for National Geographic News
Africa's largest-ever investigation of wildlife crime has unearthed a ton of illegal African elephant ivory, several animal pelts, and hippopotamus teeth, the Kenya Wildlife Service and INTERPOL announced this week.
The undercover operation, coordinated by INTERPOL—the world's largest international police organization—booked more than 60 alleged criminals in five African countries.
Among those caught were four Chinese nationals attempting to smuggle ivory curios out of Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
The rapidly growing presence of China in Africa is seen as a major driver of the ivory trade, experts say.
Massive infrastructure and oil projects across the region have boosted the continent's Chinese population from roughly 200,000 to around 800,000 in just five years.
"This is an international problem, not just a local problem," said Esmond Bradley Martin, an independent expert in illicit wildlife trade.
"The advent of the Chinese in Africa in much larger number is very important and directly related to their buying of illegal ivory."
Since 2004 global trade in ivory has been climbing steadily, with China as its number one destination. (Watch a video of Africa's ivory wars.)
Between 1998 and 2006, Chinese authorities seized an average of 39 tons of ivory each year, according to the United Nations Elephant Trade Information System.
Conservation experts warn that the recent arrests will have little impact on the killing of elephants.
Estimates for the annual number of elephants killed illegally in Africa and Asia for ivory range from 4,800 to 20,000.