Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Plundered and Endangered

"I will use (Dante's) tusks to hunt the people who kill elephants to learn what roads their ivory plunder follows, which ports it leaves, what ships it travels on, what cities and countries it transits, and where it ends up."
"Will artificial tusks planted in a central African country head east or west toward a coast with reliable transportation to Asian markets? Will they go north, the most violent ivory path on the African continent? Or will they go nowhere, discovered before they're moved and turned in by an honest person'?"
Bryan Christy, National Geographic investigative reporter
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
Each pair of tusks represents one dead elephant ... Quartz, Africa

Those are the questions that Bryan Christy, a lawyer who turned to the journalism profession, recognized recently as National Geographic's Explorer of the Year, asked himself. He ended up having a far better idea, after his journey with a pair of credibly fake elephant tusks, understanding the nexus between illegal ivory poaching, the demand from Asian sources for ivory despite elephant ivory's protected status, and one of Africa's most perniciously vicious criminal enterprises.

Bryan Christy concocted a trial, planning on planting fake elephant tusks embedded with tracking devices, to determine who might take them and where they might be taken to, to get a more complete and reliable picture of routes taken by smugglers dedicated to filling orders by clients as unscrupulous as they are, undeterred by the reality that intelligent creatures whose welfare is a concern for the international community are being slaughtered at an unsustainable rate to satisfy an illegal trade.

Mr. Christy enlisted the aid of taxidermist George Dante for the creation of fake elephant tusks which had to be sufficiently convincing to pass the scrutiny of experienced poachers. Then he turned to Quintin Kermeen, an animal tracker, to help conceal tracking devices within the fake tusks. And then, he set out with the tusks carried in a suitcase, taken with him on a trip to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. At the airport an official thought something suspicious appeared on an X-ray machine and ordered the suitcase opened.

Producing a letter of explanation meant to certify the artificial nature of the tusks, he was met with skepticism and ended up arrested, his belongings confiscated. "I unzip my suitcase to expose two fake tusks and hand him [official in Tanzania] letters from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Geographic certifying that they're artificial."
"A crowd gathers. Officials are pointing fingers and arguing. Those looking at the tusks think I'm an ivory trafficker. Those looking at the X-ray screen, which shows the trackers inside, think I'm smuggling a bomb. After more than an hour of animated debate, they phone the airport's wildlife expert. When he shows up, he picks up a tusk and runs his finger over the butt end. 'Schreger lines', he says. Exactly, I say, 'I had them' ..."
"He points a finger at me, and yells, 'You are a liar, b'wana!' In ten years he's never made a mistake, he says: The tusks are real. I spend a night in police custody, where I'm given a desk to sleep on. National Geographic television producer J.J. Kelley takes the floor in the waiting area. He asks for water for me and is led out of the building. When he returns hours later, he has three chicken dinners and several bottles of beer, paid for by the police chief. The three of us eat together (the police chief, a Muslim, leaves the beer to us). In the morning, after officials from Tanzania's Wildlife Division and  the U.S. Embassy arrive, I'm released."

The Tanzanian officers waved him off at the airport, and he congratulated them for doing precisely what their positions as wildlife defender-conservationists mandated that they do, in holding him in suspicion  until they were certain that he was not a smuggler. Mr. Christie did manage to plant his artificial tusks on the black market in the Central African Republic at a small village along the major ivory route that smugglers are known to use, from the Garamba National Park to the Democratic Republic of Congo, to Sudan.

As he anticipated, the tusks were taken up and ferried north along the prior-identified route, from central Africa to Darfur where the civil war continues to rage. "My artificial tusks sit motionless for several weeks, a pair of tear-shaped blue dots on my computer screen, which displays a digital map of the eastern corner of Central African Republic. Then, like a bobber in a fishing hole, a nibble. They shift a few kilometres. Suddenly they move steadily north, about 15 kilometres a day along the border with South Sudan, avoiding all roads. On the 15th day after they began to move, they cross into South Sudan and from there make their way into the Kafia Kingi enclave, a disputed territory in Darfur controlled by Sudan."

Mr. Christie had heard from the grapevine, including from direct witnesses, among them Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) defectors, that terrorist chief Joseph Kony and the LRA see huge value in elephant poaching since the proceeds they realize go a long way to financing their reign of terror as they cross national borders across Africa to kill, to rape and to kidnap defenceless villagers, including among them children who are forced to join their parties, the girls as sex slaves, the boys as nascent fighters-in-training.

Kony's own hunting parties are known to have slaughtered elephants in national parks like Garamba, according to investigators that Mr. Christy interviewed. The LRA trades the ivory to the Sudanese Armed Forces and receives in exchange, weapons and ammunition. "So far, they've [his artificial tusks] travelled 965 kilometres from jungle to desert in just under two months. Their path is consistent with the route Kony's defectors tell me ivory takes on the way to the warlord's Kafia Kingi base" [in Darfur]. They're in a place 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the ambient temperature. So perhaps they've been buried in the backyard."

Imperiled survivors: A herd migrates across Chad, once home to tens of thousands of elephants. After a surge in poaching, only about 1,000 remain. (Kate Brooks)

"Ivory operates as a savings account for Kony" remarked Marty Regan, with the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Conflict & Stabilization Operations, in a conversation with Bryan Christy.

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