where Joseph Kony is today. 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.

GROSS: And were you able to trace your ivory with it - your fake ivory with the GPS hidden in it - you were able to trace that to this enclave where Joseph Kony has been hiding out?

CHRISTY: Yes. Absolutely. Our ivory follows exactly - if you scripted it, it follows exactly what these posters had described.

GROSS: So one of the kind of scary things here is that what you're describing is Joseph Kony's militia, who's smuggling the ivory, is selling it to the Sudanese Army.

CHRISTY: Right, yeah. Yeah so...

GROSS: What does that mean?

CHRISTY: This was an astounding development for us. I mean, this means that the Sudanese government is in the ivory business to the extent that the Sudanese Armed Forces reflect the behavior of the president, Omar al-Bashir. This means that the Sudanese government is trading arms for ivory. And it's important to note that Bashir is the only sitting head of state who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, for war crimes, genocide, for his actions in Darfur. And in the indictment, the prosecutor for the ICC specifically stated that Bashir has control of his military and of the Janjaweed, the rebel militia operating in Darfur. And so the actions by his military and by the Janjaweed can be imputed to Bashir himself. And what we have seen is that the Janjaweed are poaching across Africa. And we have seen with our fake tusks that they are following a pattern that suggests they're being traded by Kony's LRA, by Kony's the Lord's Resistance Army.

GROSS: And you couldn't exactly follow the path that the smuggled ivory was taking because it was being hand carried through jungle basically. But you drove down roads that were relatively safe. You had to detour when there were massacres the day before, but you drove down some roads and did interview some people who had been former child soldiers or had been, you know, adult members of Kony's militia. One of the fascinating things that one of the former child soldiers told you - it was - first of all, he was really confused why you were talking about poaching elephants when there's been so many people killed. And you tried to explain that to him. But he told you that there were basically two groups that the child soldiers were divided into - one for killing people and one for killing elephants. What did you learn about that?

CHRISTY: It was a very difficult - that was the most difficult interview I did over the 18 months of this project. This is a boy who had escaped the Lord's Resistance Army. He had been a boy soldier, and his task, as he described it, was to kill people. And I was doing an elephant story. I was being an ivory trafficking story, and so I had to ask him, ridiculous as it felt, did you see elephants being killed? And he breaks down. And he said - and I can just - I cannot imagine what he was thinking of me - this foreigner has come into my village, and he's asking me about elephants. He's asking me about animals. I killed people. And he buries his head in his hands. And that's the reality we're dealing with here. This is not just an elephant story. It's not even an animal story. This is a human - this is crimes against humanity. And it's being conducted and financed in part by ivory.

GROSS: My guest is Bryan Christy. His article about smuggled ivory is the cover story of the September issue of National Geographic. After we take a short break, we'll talk about how his investigation concluded, and he'll describe his encounters with elephants. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with journalist Bryan Christy. We're talking about his investigation into how African elephants are being massacred for their ivory, which is smuggled by warlords and is financing their operations. Christy tracked ivory smugglers through an ingenious scheme. He commissioned a taxidermist to create fake elephant tusks that had tracking devices implanted within them. Their path led to what is believed to be hiding place of the infamous Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. Christy wrote the cover story for the September edition of National Geographic. It went up on their website today. Let's get back to how he followed the transmissions from the GPS trackers in the fake tusks.

Where did you leave off in your GPS trail following your fake ivory tusks?

CHRISTY: So the last transmission we got was from a town called Ed Daein, which is south of Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. It is a town of about 260,000 people. It has an airport, and the tusks last communicated from there. And they've gone dark in the past, and there are several reasons they could go dark. They could go dark because their batteries died. They could go dark because they have been discovered and destroyed. Interestingly, the tusks have a thermometer in them. And according to the thermometer, they are in a place 1.2 degrees Celsius cooler than the ambient air temperature, which suggests they may be buried or they may be indoors.

GROSS: Oh, and is that typical that smuggled tusks are buried?

CHRISTY: Yes.

GROSS: To hide them.

CHRISTY: Yes, exactly.

GROSS: So in talking about dead spots for the GPS, aren't there just dead spots in the wild, like if you have people trekking through the jungle in Central Africa, I don't imagine the satellite systems are, like, great there or that, like, there's terrific reception or Wi-Fi. So I mean, how can the whole thing isn't a big dead spot for you?

CHRISTY: So one of the most exciting things about this project was coming up with this "Mission Impossible"-like technology.

GROSS: Right (laughter).

CHRISTY: Right, so we went out looking for the best engineer to design the tracking technology. And found a guy in California who designs tracking collars for all sorts of wildlife - for the Andean bear or the Tasmanian devils. He does it all. And he created a system that's satellite-based plus GPS. So it's like having a satellite phone, which is pretty good anywhere in the world. So this - my tusks were calling me twice a day telling me where they were. And the great thing is even if they missed a satellite - wasn't flying overhead - the GPS recorded where they were. So the next time they get a signal, the tusk would tell me where it had been not only where it was at that moment, but where it had been.

