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Nat Geo tracks wildlife exploitation

Posted: Nov. 28, 2015 | Tags: Impact


Photo courtesy National Geographic

Editor's note: As a graduate student at American University, Rachael Marcus Bale researched the U.S. drone programs and a project on the Koch brothers' wide-ranging influence for the Investigative Reporting Workshop. She is also a former graduate fellow and full-time reporter at the Center for Public Integrity and a former reporter at the Center for Investigative Reporting. She is now part of a new investigative team at National Geographic.

Elephants are about a generation away from going extinct. At least 30,000 are killed every year, just for their ivory. Rhinos numbers are dropping, too. Nearly 96 percent of them were killed between 1960 and 1995, just for their horns, and poachers aren’t letting up now. And pangolins — they’re the world’s most trafficked animal, and almost no one has heard of them. Millions of other mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, flowers and timber are illegally traded each year, to say nothing of the hundreds of millions more that are legally traded as pets, medicine, food, souvenirs and spiritual and luxury items.


2011 photo by Krotz,Wikimedia Commons

An open-air "bird market" in Indonesia, a hub of illegally trapped birds.

Last month, I helped launch Wildlife Watch at National Geographic. It’s a blog from the new Special Investigations Unit dedicated to exposing the commercial-scale exploitation of wildlife worldwide. As an American University alumna who dedicated a good chunk of her grad school time to reporting for the Investigative Reporting Workshop, I can’t be more proud to be a part of this.

Wildlife crime isn’t just about the animals. In fact, if you just focus on the animals, you’re missing the bigger picture. Wildlife crime is no longer a handful of poor villagers looking to make a living. It’s a highly organized, professionalized commercial enterprise. In some cases, it also funds terrorism. In our inaugural investigation, for example, Special Investigations Unit chief correspondent Bryan Christy revealed how Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army has a team dedicated to elephant poaching in order to procure ivory, which they then trade to the South Sudanese military for weapons to allow them to continue their reign of terror in Central Africa.

Sometimes when talking about wildlife crime, advocates like to mention that after drug trafficking and arms trafficking, wildlife trafficking is the most lucrative black market in the world. There’s really no way of proving this (it’s notoriously difficult to estimate the size of black markets), but this kind of thinking helps us realize that the illegal wildlife trade isn’t just akin to organized crime — it is organized crime. 

Wildlife reporting is often relegated to the realm of science and environment reporting, but with Wildlife Watch, we hope to make readers realize that wildlife crime is just as important, and has just as many negative effects, as drug, arms and human trafficking, all of which the media covers regularly. From us, you can expect stories not just about elephant poaching and the ivory trade, but also about why illegal logging is actually a big deal, whether those swim-with-the-dolphin vacations are a good idea, and the real science of trophy hunting. We even cover trade policy

So check us out. Learn more about our new push to protect wildlife. And if you have any story ideas, you can reach me, Bryan and researcher Jani Actman at

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