Using GPS tracking devices, a journalist has mapped the smuggling route of elephant tusks out of Congo’s Garamba National Park. The devices, installed into a pair of fake ivory tusks, helped investigative journalist Bryan Christy track the ivory from Garamba through Sudan. “These tusks… operate really like additional investigators, like members of our team, and almost like a robocop,” Christy told Terry Gross in an interview on NPR.

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More than 30,000 African elephants are killed every year by poachers, usually for their valuable ivory tusks. The tusks are often traded in Sudan’s Darfur region for weapons or medicine, but ultimately, according to Christy, the ivory ends up in China. “Just a few years ago [China] purchased 60 tons of ivory from Africa, and it was that purchase that unleashed the notion that ivory is on the market again,” he told Gross.

Related: Can cameras embedded in rhino horns catch poachers?

China is the world’s biggest market for trafficked ivory, but this may be about to change. Recently, the Chinese government announced plans to phase out the legal, domestic ivory trade. Cutting demand for ivory in China is seen as an essential step in reducing the loss of Africa’s elephants to poaching. In his interview with Gross, Christy said “If China gets out of the ivory game it will collapse economically the price for ivory… Taking China out of that market could be game-changer.” The Chinese government has not yet announced a timeline for the ban.

Christy’s article about tracking the tusks is the cover story of National Geographic Magazine’s September 2015 issue.


Lead image via Benh LIEU SONG, seized ivory image via USFWS Mountain-Prairie, tusk image via Jastrow