GROSS: That's remarkable.

CHRISTY: It was so exciting.

GROSS: So once you knew where the tusks were - once they got through the miles and miles of jungle into the area, the enclave where Kony hides out, you knew the house. You had a picture of it from Google Earth. So what did you feel like your responsibility was after that? Like, you could have probably called in some kind of national or international force since smuggling ivory is illegal. How did you think through what to do at that point?

CHRISTY: We spent a lot of time thinking about that question. And ultimately, we're journalists. And the job is to get this story out. And by telling this story, you know, you hope that the rest of the ecosystem that goes into enforcing the law around the world will take action. That's part one. Part two is that when it comes to Sudan, there is no enforcement body. The Sudanese government is in the ivory business as testified by former soldiers from the Lord's Resistance Army. So there is no law enforcement authority to go to.

GROSS: So you had heard that Kony was hiding out in an enclave called Kafia Kingi, which is controlled by Sudan. And that's where you traced your ivory to, was to that enclave. So how can you know for sure that it's really Kony's people? It's a deduction.

CHRISTY: That's right. We cannot know for sure. We know it's an extremely violent place. We have the testimony of ivory traffickers who have worked for Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army. And we have consistent intelligence that places Kony in that area. But we don't know that Kony's men or that Kony himself handled this ivory.

GROSS: But you are pretty sure that they did?

CHRISTY: It's absolutely consistent with the pattern we learned from ex-LRA soldiers.

GROSS: Since you're assuming that Joseph Kony, the head of the Lord's Resistance Army, is responsible for the ivory smuggling route and the elephant slaughter that you've been tracing, explain to us what his ambition is. We know he's indicted for genocide by the International Criminal Court and war crimes. We know he's forced many children to become child soldiers. He's massacred men. He's massacred women. His people have raped women. What is his goal?

CHRISTY: If you asked him, I think he would answer my goal is to overthrow the Museveni government in Uganda, to put the - my people Acholi people, the people of northern Uganda, in control of the country. That's his - you know, everybody operates under a mythology, and that's his operating mythology that his men say he continues to voice. But the reality is, he's a terrorist, and his product is to exploit communities where he is and sustain himself.

GROSS: He has some kind of extreme vision that's combining native practices from where he grew up with Christianity and - am I right?

CHRISTY: Yeah. He's concocted his own sort of version of religion borne of his childhood as a Catholic altar boy. And he says he's operating according to the 10 Commandments. You know, everybody needs a mythology to justify themselves, and that's his.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bryan Christy. He's an investigative reporter and National Geographic magazine contributor. His investigation into ivory smuggling is the cover story of the September issue of National Geographic magazine. That will be on newsstands August 25, but it's online starting today. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Bryan Christy. He's an investigative reporter and National Geographic magazine contributor. His investigation into ivory smuggling is the cover story of the September issue of National Geographic magazine. It will be on newsstands August 25 but is online starting today. His investigation is also the subject of the film "Warlords Of Ivory," which premieres Sunday August 30 on the National Geographic Channel.

So after the signals on the tusks went dead and went dead for a while - and you assumed maybe they're buried or something - you lost track of what happened to them. But you have some guesses about what's going to happen to them. Where do you think that ivory and your smuggled tusks are likely to end up?

CHRISTY: So everything about the illegal ivory trade points to China. China is the biggest consumer of illegal ivory. It's paying the highest price per kilo for ivory. And so in general, I presume that the ivory wants to get to China. Now, it would be very interesting to find a different result, for it to go to Khartoum and then on to Cairo, for example. I'd be very interested if it went somewhere unexpected like Europe or the United States.

GROSS: Didn't China just commit to phasing out the ivory trade?

CHRISTY: It did. And if it acts on that promise, it will be a tremendous development in ending elephant poaching and illegal ivory trafficking.

GROSS: You actually wrote an article about three years ago on the trafficking in religious carvings made out of ivory, you know, of saints and other religious imagery, both, you know, Buddhist and Christian. And some of that you traced to China, some of it to the Philippines. Knowing that elephants are being slaughtered for the ivory, how did people who - you know, religious people justify killing elephants for religious objects?

CHRISTY: You know, this is one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the illegal ivory trade. When you look at the elephant in Africa, if you have that privilege, it is almost a religious experience for me to see these animals and to see them communicating with each other. And to have an elephant put its trunk on your face and study you with the tip of its trunk is an extraordinary experience. Then to go to the consuming countries where master craftsmen are taking ivory and trying to create world-class art, and you look at these ivory carvings - if you didn't know where they came from, you'd be just as moved. The craftsmanship is extraordinary. And it's the history and the stories they tell - the religious stories and mythological stories that are regularly rendered in ivory - are extraordinary.

