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Ivory Smuggling Route Revealed Thanks to Fake Elephants and Real GPS Trackers

GPS tracking has a wide range of additional uses that go far deeper than just providing you with turn-by-turn directions to that next business meeting or appointment. Entire industries have been founded on the same basic technology – it’s how with the right system installed, you (or local law enforcement) can effortlessly locate your car in the event that it’s stolen. Indeed, GPS technology has a number of noble uses all around the world, as is the case with an effort to curb elephant poaching in Africa. Recently, GPS trackers embedded inside a fake elephant were used to blow the lid off an ivory smuggling ring that otherwise would have gone undetected.

Ivory Poaching: Facts and Figures

According to the experts at National Geographic, Central Africa has lost an incredible 64 percent of its total elephant population in just the last ten years alone. Over 100,000 elephants were killed illegally by poachers in only the last three years, shedding an important light on a problem that is much worse than many believed it to be. Approximately, 24,000 of those elephants came from eastern Africa, while an incredible 42,000 were from the central African region.

Much of the ivory obtained during poaching goes to China, which is currently the biggest consumer of illegal ivory in the world. Just a few short years ago, businesses in China purchased 60 tons of ivory directly from poachers in Africa – a trend that showed no signs of reversing anytime soon.

In 1979, there were approximately 1.3 million elephants in Africa. Flash forward to 2007 and that number had dwindled to just 472,000 to 690,000. It was clear that something had to be done, but policy changes alone quickly proved to be inadequate. Creating a new law is one thing – actually enforcing that law and curbing a problem inherent to an industry built upon lies and deception is something else entirely.

A new approach was needed and thanks to the break-neck rate at which technology continues to advance, that approach involved the use of global positioning systems.

Fake Tusks Save the Day

Investigative journalist Bryan Christy wanted to get to the bottom of the ivory poaching situation across Africa and he took a decidedly unique approach in order to do it. He commissioned an experienced taxidermist to create two face ivory tusks – virtually indistinguishable to the naked eye from the genuine article. These fake tusks, however, had a secret – they were embedded with specially designed GPS trackers connected to the Internet.

Once these fake tusks were hidden among real ones, Christy and his team got to work. They tracked the smuggling of ivory from their original location north into the Congo and all the way to the Sudan. What he and his team were able to do was unprecedented – they had for the first time total visibility into where ivory was going, how it was being transported and the methods that were used to both obtain it and trade it. In addition to winding up in China, it turns out that much of the illegal ivory obtained each year is actually traded for other types of illegal goods like guns or medicine – particularly in the Sudan’s Darfur region.

It also turns out that elephants are being killed by nearly every method you can think of. Sometimes poachers will poison an elephant’s watering hole and wait for the animals to die. Other times they use poison spears, poison arrows, and even AK-47s and other heavy weapons.

With his actionable data intelligence complete, local authorities now have more information than ever that they can use to curb this problem as much as possible. The important thing to understand from this is that absolutely none of it would have been possible without the type of sophisticated GPS tracking technology that exists today. Christy’s activities were so successful that they’ve even been the subject of their own documentary on the National Geographic channel called “Warlords of Ivory.”

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GPS

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