National Geographic Journalist Employs IoT to Investigate Poaching

The magazine reporter teamed with technologists, African park rangers and former poachers to slip artificial tusks armed with tracking devices into the ivory supply chain.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Aug 13, 2015

As far as illicit enterprises go, wildlife poaching is a big business. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the market for trafficking illegal wildlife is $8 to $10 billion annually. If you've been following the news, you likely know that the poaching of elephants for their tusks has become a major epidemic in Africa, with 30,000 elephants poached each year. Tanzania has lost 60 percent of its elephant population to poaching rings during the past five years, according to the September cover story of National Geographic magazine.

Investigative reporter Bryan Christy spent 18 months working on the story and collaborating with technologists and wildlife experts in order to do something that is as dangerous as it is innovative. The reporter introduced two fake elephant tusks, each containing a customized tracking device, into the illicit ivory supply chain in the Central African Republic. Then, using Google Earth, he watched them move.

Christy contracted Quintin Kermeen, whose California-based company Telemetry Solutions creates customized GPS trackers for all sorts of wildlife, from bats to pumas to grouse. In the National Geographic story, Christy wrote: "After months of tinkering, Kermeen's final bespoke ivory-tracking device arrives in the mail. It consists of a battery capable of lasting more than a year, a GPS receiver, an Iridium satellite transceiver, and a temperature sensor."

An expert taxidermist had spent many months developing a cast, materials and a finishing process for an imitation tusk. He had to make the two tusks good enough to pass muster with poachers—and, as it turns out, they even fooled security agents at a Tanzanian airport, where Christy was temporarily held. Embedded in each of the two tusks he produced is one of Kermeen's tracking devices.

Christy and his team traveled to the Central African Republic and introduced the fake tusks into the black market in a village called Mboki, a known stop for ivory shipments from elephants killed in Garamba National Park, where poachers—many of whom work for Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) or the Janjaweed militia, based in Darfur—have been gradually exterminating elephants. Christy cites a number of sources reporting that the groups sell the ivory in exchange for arms. One source whom Christy interviewed, a former member of the Lord's Resistance Army, said the LRA sells the ivory to the Sudan Armed Forces, making that country and its president, Omar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir, key figures in the poaching ring.

At the time of the story's publication (it went live online on Wednesday, August 11, which is World Elephant Day), the artificial tusks had traveled 600 miles, mostly moving slowly and far from roads, implying they were carried by hand for much of the journey. The satellite detected them in Songo, a Sudanese town known as an LRA ivory trading post, and then to Kony's assumed hideout. Their last known stop was in the opposite end of the country, in the Sudanese town of Ed Daein. "I know which house they're in: Using Google Earth, I see its light-blue roof on my screen," Christy wrote. "They're in a place 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the ambient temperature, so perhaps they've been buried in the backyard."

Christy noted that the path the tusks have taken is "consistent with the route Kony's defectors tell me ivory takes" as it makes its way to market. Perhaps, he wrote, the ivory will now move to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, where ivory shops advertise in English, Chinese and Arabic. Or maybe the tusks will land in China, the single biggest market for illegal ivory.

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