The brutal slaughter of African elephants is one of the world’s most sickening scandals.
More than 30,000 noble creatures are butchered each year so their tusks can be smuggled into an illegal ivory network mostly fuelled by demand from China.
Now a new investigation has found evidence that Islamist extremists including Boko Haram and Islamic State are using blood money from ivory poaching to fund their terror campaigns.
Elephants are now killed in military operations using helicopters and AK-47s instead of spears.
Their tusks are sold for £10,000 each and made into Chinese ornaments and jewellery.
This £4.5billion trade buys bullets and bombs for a terror network that also includesal-Shabaab , the Lord’s Resistance Army and the rogue government of Sudan.
The full horror is exposed in a documentary called Warlords Of Ivory on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday night.
Investigator Bryan Christy said: “Ivory is directly funding the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) , Janjaweed, Sudanese Armed Forces, the FDLR in the Congo, and Seleka.
“The LRA want to expand links with Boko Haram and Boko Haram has pledged allegiance to IS.
“This isn’t a business – it’s a war. Genocide and the massacre of elephants are part of the same problem.”
Bryan’s team spent two years on the probe, helped by a pair of custom-made fake tusks fitted with a GPS tracker (see below). These were secretly smuggled into the poachers’ supply chain.
A satellite signal tracked them from the tiny village of Mboki in the Central African Republic, 300 miles north to Kafia Kingi then through several extremist camps as soldiers carried them through dense and impenetrable jungle.
This war-torn region is the stronghold of psychotic warlord Joseph Kony’s LRA, which has massacred tens of thousands of people in a 30-year reign of terror.
He has kidnapped 66,000 children to become soldiers or sex slaves. His poachers work with genocide squads that attack entire villages, leaving the bones of elephants and people strewn together.
Bryan said: “Poaching is now happening on a level never seen before. It is organised, mechanised, militarised slaughter.
“They are killing elephants in every imaginable way…. flying in on helicopters and shooting elephants through the top of the head… cutting them off at the knees with AK-47s.”
Kony, 54, was indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague in 2005. But he stays on the move to evade capture.
However, the tracker signal in the tusks pinpointed his camp near the town of Songo, the most accurate location for years. Michael Onen, a radio operator kidnapped and forced to work for Kony in 1998, recalls hearing updates on elephant killings over the airwaves.
Onen, who fled from the terrorists after 15 years when they killed his wife and daughter, says: “It’s all planned by Kony. They kill everything. They sell the ivory to North Sudanese soldiers and buy arms. The rest of the money is to abduct and train new recruits.”
The fake tusks were at Kony’s camp for three weeks, then they moved another 300 miles east into Sudan. There are no independent ivory traders there – just the government and its soldiers.
Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir is also wanted for crimes against humanity and genocide. His nomadic Janjaweed soldiers, known as “devils on horseback”, systematically murdered half a million people in the Darfur region of west Sudan and forced another 2.8million to flee their homes.
Bryan said: “Darfur is a poaching superstate. It is home to killers who travel outside the country to kill elephants and people.”
Ivory brings in enough cash to ensure the terrorists can afford an endless supply of weapons. They even use ivory as “savings”, burying huge stashes of it to sell later.
Earlier this year four tons of ivory worth £3.25million were found hidden in a shipping container in Togo. This included the tusks of more than 400 elephants. The smallest, no bigger than kitchen knives, were from a baby elephant killed alongside its mother.
“When you see those tiny tusks, the cruelty and the futility of the ivory trade really hits home,” said Bryan. “They are wiping out future generations of elephants for such a tiny return. But until now the criminal investigation into the ivory trade has been pathetic. We didn’t even know the names of any major traffickers.”
The mission to smuggle fake ivory into the supply chain was so dangerous that Bryan and his team were escorted by a dozen armed rangers. Even that did not guarantee their safety. In Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo they were targeted by a terror squad of poachers.
Bryan said: “We were in the dead centre of nowhere when the chief warden got a text message on his satellite phone. He shrugged and turned to show me. It said, ‘You are about to be attacked’. It was incredibly scary. I looked at the rangers and their guns. A lot of the time they don’t fire and even when they do the rangers don’t have enough ammo to train to shoot straight.
“But they are the only line of defence the elephants and the villagers have in that part of the world. They risk their lives every day to do their job. One was shot and killed by poachers in April.”
In the end the poachers backed down before a shot was fired and the team breathed easy. The fake tusks eventually stopped moving and their exact location is known. They have probably been buried, ready to be dug up and shipped to China.
When they are, Bryan will be able to track exactly which government offices they pass through, which companies transport them and to which Chinese factory they are taken for carving.
He said: “We knew if these trackers worked it would raise the bar and lead to more sophisticated ways to combat the ivory trade. Now we can replicate this model and go after other terrorists.
“I aim to get trackers into the system in as many different ways as possible. We can feed them into the bloodstream of this terrorist network and watch them go.”
How ingenious fake ivory tusks exposed terror links
At the heart of the investigation into the terrorist ivory trade is a pair of fake elephant tusks fitted with a GPS tracker.
Making tusks realistic enough to fool ivory experts was so difficult it had never been attempted before.
Every detail had to be perfect – the unique lines that criss-cross each tusk, the weight and balance, even the sound ivory makes when it is tapped.
Bryan spent two years searching for the right person to make the fakes and was sent samples from all over the world, but none were up to scratch.
Finally he enlisted the help of world-leading taxidermist George Dante, who spent six months experimenting to get the look and feel just right.
The exact formula is now a closely guarded secret.
George said: “We just had to keep trying different resins and materials. To get the right balance we had to add different things at precise points along the tusk to weight it correctly and we had to add fillers to the material to get the right density.”
It took another six months to work out how to install the custom-made GPS tracker so it was protected without blocking its satellite signal.
The tracker sends one signal a day, so if the tusks don’t move Bryan sees one dot on screen. If they move then two dots mark the distance travelled.
The completed tusks were hand-painted to look as realistic as possible, and after all that time and effort they are now more valuable than real ivory.
In fact they were so convincing that when Bryan landed in Tanzania, he was arrested as a suspected ivory smuggler and held in jail overnight.
He had to convince wildlife crime experts they were fake to win his freedom and get on with the mission.