Editor’s Note
September 2015
Tracking Illegal Traders

It was one of those audacious ideas that had a touch of the crazy: Hunt the elephant hunters.

Picture of a former LRA child conscript who led U.S. and Ugandan forces to a cache of illegally poached ivory
Photo: Brent Stirton
Trade in ivory helps bankroll the Lord’s Resistance Army, infamous for killings and abductions in east and central Africa. Former LRA child conscript Michael Oryem says he helped poach and hide ivory: Once he escaped, he led U.S. and Ugandan forces to a cache.

First build a fake tusk, one that looked so good it could fool the experts—in this case, poachers. Then hide a GPS device inside it. Finally, track that signal by satellite, and map the trail of the bad guys. Best-case results: Expose the workings of the illegal ivory trade, which from 2009 to 2012 led to the slaughter of 100,000 African elephants. This barbarous racket also exacts a devastating human toll, from looted villages and kidnapped children to raped women and dead park rangers.

That’s what inspired the National Geographic investigation reported in this issue, the first in a series we’ll feature in the magazine and at nationalgeographic.com. The stories come from our Special Investigations Unit, which is the brainchild of Bryan Christy, National Geographic’s 2014 Explorer of the Year and a passionate warrior against wildlife crime.

“To protect wildlife and stop criminals, people first have to know the stories,” Christy says. “I don’t want anyone to be able to say, ‘There’s nothing I could have done,’ or ‘I didn’t know.’”

Start by knowing this: the thriving, global illegal wildlife trade—including sales of endangered species and products made from them—is worth billions of dollars annually. The trade not only kills elephants, turtles, crocodiles, and other animals. It also brings big bucks to smugglers, crime syndicates, and terrorists. In a 2013 executive order aimed at combating wildlife crime, President Barack Obama called the surge in poaching and trafficking an “international crisis” that is “fueling instability and undermining security.”

On this topic, Christy’s zeal—and that of photographer Brent Stirton, whose moving work is highlighted here—is shared across the National Geographic Society. Protecting wildlife is a top priority for this organization.

I like how Christy put it: “I hate an unfair fight,” he says. “And the battle to protect endangered species from commercial exploitation is the unfairest fight I know.

Warlords of Ivory, the premiere episode of National Geographic’s EXPLORER series, will air on August 30 at 8 p.m. on the National Geographic Channel. The film will feature the work of the Special Investigations Unit, which is made possible by contributions from individuals and institutions. Find out how you can support this mission at donate.ngs.org/HelpSIU

Susan Goldberg, Editor in Chief

blog comments powered by Disqus