Situated in the extreme north-east corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo, along the border with Sudan, the 2000 square mile Garamba National Park is home to the largest known population of the African White Rhinoceros.
There is another unique feature of Garamba – it once boasted an impressive concentration of African elephants. Early western trophy hunters of the 1920s and 30s reported herds that stretched from horizon to horizon, sometimes totally more than 5000, meandering along, from watering hole to watering hole, unperturbed. A census taken during that period estimated 100,000 elephants in Garamba alone. You couldn’t walk anywhere without stepping on elephant turd.
Unfortunately all that changed in the 1960s, as the nations of central Africa gained their independence and everything suddenly was up for sale, the most sought-after of them all – ivory.
Although there are many sources of ivory – walruses, rhinoceros, narwhals – elephant ivory has always been the most sought after because of its soft texture and it’s lack of a tough outer coating of enamel.
But what is it about ivory that makes it so precious? Ivory is often compared to diamonds, which like ivory, have little inherent value but incomparable social significance. But while diamonds, as a precious cultural commodity, were essentially a 20th century demand creation by a hegemonistic corporate entity called DeBeers, ivory has been treasured through the ages. Statuettes carved from ivory, dating back to 6000 BC, have been found, in China’s Zhenjiang province.
But ivory wasn’t prized solely for its aesthetic value. It has certain unique properties – durability being one. It won’t tarnish or rust, change shape or integrity with time. It can be carved with ease and doesn’t chip or splinter while being worked upon. Archaeologists have recovered varieties of practical day-to-day articles made out of ivory – buttons, hairpins, chopsticks, spear tips, bow tips, needles, combs, buckles, handles, balls and so on. In more modern times, until recently, the famed piano-maker, Steinway, made pianos with ivory keys, until it was pressured to discontinue the practice in 1982.
Today we make all those items out of plastic, but ivory was the plastic of the pre-20th century world. For some of these items (like piano keys) there really was no comparable alternative until very recently. In the 1980s Yamaha developed Ivorite, made from casein (a milk protein) and an inorganic hardening compound, which had the moisture-absorbing quality of ivory and greater durability. In 1993 a team (funded by Steinway) created and patented an unusual polymer – RPlvory – that very closely duplicated the microscopically random peaks and valleys that are found on the surface of real ivory. Known as Schreger lines – these surface ridges allow pianists’ fingers to stick or slip at will.
Since the early 1990s, the worldwide demand for ivory has quadrupled. They say, it is because the main consumers – the ordinary middle-class Chinese – have grown prosperous and are now able to afford it.
That demand however has transformed the simple crime story of the poaching of elephants as a wildlife conservation issue to a child-abuse and terrorism story that is threatening to tear apart the peace and security of an entire Europe-sized region in Africa.
Poachers have grown more indiscriminate, killing even baby elephants, when they don’t even have tusks. Today, elephants are made to die in the most horrific ways – using AK47s to shred their knee caps and then chopping off their tusks while they are still alive, poisoning their waterholes, using poisoned arrows and spears, or digging big pits with poisoned spears at the bottom. Recently the carcass of an elephant was discovered in a pit it must have got stuck in. The pit had been made just wide enough at the top for the elephant to drop into and then narrowed down like an hourglass so it got caught and suffocated.
African elephant poaching today has been transformed into a well-organized supply chain management scenario that uses professionals to look after the slaughter and then the logistics in just the same way that a modern multinational corporation works. Likewise, to ensure profitability, the numbers are necessary – annually on an average more than 36000 African elephants die to feed this supply chain.
Today there are just 2000 elephants left in Garamba National Park – 2% of the number in 1930.
And the bad guys, who are they? That’s an easy one – in most part, they are the governments and leaders of the nations which those elephants call their home. Omar al-Bashir, President of Sudan, indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), for the mass slaughter, rape, and pillage against civilians in Sudan’s Darfur region, is a prime example. His soldiers are the biggest buyers of the ivory, which they exchange with the poachers for arms and medicines.
