CRF Blog

Tracking Ivory

by Bill Hayes

In Tracking Ivory for National Geographic, Bryan Christy looks at the illegal trade in ivory and how it helps finance terrorism.

[T]he African elephant is under siege. 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.

East Africa is now ground zero for much of the poaching. In June the Tanzanian government announced that the country has lost 60 percent of its elephants in the past five years, down from 110,000 to fewer than 44,000. During the same period, neighboring Mozambique is reported to have lost 48 percent of its elephants. Locals, including poor villagers and unpaid park rangers, are killing elephants for cash — a risk they’re willing to take because even if they’re caught, the penalties are often negligible. But 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.

South Sudan. The Central African Republic (CAR). The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Sudan. Chad. Five of the world’s least stable nations, as ranked by the Washington, D.C.-based organization the Fund for Peace, are home to people who travel to other countries to kill elephants. Year after year, the path to many of the biggest, most horrific elephant killings traces back to Sudan, which has no elephants left but gives comfort to foreign-born poacher-terrorists and is home to the janjaweed and other Sudanese cross-continental marauders.

Park rangers are often the only forces going up against the killers. Outnumbered and ill equipped, they’re manning the front line in a violent battle that affects us all.

Garamba National Park, in the northeast corner of the DRC and on the border with South Sudan, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, internationally famous for its elephants and its boundless ocean of green. But when I ask a gathering of children and elders in the village of Kpaika, about 30 miles from the park’s western border, how many of them have visited Garamba, no one raises a hand. When I ask, “How many of you have been kidnapped by the LRA?” — I understand why.

Father Ernest Sugule, who ministers to the village, tells me that many children in his diocese have seen family members killed by the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, the Ugandan rebel group led by Joseph Kony, one of Africa’s most wanted terrorists. Sugule is the founder of a group that provides assistance to victims of Kony’s army. “I’ve met more than a thousand children who have been abducted,” he says as we talk inside his church in the nearby town of Dungu. “When they’re abducted, they’re very young, and they’re forced to do horrible things. Most of these children are very, very traumatized when they come back home.” They have nightmares, Sugule continues. They have flashbacks. Their own families are afraid that they’re devils, or forever soldiers, who might kill them in the night. It is assumed that the girls were raped, so it’s difficult for them to find husbands. Villagers sometimes taunt returned children with the same expression used for Kony’s men: “LRA Tongo Tongo.” “LRA Cut Cut” — a reference, Sugule explains, to the militants’ vicious use of machetes. [more]