But, you know, the scale has beauty on both sides. It's troubling. And what was exciting to me, and I haven't seen enough of, was I thought, you know, if religion is promoting this, if people are doing this to celebrate their religion, then if they're made aware of the cost to humanity, then their religion ought to guide them to stop buying ivory, to stop participating in the smuggling of ivory and the killing of elephants.

GROSS: Do you think that's happening?

CHRISTY: It's not happening enough. I've been surprised - the initial reaction of the Catholic Church in the Philippines, for example, was that a cardinal declared I should be declared persona non grata from the country and banned from the country. Within a few months, the government of the Philippines invited me to speak at their ivory crush. They were the first country in the world to - first consuming country to destroy its ivory stock.

GROSS: Can I ask you about that? Several countries now have done that, including China - is like destroy the ivory stock by crushing it. The elephants are already dead. Crushing the ivory isn't going to bring them back to life. Ivory is beautiful. Once it exists, what do we gain by destroying it?

CHRISTY: I think to answer that question, we need to go back a little bit in history. During the 1970s into the 1980s, elephants were killed - dying at an extraordinary rate. In the '70s, we had about 1.2, 1.3 million elephants in Africa. Within 10 years, that number had been cut in half - 600,000 elephants dead. In 1989, a few countries said we're going to ban ivory; United States was one, Kenya was another. And that year, Kenya's president, Daniel arap Moi, took Kenya's ivory stock, along with Richard Leakey, and set fire to it. And that ivory burn, that destruction ceremony, launched support for an ivory ban around the world. And so today, when countries are destroying their ivory, they are reaching back to that symbolic moment. What they're not doing in most cases is the second part of the equation. Kenya burned its ivory and then worked very hard to pass new laws to ban the ivory trade. Countries today are doing these symbolic acts, but they're not doing - taking the substantive action that goes along with it.

GROSS: President Obama announced new legal changes to help protect endangered wildlife in African nations, and that includes slaughtering elephants and the trade in ivory. What did he announce?

CHRISTY: So President - the Obama administration has been very active on wildlife trade, the most active administration probably since Roosevelt - Teddy Roosevelt. He announced a wildlife trafficking task force, a cabinet-level group to look at international wildlife trafficking. It's a complicated set of announcements, but the basic objective is to ban not only the ivory coming into or out of the United States, but ivory moving across state lines. The federal government is doing everything within its power to ban ivory. It can't control ivory within a state - ivory sales - but it is banning ivory between states, to the extent it can.

GROSS: So today's World Elephant Day. It's a symbolic statement. Do you think something like that is helpful?

CHRISTY: A few years ago, I would not think something like that is helpful. But I've seen the power of spreading this story. The power of people coming together and telling this story has been extraordinary to me. I mean, the idea that China would crush ivory, destroy ivory is astounding given that just a few years ago, it purchased 60 tons of ivory from Africa. And it was that purchase that unleashed the notion that ivory's on the market again. Let's smuggle it. That action and China's recent commitment to phase out its domestic ivory market - those actions are only taking place because people have spread that story. And things like the marches that happen on World Elephant Day, it's physically spreading that story.

GROSS: So with a big market like China hopefully drying up, how does that affect the terrorist trade that you're investigating in the first place?

CHRISTY: 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 the market could be a game-changer.

GROSS: We've been focusing on terrorist groups. Let's talk a little bit about elephants.

CHRISTY: OK.

GROSS: How much contact have you had with either watching or being really close to elephants? You've spent a lot of time in Africa. You've been writing about the illegal ivory trade for several years.

CHRISTY: My specialty is as a criminal investigator, and when I first started, I said look - to my whole team - look, we've been too focused as a country and as journalists on the animals. We keep telling these sympathetic stories, and you're missing the main story. These are crime stories. So I told my team, look, anytime you want to say the word ivory or elephant, you say the word cocaine. And if you do that, you're going to start thinking of these stories the right way, and we're going to go after these villains the right way. And because of that, I didn't want to spend any time with elephants. I was a follow-the-money, go-after-the-bad-guy kind of writer. And a colleague said to me, Bryan, you've got to go to Africa and spend time with elephants.

And I took that advice, and it was a life-changing experience for me. You see elephants operating as a community, and it changes you. You look an elephant in the eye and see that this is a sentient animal. And you read the papers and watch the programs and learn about how they communicate for long distances, how an elephant truly does never forget, how the matriarch runs the family, how they can remember paths to water decades later. And so killing a very senior elephant removes that intelligence from the community, dooming, potentially, generations of elephants. I mean, I've given years of my life now to this, and these are victims that have no voice.

GROSS: Well, congratulations on your story in National Geographic. It's pretty amazing work, and thank you so much for talking with us.

CHRISTY: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Bryan Christy's investigation into ivory smuggling is the cover story of the September issue of National Geographic, which hits newsstands August 25. His companion documentary will be shown on the National Geographic Channel August 30. We have a slideshow of photos from his article on our website - freshair.npr.org. Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews Iris DeMent's new album on which she sets to music poems by the Russian writer Anna Akhmatova. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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