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How Saving Elephants Got One National Geographic Explorer Arrested

Nights in police custody, fake elephant tusks, and terrorist organizations are all just part of a day’s work for Bryan Christy, National Geographic Fellow and Chief Correspondent to the Special Investigations Unit.

In 2014, Christy rigged two fake elephant tusks with GPS tracking technology and covertly injected them deep into the illegal ivory trade in Africa, but as he explains, getting them there was not easy.

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National Geographic: First off, how did you create fake elephant tusks?

Bryan Christy: I had them made by George Dante, the taxidermist for the American Museum of Natural History.  I went to him and I said, “George, I need perfect elephant tusks.  I needed to be able to hand these to an ivory trafficker, someone who specializes in ivory. They need to be able to hold it, feel it, look at it, and be convinced. Ivory has a strange sound, it’s like two baseball bats hitting together. If you cut a tusk in half, it is like cutting a tree down. Inside the tusk are rings called Schreger lines. George hand painted these tusks and coated them in a coating that NASCAR uses to protect cars.  After he had perfected them, I said, “George, there’s one other thing I haven’t told you, “we’re going to put a satellite-based GPS system inside these that I’ve had an engineer build. I said, “George, I need perfect elephant tusks. I’m going to take these tusks over to Africa and I’m going to use them in the black market.”

National Geographic: Wow, and how did he react to that?

Bryan Christy: He said, “Bryan, I’ve never done anything like this.  Let me get this straight. Are you telling me you could get killed if they don’t believe that these are real?”

George Dante and Bryan Christy in Dante's studio.
George Dante and Bryan Christy in Dante’s studio.

National Geographic: So did the plan work?  Were they convincing enough?

Bryan Christy: We got to Tanzania, and I am with a couple members of my film crew.  We are at the airport in Dar es Salaam.  We’re all carrying lots of camera equipment, I’ve got the big duffle bag with the ivory. An airport official says, “Put your luggage on the roller,” and it’s all going through the x-ray. All of a sudden the belt stops, reverses, and my bag of tusks, goes backward into the machine. He says, “Open that bag.” I unzip my bag and I lift out a giant elephant tusk.

Christy reveals fake ivory (Picture by J.J. Kelley)
Christy reveals fake ivory (Picture by J.J. Kelley)

National Geographic: How did people respond to seeing the tusks?

Bryan Christy: Police come, people stop, everyone’s looking, all the officials start yelling, and it’s not a good moment for me.  People are looking in awe that this big tusk is out in the open, and then people are realizing that’s contraband. More people are coming, then more law enforcement is coming, and it’s beginning to escalate I’m telling the Tanzanian airport official that they are fake, that I’ve had them made. Just as I am about to convince him that they are fake, an official looks at the screen and they see the electronic inside the tusk they say, “It’s not an elephant tusk. It’s a bomb! He’s smuggling a bomb!”

National Geographic: So pretty much the worst possible circumstance, what happened next?

Airport officials x-ray fake ivory tusk. (Photo by J.J. Kelley)
Airport officials x-ray fake ivory tusk. (Photo by J.J. Kelley)

Bryan Christy: The Tanzanians brought in their wildlife expert.  He examined my tusk and he holds it, he’s looking back and forth, and then he looks at the end where the Schreger lines have been painted. He’s mumbling to himself and he says, “Schreger lines,” and I said, “Yes, Schreger lines!” He pointed at me and he said, “You are a liar, bwana!” I said, “No.” He said, “In 10 years I have never been wrong. This is real ivory. Schreger lines are the way I can tell that this is real ivory.” It went from an animated, this can’t possibly be a real ivory trafficker, to the police grabbing me, taking me to an interrogation room that they use for drug traffickers and other smugglers.  Then things went from amusing, won’t this make a good story, to this is real. The room filled with law enforcement.

National Geographic: Did you have contacts in the states to back up your story?

Bryan Christy: I had the phone number of the chief of law enforcement for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, William Woody, on my phone. We had used Fish and Wildlife Service’s ivory as an example to build the tusk in the first place. I wanted the federal government in the United States to know about this project in case anything went wrong.  I called Chief Woody and then handed the phone to the lead law enforcement official and he said, “That’s your country, it’s not ours. This is a crime.”

Christy, being filmed secretly by phone in J.J. Kelley's pocket, on the phone wit United States officials. (Photo by J.J. Kelley)
Christy, on the phone with United States officials, as he is filmed secretly by phone in J.J. Kelley’s pocket. (Photo by J.J. Kelley)

National Geographic: But you had your National Geographic credentials too right?

Bryan Christy: They refused to recognize the letters from National Geographic that I have describing the tusks and saying that they’re fake and part of the study. They take me to where they incarcerate people at this airport.

National Geographic: Did you tell them about your hopes of tracking the ivory market?

