The Truth Behind Tusks: Exposing the Ivory Smuggling Route

Each year, nearly 30,000 elephants die from poaching, usually hunted solely for their tusks. As the demand for ivory has grown, the size of tusks has diminished as the ‘big tusk gene’ has become less common, and many elephants are killed before they are mature enough to display the long tusks that were once relatively common.

Who is responsible for this rampant killing? Where do these elephant tusks end up?


Founder of the Special Investigations Unit for National Geographic, Brian Christy, embarked on a mission to answer these questions. Additionally, he wanted to uncover the routes they travel en route to their final destination. How did he plan to infiltrate a dangerous trade that operates in secrecy? By creating two artificial tusks embedded with satellite-based GPS tracking systems. To do so, he enlisted the help of renowned taxidermist, George Dante.

“In the criminal world, ivory acts as currency, so in a way, I’m asking Dante to print counterfeit money that I can follow.”

Christy focused his efforts on the Garamba National Park, located within the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Africa, where efforts to protect the elephants has become incredibly dangerous. The Lord’s Resistance Army, a terrorist organization led by Joseph Kony, is the primary source of that danger. Kony, who was indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity but has avoided apprehension, has ordered his minions to raid villages; mutilating and killing their inhabitants, kidnapping children and turning them into child soldiers, and turning women into sex slaves. The terrorist organization uses poached ivory to fund their movement by trading it for medicine, firearms, and ammunition.

“You’re not just there to protect the land and animals, but increasingly, you’re there to protect the people around the park.” –Brian Stinton, National Geographic photographer.

Tusks in tow, Christy made his way to Tanzania. Despite flying with documentation from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the tusks proved to appear realistic enough to fool the airport’s wildlife expert, and he and his team were detained for possessing them. After spending a night at a detention center waiting for Tanzania’s Wildlife Division and the U.S. embassy to arrive, they were released and set out to meet up with an anti-poaching patrol unit in Garamba. The group then journeyed eight hours, on foot, through tall elephant grass potentially hosting Kony’s foot soldiers.


The dangerous trek took the team to M’Boki, between Garamba and Sudan, where they planted the artificial tusks in the village’s black market. Once planted, the GPS trackers depicted movement along the eastern corner of the Central African Republic (CAR), where they travelled 12 miles along the border of Sudan to the Kafia King cave in South Sudan, a well known hideout of Kony’s. After spending a few days in the cave, the tusks moved onto Songo, a market town in Sudan, where Kony’s men are known to trade ivory. The tusks sat still for three days before they returned to Kafia King. They remained in the cave for three weeks before returning to Sudan, then heading towards Khartoum — Sudan’s second largest city. Five hundred miles southwest of the city, they sent out their final transmission before the publication of Christy’s article, “How Killing Elephants Finances Terror in Africa”.

Elephant 2

It is presently unknown whether the tusks will ultimately travel the remaining distance to Khartoum or make their way to China, the world’s largest consumer of illegal ivory. However, despite not arriving at their final destination prior to the publication of Christy’s article, he was able to gain confirmation of the theorized movements of ivory poached in Garamba, and possibly shed some light on the whereabouts of Joseph Kony.


L.D. and her eleven-year-old lab, Eleanor Rigby Fitzgerald, moved from Seattle to Grand Rapids earlier this year, and are currently enjoying exploring their new city! She likes books, music, movies, running, and being outdoors as much as possible.

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