Smuggling valuables across the jungles of Africa sounds like the stuff of an adventure movie, but the reality is deeply troubling. An investigative journalist recently used modern GPS technology to shed light on this age-old practice.

Ivory is a valuable commodity that has been used since ancient times in both manufacturing and art. While it can be obtained from animals such as walruses and hippos, elephants are the most important source. The quest for ivory has been a major factor behind declining elephant populations in many African and Asian countries, with more than 30,000 elephants slaughtered annually.

The illegal competition for ivory takes a significant human toll as well. In 2013, more than 1,000 park rangers were killed as they attempted to protect elephants from brutal poachers. These criminals use AK-47s, poison and any other means at their disposal to slaughter defenseless elephants.

China is the biggest customer for illegal ivory, and while the government has made efforts to send a stern anti-poaching message, its actions have had little effect. After sources in China purchased 60 tons of ivory from Africa a few years ago, poachers stepped up their activities to meet what was seen as a renewed market.

Journalist Bryan Christy set out to bring elements of this murky practice to light by discovering the smuggling route. He enlisted a taxidermist to make a pair of fake ivory tusks that were then equipped with GPS tracking devices. As Christy put it, “These tusks… operate really like additional investigators, as members of our team.”

Using the GPS signals, Christy and his team tracked the fake tusks as they left Garamba National Park in the Congo and headed to Sudan, where much of it ended up in that country’s Darfur region before moving on to China. Christy relates his experience in the cover feature of the September issue of National Geographic, and his work is also shown in the documentary “Warlords of Ivory,” being aired by the National Geographic Channel.

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