Bryan Christy: No. The big challenge is corruption is a major part of ivory trafficking, so I can’t tell these officials exactly what I’m doing because the odds are decent that somebody among them is part of an ivory trafficking syndicate or would at least be willing to pass on information. So it was a bit of a safety issue for myself and team about keeping the real purpose of our mission quiet because it could’ve been a threat to a syndicate operating there.

National Geographic:  So you are stuck between a rock and a hard place, how did you handle being in holding?

Bryan Christy: I remembered someone telling me once: the most important tool you have as an investigator is humor. While all this is bad, I’m thinking about two things. One, I’m thinking how can I lighten this moment? Two, I’m thinking wouldn’t this be good to have on film? I turn to J.J. Kelly who’s with me, and I say, “J.J., wouldn’t it be great to be filming this?” He very quietly looks down at his shirt pocket and taps his iPhone. He’s running his camera iPhone the whole time.  I look up and there are wires hanging out of the wall where there once was a television.  I point to those wires and I say, “How are we going to watch the World Cup? “Where’s your Television? How are we going to watch the World Cup?” They said, “You are right! Someone stole our Television,” and they started to laugh.

Christy and officers laughing. (Photo by J.J. Kelley)
Christy and officers laughing. (Photo by J.J. Kelley)

National Geographic: So you broke the ice, made everyone relax.  What happened next?

Bryan Christy: A couple other things happened that evening that were just extraordinary. One was that J.J. Kelly, the cameraman with me, could have left. They only wanted me because it was my suitcase. J.J. said, “I’m not leaving my friend.” They had me on one side, but they allowed him on the other side of the counter. He said, “He needs water. Where’s his water? He needs food.” Then all of a sudden I heard a voice from out of nowhere say, “What’s the problem?” and it was the chief of police. J.J. explained the problem and he said, “You come with me,” and they disappeared. They were gone. I thought, “He’s taken him to some other cell.

National Geographic:  How long were they gone?

Bryan Christy: They were gone for about two hours.” Then I heard this voice from deep within the facility, “Mr. Bryan come here.” I look and I go down this hallway and it’s the chief of police. He’s got J.J. with him and they take me down the hallway to this empty room and he says, “Sit down here.” I sit down at a table and they open a paper bag and the chief of police has bought chicken dinners for all three of us and a six-pack of beer, and he’s Muslim and doesn’t drink beer.  We sat there and he talked to me about his personal life, how he was a police officer at night, but during the day he was an accountant and he wasn’t making enough money as an accountant so he was moonlighting. Told me about his family. That’s what this is all about is building relationships with people.

National Geographic: Did he clear you to go?

Bryan Christy: Not quite, I still had a problem. The wildlife expert was on record saying that this was real and he was committed now. This was an official. They’d called the US Embassy, we’d called National Geographic headquarters, and I said to him, “You can let me go now and this will go away. If not, it’s going to be a problem for you.” He said, “Did you just threaten me? Who are you to threaten me?” Now I was in a difficult situation.  He left that night, and the next morning he was one of the first people in.

National Geographic: What happened that morning?

Bryan Christy: Big black cars started pouring into the parking lot out front. I could see them coming in and officials in nice suits getting out. He came up to me and said, “I don’t know how this is going to go, but I want you to know I was just doing my job.” I said, “Who’s in charge here?” He said, “That guy over there.”  I asked him to come with me to talk to the man in charge. He followed me and I walked up to this man and I introduced myself. I said, “I’m Bryan Christy from National Geographic. I apologize for the trouble I’m causing you this morning. I know we’re going to have to decide where these tusks are real or not, but before we do anything I want you to know that this man was doing his job and he is to be commended, in my opinion, for stopping me.”

National Geographic: How did the wildlife specialist react?

Bryan Christy: I just saw, in his face, this relief. That ended up being an important moment because when they did let me go, when they did decide it’s not real, they could also save face. It was perfect all the way around. In fact, many of the officials who arrested me came to the airport to say goodbye when I left. They’ve all become my Facebook friends.

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Elephants are under siege across Africa with some 30,000 killed each year. With demand for ivory, largely in China and the rest of Asia, driving it, Christy and his team tracked his GPS tusks as they were transported by smugglers north from Congo’s Garamba National Park all the way to Sudan. Frequently tusks are traded for arms or medicine in Sudan’s Darfur region, but ultimately, Christy says, much of the ivory winds up in China.

Christy arranged for the tusks tusks to enter the black market.  Within the first two months they traveled 600 miles alone.  Sources have told Christy the route his fake tusks have taken closely match the route warlord Joseph Kony’s Army takes on the way to the  Kafia Kingi base.”

President Xi of China, has committed to shutting down its the industry, banning all commerce in ivory by the end of 2017, effectively shutting down largest ivory market in the world.

This Article has been edited for content.

PRODUCER/EDITOR: Mónica Pinzón
ASSOCIATE PRODUCER: Elaina Kimes