It was the moment that many journalists fear most: getting arrested in a foreign country. But Bryan Christy wasn’t too upset by his predicament.
He had created it, after all.
Christy, an investigative reporter for National Geographic, was traveling through Dar es Salaam’s international airport in Tanzania recently when officials spotted something strange during an X-ray scan of his luggage.
“Open that one,” an official ordered.
Inside his suitcase, they found what appeared to be a pair of elephant tusks worth thousands of dollars on the black market.
Christy was arrested. He spent a night sleeping on a desk at the airport before American diplomats convinced local officials that the journalist’s seemingly insane story was true.
The supposed elephant tusks were actually elaborate replicas equipped with GPS trackers inside of them.
And instead of being an ivory smuggler, Christy was exactly the opposite: a man on a mission to track down poachers and expose their practices.
Christy’s quest, described in a National Geographic cover story, is a remarkable tale of smuggling and civil war, international fugitives and elephants.
Like the recent uproar over the killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe, Christy’s investigation pulls back the veil on the poaching industry.
But unlike Cecil’s death at the hands of a trophy-hunting American dentist, Christy’s ivory exposé reveals the nexus between animal slaughter and Africa’s most intractable conflicts, including the decades-long campaign of terror sowed by terrorist Joseph Kony.
Christy’s smuggling saga is essentially a whodunnit set in the tall grasses and trade outposts of central Africa. It began with Christy, a lawyer turned journalist who was recently named National Geographic’s Explorer of the Year, approaching renowned taxidermist George Dante with an unprecedented request: to create fake elephant tusks so convincing that the most discerning of smugglers can’t tell the difference.
Christy then enlisted the help of animal tracker Quintin Kermeen to hide tracking devices inside the fake tusks. (“I’m not an animal lover,” Kermeen told Christy. “I’m a problem solver.”)
“I will use [Dante’s] tusks to hunt the people who kill elephants and 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,” Christy wrote. “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?”
Christy interviewed park rangers, soldiers and vigilantes as they tried to track down the armed groups responsible for much of the elephant poaching, including Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
Although he spent time with park rangers as they stalked the LRA, Christy let his fake tusks do most of the traveling.
“These tusks . . . operate really like additional investigators, like members of our team, and almost like a RoboCop,” Christy told the NPR program Fresh Air. “We’re going to send them into a part of the world where it’s too dangerous for us to go,” he said in the interview.
First, he took his tusks to Tanzania, where officials mistakenly thought he was a smuggler. The airport’s wildlife expert shows up, Christy writes, “picks up a tusk and runs his finger over the butt end,” points a finger at Christy and “yells, “You are a liar, bwana!” (“Bwana” is Swahili for “sir.”)
Christy spent a night in police custody. But by morning, he writes, he was released after Tanzanian wildlife officials and officials from the U.S. Embassy arrived.
Christy writes that his arrest was, in a way, “reassuring” since Tanzania suffers from rampant elephant poaching.
Through a confidential source, Christy eventually planted his fake tusks on the black market in a small village in the Central African Republic, along the main ivory smuggling route running from the Garamba National Park in Congo to Sudan.
Sure enough, Christy’s fake tusks ended up being carried north along the route, from wildlife-rich central Africa to civil-war torn Darfur.
“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,” he told Fresh Air. ” . . . 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.”
The tusks went nowhere for several weeks. But “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,” he writes.
His digital detective work backed up what he heard from witnesses, including LRA defectors: Kony and the LRA use elephant poaching to finance their international reign of terror, crossing porous borders to kill, rape and kidnap defenseless villagers.
Kony’s hunting parties have slaughtered scores of elephants in national parks like Garamba, Christy’s investigation found. Then the LRA traded the ivory to the Sudan Armed Forces in exchange for weapons and ammunition.
At times, Kony’s men would hide ivory underground or in rivers, Christy found.
“Ivory operates as a savings account for Kony,” Marty Regan of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations told Christy.
Ultimately, the journalist tracked his ersatz ivory to a Sudanese town called Ed Daein. He even knew which blue-roofed house they were in.
“So far they’ve traveled 600 miles from jungle to desert in just under two months,” he wrote. “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,” he added, “so perhaps they’ve been buried in the backyard.”
(“Bryan Christy’s investigation will be featured in “Explorer: Warlords of Ivory,” premiering Aug. 30 at 8/7 central on National Geographic Channel.)