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Special Reports

How Killing Elephants Finances Terror in Africa

When the American Museum of Natural History wanted to update the hall of North American mammals, taxidermist George Dante got the call. When the tortoise Lonesome George, emblem of the Galápagos Islands, died, it was Dante who was tasked with restoring him. But Dante, who is one of the world’s most respected taxidermists, has never done what I’m asking him to do. No one has.

I want Dante to design an artificial elephant tusk that has the look and feel of confiscated tusks loaned to me by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Inside the fake tusk, I want him to embed a custom-made GPS and satellite-based tracking system. If he can do this, I’ll ask him to make several more tusks. In the criminal world, ivory operates as currency, so in a way I’m asking Dante to print counterfeit money I can follow.

I will use his tusks to hunt the people who kill elephants and to learn what roads their ivory plunder follows, which ports it leaves, what ships it travels on, what cities and countries it transits, and where it ends up. Will artificial tusks planted in a central African country head east—or west—toward a coast with reliable transportation to Asian markets? Will they go north, the most violent ivory path on the African continent? Or will they go nowhere, discovered before they’re moved and turned in by an honest person?

As we talk over my design needs, Dante’s brown eyes sparkle like a boy’s on Christmas morning. To test ivory, dealers will scratch a tusk with a knife or hold a lighter under it; ivory is a tooth and won’t melt. My tusks will have to act like ivory. “And I gotta find a way to get that shine,” Dante says, referring to the gloss a clean elephant tusk has.

“I need Schreger lines too, George,” I say, referring to the cross-hatching on the butt of a sawn tusk that looks like growth rings of a tree trunk.

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