Busting open the black-market ivory trade in Malawi and Zambia
In a pink motel room just a few miles from the Zambia–Malawi border in landlocked Southeastern Africa, two European men count stacks of local currency across a floral bedspread: 10,000, 20,000, 30,000, 40,000, 50,000 Zambian kwacha, which comes out to roughly $5,000.
A third man watches like a casino pit boss from a plastic armchair, his foot resting on a giant suitcase. He’s a wealthy Zambian with a body builder’s physique, gold jewelry and designer pink polo shirt. He keeps checking his phone and telling the other men to hurry up.
“I lost count again,” one of them, Matthieu, responds in a thick French accent.
All of a sudden, two plainclothes police officers storm through the doors pointing AK-47s in all directions.
Matthieu and his partner Mark, a tall lean Brit, take their cue and jump. Even with one of them on his back and a taser to his chest, the Zambian still lands several punches before slamming into the bathroom sink, knocking it off the wall with his hip. Matthieu’s shirt rips during the scuffle, exposing a giant tattoo of the French Airborne Paratroopers’ emblem over his heart.
“Give up! There’s a whole team outside!” Mark yells.
A policeman fires a warning shot outside, and the Zambian quits resisting.
Police discover two more accomplices in the motel parking lot as they attempt to flee in a silver Corolla. One of them is merely a driver, but the other is Bridget Banda, a well-connected figure in Zambia’s judicial system. The police instantly recognize her from a print-out of her WhatsApp profile photo, taken from the personal account she used to arrange the entire deal with Matthieu over months of correspondence.
Unlike the Zambian, Bridget and her driver don’t resist. In handcuffs, they’re led into the motel room.
Matthieu finally sorts through the giant tarpaulin. One by one, he pulls out the long, tapering objects contained inside — each of which is cream-colored and caked with the rust brown of African soil, blood or both.
That adds up to about 80 pounds of illegal ivory, which in Hong Kong, the world’s largest ivory market, will fetch nearly $40,000. There, the tusks are polished white and carved into necklaces, combs, alligators, Buddhas, and of course, elephants, before being sold in one of the hundreds of retailers across the city.
“Four and a half pairs. That’s at least five dead elephants,” Mark says.
One of the tusks is smaller than the others.
A police officer shakes his head.
“A younger one.”
Last September, The Great Elephant Census—a research organization funded by Paul G. Allen, the internationally renowned philanthropist and co-founder of Microsoft, published the most extensive study of the African elephant to date. The report (a result of 9,700 hours of flight surveys over 18 counties) estimated a loss of 144,000 Savanna elephants in just seven years. Almost a third of the entire population had vaporized due to poaching. One of the nations hit hardest was Malawi, where Matthieu and Mark currently work.
According to the World Bank’s GDP per capita ratings, Malawi is the fifth-poorest nation on the planet. Making matters worse, last year, a global El Niñobrought a significant drought to Southern Africa that devastated Malawi’s small agrarian economy, crippled the production of its key export (tobacco) and drove up the price of the staple of its diet (corn). It also meant fewer watering holes in the county’s expansive national parks, condensing the migration of its wildlife.
So not only is poaching a tempting way to make money, it’s far easier than usual, too. In Kasungu National Park, for instance, only one vast watering hole remains in the entire 900-square-mile reserve. Two large elephant families visit it around 11 a.m. every single day.
They’re beyond low-hanging fruit.
It’s alongside this watering hole — in a humble brick and plywood house — where Matthieu lives. When he first moved there in 2012, he could hear gunshots almost every night. The park had been left virtually unguarded for years, and the elephant population — at around 3,000 in 1970 — was down to a mere 42 animals.
His job, like Mark’s, is to reverse this trend. They work as undercover agents in an elite anti-poaching unit under the leadership of former South African Special Forces Commander Mike Labuschagne, a man with a long history of military experience in African conflict zones and a reputation for toughness. In the late 1980s, he fought Cuban forces alongside guerrilla factions in Angola. (“The Cold War wasn’t so cold here,” he says.) Afterward, he contracted for a number of private military operations that targeted illegal gold mines, before a friend suggested he try anti-poaching in 1992…