The Ivory Highway
Credit: Photograph by Andy Mahr

Killing an elephant was easy, really. You found its tracks, big as serving platters, and you followed them. Then, Pierre said, you just aimed for the head. But in the thick rain forests of Cameroon, this seemed fantastical. There were branches, brush, slick gullied hillsides. The animal moved – often quickly. Moreover, Pierre hunted with an aged rifle he described as a caribou douze; inherited from his father, it was a weapon of indeterminate origin, and it was unlikely to be precise. What Pierre shot most likely died slowly and in great pain.

Thin and jittery and wearing a Minnesota Timberwolves jersey, Pierre was a Cameroonian contract poacher. We had agreed to meet at a seedy hotel in Bertoua, a city in the country's sparsely populated southeast and a major ivory-smuggling hub, to discuss the business of elephant poaching. A corpulent, shrewd bush-meat dealer named Madame Mado had provided an introduction, but Pierre was at first still suspicious. He stood outside the hotel door and scanned the room's interior for several moments before entering. In Cameroon, a wildlife NGO run by a former Israeli intelligence officer had begun targeting ivory traffickers, often by setting up sting operations in just such hotels.

Pierre, which is not his real name, lit a cigarette and settled into a plastic chair. He was reluctant to discuss the men hiring him to kill elephants – referring to them only as "command" – but he acknowledged they regularly placed orders for ivory. Very likely, Pierre's bosses were government officials or businessmen, perhaps even officers from l'armée camerounaise. In a poor, corrupt country like Cameroon, only a small elite could bankroll hunting expeditions in the jungle that lasted weeks and required expensive supplies – food, rifles, ammunition, cheap plastic packets of gin. "Somebody calls me, and they give me cartridges," Pierre said. "I go with porters and spend three or four weeks in the forest," searching for tracks. Sometimes he also imitated the plaintive honk of a lost calf in order to attract its mother. Pierre claimed not to shoot female elephants, but poaching has become a dark lesson in supply-demand economics. Ivory's surging price compelled poachers to kill whatever they could: cows, which grew smaller tusks than bulls, and even calves bearing only small nubs of dentin.

Pierre had been poaching for 25 years, and he had killed scores, if not hundreds, of elephants. With some pride, he claimed to have shot 23 during a single trip – so many that harvesting all their tusks had taken more than a week. "If you've killed the first one and the others have not noticed, you can kill all of them," he said. Pierre used a special machete to remove their ivory – painstaking work that required separating the tusk from the animal's upper jawbone. "If you cut it, you have destroyed it," he said. "They have to be removed right, from the inside. It takes time."

Across Africa, men like Pierre are now killing so many elephants that conservationists have begun calling the trade "industrial." Poachers are both brutal and diabolically ingenious in their craft, mowing down entire herds with cheap assault rifles, burying land mines, and even fashioning homemade shotguns from Land Rover steering columns. In Zimbabwe, poachers recently laced salt licks and watering holes with cyanide, killing hundreds of elephants. In 2011 alone, some 25,000 elephants across the continent were slaughtered – the highest recorded level of poaching since a ban on international ivory trading was implemented in 1989. In 2012, the number was perhaps as high as 50,000. Last year, the most comprehensive survey of forest elephants ever undertaken found that Central Africa's entire population had crashed by 62 percent over the past 10 years. Today poachers are killing so many elephants that they've exceeded the animals' reproductive capacity, leading some conservationists to predict that Africa's remaining 420,000 elephants could be wiped out in little more than a decade.

"There is a real risk that, if substantial action is not taken, elephants will go biologically extinct in Central Africa very soon," J. Michael Fay, a renowned conservationist who has spent decades studying the region's rain forests, recently testified before the U.S. Congress.

In late December 2011, some 100 Sudanese horseback poachers armed with AK-47s and grenade launchers crossed from Chad into Bouba N'Djida National Park in northeastern Cameroon. The raiders, possibly affiliated with Sudan's murderous Janjaweed militia, easily overran the small unit of unarmed eco-guards, then hunted with impunity for months, killing one group of elephants after another. Families were herded together, then systematically shot. Calves died alongside mothers. In some cases, gunmen waited for elephants to return to mourn their dead – and then shot them, too. By April, some 400 of the park's savanna elephants had been wiped out, the worst mass killing in modern history.