A particular segment of the Sudanese Army, the Janjaweed Militia, is known to be among the main traffickers of ivory in central and eastern Africa. While they are the middle men, the real poachers are an even more diabolical entity, known as the Lord’s Resistance Army(LRA), a cult-like Ugandan rebel group infamous for it’s indiscriminate killing and rape of whole villages and abducting children and turning them into child soldiers.
The LRA’s leader, a charismatic but diabolical piece of work named Joseph Kony, who is today synonymous with rape, sex slaves, child abuse and voodoo-like Christian fundamentalism that aims to rule Uganda by the Ten Commandments. Ensconced in an enclave called Kafia Kingi in southern Sudan where he enjoys the protection of Omar al-Bashir’s government, Kony moves around with impunity, pretty much like Hafeez Saeed of the Lashkar-e-Toiba in Pakistan. And just as the west has designated Saeed a terrorist and pretty much left him alone, so has it branded Kony a terrorist and then allowed him to come and go as he pleases.
It is not as if the LRA’s Kafia Kingi headquarters are unknown. The Americans have sufficient aerial surveillance assets in the form of armed MQ-9 Reaper drones that have the capability to blast Kafia Kingi out of existence. The truth is that in the absence of business opportunities such as large-scale conflicts, the west needs the Hafeez Saeeds and the Joseph Konys of the world.
Last year, a private citizen, armed with only a determined resolve, discovered Joseph Kony’s hideout to within meters. His path-breaking effort, chronicled in the National Geographic Magazine’s September 2015 issue, was initially aimed at documenting the organized crime angle in the illegal ivory trade. He hoped to understand the people and the route, from the poaching to the middle men, to the docks and the warehouses and from there to the ships, finally ending up in store chains in Zhinjiang or Beijing or Shanghai.
Meet Bryan Christy, American explorer and contributor to the National Geographic Magazine and the director of it’s special investigations unit.
What Christy hadn’t expected was that his investigation would reveal a far bigger and infinitely more diabolical world – of terrorism, illegal arms trade, child trafficking, sex slavery and child soldiers. He had single-handedly unearthed the Satan’s own headquarters on earth.
Christy and his team wanted to take the fight to the enemy. They had one of the world’s leading taxidermists create two fake tusks with GPS-equipped trackers installed within them. They had to be so close to the real thing that experienced ivory handlers would be fooled.
He needed tusks that if he handed them to folks in the ivory smuggling business, they would take the tusks from his hands and believe they were real. The tusks had to be the right weight and even make the right sound when tapped on. Ivory has a particular hollow ringing sound when you knock against it with something hard. Ivory is actually a tooth. It has to have that sheen that a tooth pulled from your mouth would have. It has to have, like rings on a tree, those Schreger lines, referred to earlier in this piece.
In the end, the tusks were so authentic that Christy was temporarily detained at Dar-Es-Salam’s Julius Nyerere International Airport, when they were discovered in his luggage. Once released (with the intervention of the US Embassy), he had the tusks carried to a spot inside the Garamba National Park, which was known to be a transit point for tusks. They were left there and eventually entered the supply chain, unnoticed.
From Garamba, the tusks travelled through central Africa until they finally ended up in Joseph Kony’s Kafia Kingi enclave. The latter details and the personnel and locations have not been revealed because of the criminal investigations that have been triggered by Christy’s revelations.
Joseph Kony however is still alive and well. So far.
Bryan Christy’s investigation into ivory smuggling is the mesmerising cover story of the September 2015 issue of National Geographic Magazine, one that I found an amazing read and hopefully you will too.
The link is : Tracking Ivory.
I’ll leave you with this account of an interview that Christy had with a former member of Joseph Kony’s LRA. He says that the lRA has two wings – one for killing people and the other for killing elephants. The guy he interviewed was a former child soldier from the people-killing faction…..
It 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 ivory trafficking story.
So I had to ask him, ridiculous as it felt, ‘Did you see elephants being killed?’
And he breaks down. 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.
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 story – this is crimes against humanity story.
And it is being conducted and financed in part by ivory.