The Ivory Highway
Credit: Photograph by Andy Mahr

One afternoon in Bertoua, I arranged to meet an ivory dealer with considerable experience in the illicit trade. It was Cameroon's independence day, and soldiers carrying assault rifles marched down the city's main street, followed by tidy formations of schoolchildren bearing signs reading non à la corruption. The dealer and I agreed to meet at a gaudy nightclub called the Grand Palace, which was deserted save for two women drinking on the second-floor balcony. Soon, a tall, dark-skinned man wearing sunglasses and a white monogrammed dress shirt sat at the table and introduced himself as Justin.

In his early thirties, Justin had been involved in the ivory trade for five years. Originally, he had studied business law – even receiving a scholarship to a university in the Netherlands – but Cameroon's job market offered few opportunities. After dabbling in other ventures, including arranging cocaine deals for some Italians, Justin got involved with a group of Chinese businessmen in Amsterdam. In 2008, they approached him about procuring elephant ivory.

"Everybody has his choice in life," Justin said blithely. "I am a dealer."

Justin described an organized operation: Several times a year, his Chinese partners placed orders for ivory. He subcontracted the work to a team of five poachers from Cameroon's Baka pygmy tribe. They were skilled enough to bring back even large tusks, he said, which were becoming increasingly rare because elephants now had little chance to grow them. "I work with specialists – they know how to hunt in the forest," Justin explained. A tribe of hunter-gatherers indigenous to the Congo Basin, the Baka had been known as legendary elephant trackers since the era of Victorian safari hunters. They were also exploitable. Recent government resettlement programs and the creation of protected, Western-NGO-backed wildlife reserves in Cameroon had forced many Baka out of the forest and into sedentary lives offering few economic opportunities – except poaching elephants.

Justin lit a cigarette and said that "his Baka" were currently in the forest filling an order. When they finished, he explained, a driver with a government truck carrying cocoa beans would smuggle the tusks to Bertoua. Justin himself then drove them to Cameroon's seaport in Douala – and, depending on the route, spent as much as $2,000 bribing guards and other officials at checkpoints. At the port in Douala, Justin handed the ivory off to a customs official who eventually loaded it onto a ship bound for China. Justin did not know, or would not tell me, what happened to the ivory once it reached his partners. "It's just gone – whatever," he said.

Such trafficking syndicates have become entrenched throughout the Congo Basin. In 2010, a team of researchers from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) interviewed poachers and smugglers across the region. They discovered that "elite" businessmen like Justin, along with corrupt government officials, police officers, and soldiers – so-called commanditaire – are driving much of the region's illicit ivory trade. They commission hunts and hire Baka trackers and local poachers. They supply food and equipment – including big-bore rifles like the Winchester .458 or AK-47s, since many hunters are too poor to afford their own guns. A constellation of locals also facilitates the trade. A bar owner uses his business to connect hunters and ivory dealers. A charcoal dealer stockpiles tusks in her shop. In one town, even a Catholic priest acts as a middleman.

To move ivory out of Cameroon's poorly guarded forests, traffickers pay transporters to paddle tusks by pirogue and corrupt police officers in official vehicles to sail through road checkpoints. Logging truck drivers shuttling between Cameroon's remote timber concessions also double as contrebandières: ferrying guns and supplies into the jungle, then stashing tusks among the felled trunks or in false door compartments on the way out. Eventually, according to IUCN's report, most of this ivory ends up in either Yaoundé, Cameroon's capital, or Douala. Some of it is purchased by local merchants, but increasingly, East Asian buyers are purchasing the bigger tusks – a reflection of China's growing presence on the continent. Today so many elephant tusks are being smuggled on Cameroon's national paved road that the local World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) office dubbed it the Ivory Highway.

The volume of such brisk trade, as well as the profits, remains unknown. One official estimated "thousands and thousands" of tusks have moved through Cameroon in recent years. Between 2004 and 2006, a Taiwanese syndicate had shipped at least 36 tons of ivory from Douala to Hong Kong – a haul equivalent to the lives of some 4,700 elephants and worth approximately $18 million on China's black market. Justin's operation is more modest, perhaps moving around a half-million-dollars' worth of ivory per year. After payouts and bribes, he clears around $25,000, a princely sum in Cameroon, where nearly half the population survives on little more than a dollar per day. He owns a house, wears nice clothes, and travels extensively in Europe. He speaks several languages and has a wife, as well as a girlfriend in the Netherlands. A born entrepreneur, he seems proud of the ruthlessly efficient supply chain that he and his Chinese partners have built: a black-market equivalent of Walmart-style "just in time" inventory that can deliver a valuable product from one place to another thousands of miles away. There are likely hundreds of similar poaching operations across Africa – collectively so efficient that they're decimating Central Africa's herds.

"What then?" I finally asked Justin. "What happens when there are no elephants left?"

"In Africa, animals are animals," he replied, chuckling. "My girlfriend, the Dutch girl, she has a dog, and it stays in the house, it stinks, it has to go for checkups. Sometimes, when we are lovemaking, the dog is there, also. I like animals – but I told my girlfriend that if this dog were in Africa, I would have used it for a nice pepper sauce."