The slaughter in Bouba N'Djida is, in many ways, a signal event: The nature of modern poaching has changed. Small-time, subsistence hunters are no longer taking down the occasional elephant. Poachers have become systematic, ruthless, heavily armed. They are capable of overwhelming the porous borders and poor security plaguing many African countries. According to conservation groups, sophisticated criminal syndicates – poachers, middlemen, traders, elusive kingpins – increasingly dominate the trade. Some operations, like that of Pierre and his "command," are modest. Others move tusks by the ton. According to Tom Milliken, ivory expert for the wildlife trade-monitoring group Traffic, many trafficking gangs are "Asian-run, African-based" and now operating "in almost every country where you find elephants." Additionally, according to the UN, wildlife crime, of which ivory constitutes a significant proportion, is now a $10-billion-plus annual business – fourth behind drugs, human trafficking, and arms. This profitability has attracted not just organized crime but African militias and rebel groups: Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army – accused of carrying out mass murder – as well as Somalia's Al Qaeda–affiliated Shabaab terrorist group have been implicated in the ivory trade.

"Up north, it's war," a lieutenant with Cameroon's special forces – which recently had been deployed to fight the hunters marauding on horseback through Bouba N'Djida park – told me. "They are not simple poachers. They have GPS, Kalashnikovs, and rocket launchers. They carried the tusks with helicopters."

By late 2012, the potential loss of Africa's most charismatic megafauna – and the specter of rebel groups funding their operations with illicit ivory proceeds – had attracted the attention of Western politicians. That November, then secretary of state Hillary Clinton called wildlife trafficking a national security issue. "Trafficking relies on porous borders, corrupt officials, and strong networks of organized crime, all of which undermine our mutual security," she declared. (President Obama soon followed with an executive order committing $10 million to combat the illegal trade in wildlife.) The Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) also recently unveiled an $80 million anti-ivory poaching partnership with conservation groups like the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Over three years, the project will deploy sniffer-dog teams at key ivory transit points in Africa and hire 3,000 rangers to help protect elephants at 50 sites. "The end game is getting those PIKE [proportion of illegally killed elephants] rates down and buying us some time so we can change the demand equation," says John Calvelli, WCS's executive vice president of public affairs.

The "demand equation," according to a unanimous chorus of conservation groups, is China's booming ivory market. (A smaller amount of ivory is also smuggled to Thailand and the U.S.) In Beijing and other major cities, the country's newly minted middle class now possesses sufficient disposable income to purchase ivory carvings, a luxury once reserved for only the country's wealthiest class. On websites like Alibaba, China's version of eBay, ivory trinkets trade under the title xiàngyá, Mandarin for "elephant's teeth." During a recent Christie's auction, an 18th-century ivory bowl sold for a record $842,500 – 28 times more than the appraisers' estimate – after two Chinese buyers engaged in an anonymous bidding war. China's CCTV recently reported that investors were hedging against the faltering housing market by purchasing ivory, which has become known as white gold. And, as China has increased its presence in Africa over the past decade – financing everything from stadiums to hydroelectric dams – an increasing number of its citizens are being arrested sneaking contraband ivory trinkets onto Asia-bound flights or becoming involved as buyers and middlemen in larger smuggling operations.

In October 2012, Hong Kong customs agents intercepted two cargo containers carrying more than four tons of ivory worth an estimated $3.5 million – the largest seizure in Chinese history. The next month, they seized another container with 1.4 tons. Two months after that, they seized yet another carrying 1.4 tons. All the containers had originated in Africa, and all had first passed through multiple transit countries to obscure their origin. This kind of complex routing, as well as the staggering hauls of ivory, Interpol says, strongly suggests the involvement of organized crime. The logistics required to acquire such massive quantities of elephant tusks and move them overland and across the ocean are significant – virtually corporate organizations managing an illicit global supply chain. Yet these syndicates' operations – their size, structure, modus operandi, and, above all, the identity of the kingpins controlling them – remain almost entirely unknown. At one end of the chain is a poacher like Pierre; at the other, thousands of miles away in Beijing, a consumer purchasing an ivory trinket. Everything in between remains opaque, a true black market.