During the past decade, an increasing demand for wildlife products has caused the illegal trade in animals and plants to skyrocket. Wildlife trafficking has become a multibillion-dollar industry, involving hundreds of millions of plants and animals that are sold as medicine, pets, food, souvenirs, and luxury items each year.
The black market poses grave threats to wildlife—and to people in places such as central Africa, where the proceeds from wildlife trafficking have been used to finance terrorism. And it’s becoming increasingly organized, similar to the crime syndicates involved in the drug trade.
As part of our commitment to help protect wildlife by educating and inspiring others to bring about change, National Geographic reporters, explorers, and photographers have journeyed around the world to share stories about the animals—and people—touched by wildlife crime.
Today marks the launch of Wildlife Watch, a blog dedicated to telling objective stories about a range of issues related to the exploitation of wildlife. As National Geographic embarks on this effort, we look back at a dozen key stories from our archive.
Tracking Ivory: How Killing Elephants Finances Terror in Africa (September 2015): This investigation by Bryan Christy, chief correspondent of National Geographic’s new Special Investigations Unit, revealed how terrorism and government corruption in Africa help drive the illegal ivory trade. He commissioned a taxidermist to make artificial tusks, into which satellite-based GPS chips were implanted. The fake tusks then were inserted into the black market in central Africa. Ivory from poached elephants, Christy confirmed, funds a number of violent militias operating in central Africa, including the Lord’s Resistance Army, a terrorist group that trades tusks for arms and supplies from Sudan’s army.
Exclusive: Young Elephants in China Show Signs of Abuse (September 2015): Last year, two dozen elephants were flown to China from Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. Photos and video exclusive to National Geographic indicated that the animals had suffered wounds and been mistreated by handlers.
Who Buys Ivory? You'd Be Surprised (August 2015): Despite activists’ efforts to raise awareness about the illegal ivory trade, people in the United States and Asian countries continue to buy products made from elephant tusks. National Geographic wanted to know why, so it surveyed ivory users and published the results in this story.
Inside the Grim Lives of South Africa's Captive Lions (July 2015): This piece features an interview with Ian Michler, the protagonist and narrator ofBlood Lions, a documentary exposing the dark side of South Africa’s “canned” lion hunts. In these hunts, people pay as much as $50,000 to shoot lions in confined areas, making the animals easy targets.
You Could Go to Jail for Tweeting This in Tanzania (May 2015): In Tanzania, it’s a crime to share information online that the government deems “false” or “misleading.” This story details how this new law could silence wildlife crime whistleblowers in a country where activists have linked ivory trafficking to government corruption.
For Orphaned Elephant, Harrowing Rescue—And Hope (January 2015): When poachers poisoned an elephant in Kenya last year, they left her young calf orphaned. National Geographic followed the baby’s rescue, from a Land Cruiser to an elephant nursery in Nairobi.
For Rangers on the Front Lines of Anti-Poaching Wars, Daily Trauma (June 2014): In certain African countries, it’s not only elephants and rhinos threatened by poachers. National park rangers routinely face death or injury while trying to protect animals. Interviews with rangers, activists, and government officials reveal the treacherous conditions—and the psychological toll on rangers.
Wild Obsession (April 2014): Exotic-pet ownership is the focus of this story, which details the motivation, risks, and lack of state regulation surrounding the controversial practice. Lauren Slater’s examination of people who keep wild animals as pets—-and a visit to one menagerie outside of Orlando, Florida—-led her to conclude: “In the end what we learn from exotic-pet ownership is that when you take the wild out of the wild, you eradicate its true nature and replace it with fantasy.”
Peru's Red Gold: Mahogany's Last Stand (April 2013): In Peru, illegal loggers have nearly wiped out prized big-leaf mahogany from the country’s rainforests and now are taking lesser known trees that are crucial for the forest ecosystems. The author, Scott Wallace, embarks on an expedition that culminates in an encounter with an illegal logger.
Blood Ivory: Ivory Worship (October 2012): This piece examined the role that religion plays in the illegal ivory trade, fueling the slaughter of thousands of elephants each year. Bryan Christy’s reporting in the Philippines, Thailand, and China showed how Catholic and Buddhist demand for ivory religious figures helps drive the black market, and pointed out shortcomings in the international regulation of the ivory trade.
Rhino Wars (March 2012): In this piece, Peter Gwin examined the illegal rhino horn trade. He profiled a park ranger in Zimbabwe, a former rhino poacher, a rhino horn farmer in South Africa, and a consumer of rhino horn “medicine” in Vietnam, a leading market for smuggled horn.
The Kingpin (January 2010): In his first National Geographic investigation, Bryan Christy exposed how the Malaysian wildlife dealer Anson Wong, who had spent more than five years in prison in the 1990s for smuggling animals, kept his business going––with help from a highly placed government official.
This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund.
Follow Jani Actman on Twitter.