China is only the latest in a long line of ivory-obsessed nations to plunder Africa's elephant herds. Ancient Greeks hired Ethiopian mercenaries to drop from trees to hamstring passing elephants with an axe. Roman carvers drove North Africa's herds into extinction by mass-producing ivory brooches, buttons, birdcages, book covers – even an archbishop's throne. (The emperor Caligula went so far as to build a manger of ivory for his prized horse.) Centuries later, Arab merchants established trading settlements along the continent's east coast and pushed into the interior, supplying thriving ivory markets in India and China. Then came the Europeans. The English were particularly efficient. In 1850, England imported 500 tons of ivory from East Africa. A British explorer dubbed it the "El Dorado of ivory seekers."

By 1900, buoyed by the industrial revolution, the United States became the world's greatest consumer of elephant ivory. Carving factories in Connecticut turned tusks into piano keys, billiard balls, cutlery, and combs. Ivory, according to one writer, was the plastic of the era. "It could be cut, sawed, carved, etched, ground, or worked on a lathe." By the turn of the century, an estimated 65,000 elephants were being killed each year across the continent, and the once-great herds of eastern and southern Africa had been wiped out. According to one estimate, Africa's elephant population plummeted from 27 million in the early 19th century to five million at the beginning of the 1900s.

Spurred by such losses, Europe's colonial powers soon began to set up game preserves that banned or limited hunting. In the Twenties, the British and Belgians established the first national parks. These were followed by the arrival of swashbuckling safari hunter–naturalists like Teddy Roosevelt and, later, scientists eager to classify, count, and dissect Loxodonta africana.

In 1966, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, an Oxford-educated Scottish zoologist, set up a field camp by Tanzania's Lake Manyara and spent the next four years observing 500 elephants at close quarters. At one point, a group of female elephants savagely attacked and destroyed his Land Rover. Some scientists believed Douglas-Hamilton to be reckless, but his was the first-ever rigorous study of individual elephant life and social structure – what made elephants, elephants. He watched them forage and court and raise families. Many he named by memorizing the shapes of their ears: Virgo, Boadicea, a cow named Slender Tusks.

Among the things Douglas-Hamilton and the many scientists who followed him discovered was that elephants, not unlike humans, are raised in complex, close-knit familial units. They are intensely social, communicating with one another using an elaborate sonic repertoire, much of which is inaudible to human ears. They are known to be deeply compassionate, attempting to aid stricken companions – often at grave personal risk. They are tool users and problem solvers, employing their trunks, which are strong enough to lift an industrial refrigerator but dexterous enough to pick a blade of grass, drop rocks on electric fences, or grasp sticks as flyswatters. In the Seventies, an Asian elephant at a wildlife park in Redwood City, California, reportedly learned how to pick the locks on her shackles and then proceeded to free herself along with several captive comrades.

Though a herd marches through an ecosystem like Sherman's army, knocking over trees and devouring much of what's in its path, elephants are a crucial part of the environment. They turn woodland into savanna, creating grasslands for grazing species like elands and bushbucks. Their trails create firebreaks, and their dung, rich in nutrients, regenerates the soil. Scientists have dubbed them "architects of the savanna" and "gardeners of the forest." In 2009 a biologist named Stephen Blake analyzed 855 dung piles in the Congo and discovered that elephants consumed more than 96 species of plant seeds and then deposited them as far away as 35 miles. These seeds then sprouted, became trees, and provided food and shelter for other animals. Some seeds germinate only once an elephant has ingested and deposited them on the forest floor. Some, like the fruit of the Picralima nitida tree, have shown effectiveness in treating malaria, a disease that affects much of Africa and that has shown a growing resistance to conventional drug treatment.

"An elephant-poaching pygmy friend told me years ago that if the elephants go, the forest will die," Blake told a reporter at the time. "It might not be quite as dramatic as this, but the loss of forest elephants on the functionality of central African forests might be comparable to the loss of all vehicles for the functionality of Manhattan. It would be a radically different place."

An emerging body of research has also begun to unlock the mysteries of the elephant brain, which may be as complex as our own. In 2006, scientists at the Bronx Zoo placed a large mirror in front of a female Asian elephant named Happy and watched as she regarded her reflection, then repeatedly touched an X painted above her eye – the first-ever evidence that elephants, like humans and chimps, have a capacity for self-consciousness. Iain Douglas-Hamilton also documented a series of remarkable interactions referred to in scientific nomenclature as "targeted empathetic helping." One day in 2003, Eleanor, the matriarch of a family called the First Ladies, collapsed with injuries incurred from a fall. The members of her own family were far away, but another matriarch named Grace soon appeared and used her tusks to lift Eleanor to her feet. She fell once more and Grace then continued trying to lift her for several hours, but, badly injured and unable to stand, Eleanor died the next day. Douglas-Hamilton then watched as GPS-tagged elephants began traveling toward the death site. One of Eleanor's daughters arrived and spent seven hours nearby. Another elephant touched and hovered over Eleanor's body. In the next five days, four different families visited the death site. A photograph taken by one of Douglas-Hamilton's researchers shows five elephants standing in a row facing the body, as though standing vigil.

"It was absolutely extraordinary," Douglas-Hamilton said of the experience. "Elephants have that higher-order consciousness that seems to compel them to take a great interest in those who are distressed or dead. Maybe they do mourn, whatever that means. It's very moving. And God knows I've seen a lot of elephant deaths over the past 40 years."