Exposer of poacher bad guys has his own complex backstory

Bryan Christy's Geographic article was turned into a PBS film.
Bryan Christy's Geographic article was turned into a PBS film. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff)
Posted: February 26, 2013

Bryan Christy plans to hunker down with a beer in his Philadelphia living room at 9 p.m. Wednesday and tune in to a National Geographic documentary that stars, among others, him.

Christy's investigative article for the October issue of National Geographic, exposing the scourge of the illegal ivory trade, is the basis for the documentary Battle for the Elephants.

The hermetic setting he has chosen to watch is a stark contrast to his recent celebrity whirlwind - making the rounds of the Explorers Club in Manhattan, appearing on MSNBC and PBS Newshour, and speaking at international conferences about the black market in ivory.

On the surface, Christy's situation is not that complicated: National Geographic has assigned him to look into stories about endangered wildlife.

His backstory, however, is a twisty tale of thwarted family expectations, ghastly fascinations, and balance sheets.

Over pots of mint tea last week at a Center City restaurant, Christy spoke about his life and work.

In 1995, his 55-year-old father, Paul, was in the terminal stages of colon cancer at Pennsylvania Hospital. It wasn't the dying man doing the confessing, though. It was Christy.

After disappointing the relatives who wanted him to go into the family funeral business in South Jersey, Christy graduated from Pennsylvania State University and became an accountant. Uninspired by that line of work, he went to law school, won a Fulbright scholarship to study in Tokyo, and returned to a spot at a Washington law firm, specializing in international trade.

He was 36, owned a townhouse near the Capitol, and drove a Jaguar. But he was unhappy. Nervous and shaking, sitting beside his father, Christy shared his dark secret: "I've always wanted to be a writer."

His father's response - "If you can pay your bills, do what you love" - rerouted Christy's life.

He quit law, sold his house and car, and spent seven years going broke.

He worked on a John Grisham-style thriller until it screamed for mercy, and he finally gave up. After attending a summer program at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, he finally got his first break in 2004. Playboy bought a freelance piece he wrote about a $7.6 million gold coin fenced on Sansom Street.

Not long after, Christy tapped back into childhood passions that had lain dormant for years - his fascination with cold-blooded creatures, reptilian and human.

It grew, in part, out of his familiarity with the macabre. "You grow up in a funeral home, and you have sort of a biological bias. You're seeing people every day talking about the most difficult thing in their lives, and next door, a dissection is taking place."

As a boy, he curated a personal Mutter museum in his bedroom. He'd climb onto his roof with roadkill, turning the rotting corpses every few days so they would desiccate evenly, then he'd harvest the bleached skulls for his collection.

He used to trade home-embalmed toads, moles, and frogs with his friends the way other boys traded baseball cards. His cherished childhood pet was a 15-foot python, Socrates.

"If you found a snake in your yard and called the police," he recalls, "they'd tell you to call me."

All of which served as excellent training for his current field of expertise.

Now 49, Christy has carved out a journalistic niche, exposing the underbelly of international exotic-animal smuggling.

His 2008 book, The Lizard King, traced the life of one of Earth's most powerful wildlife traffickers.

After it was published, Christy wanted to focus on an endangered species, with rhinos, tigers, and elephants as candidates.

A tip about how ivory was being used to make religious icons in the Philippines, he says, led him to write "Blood Ivory" for National Geographic.

In the course of his research, he met with a Catholic priest, Cristobal Garcia, who showed him a treasure trove of ivory religious figures. Garcia left Los Angeles in the 1980s after being accused of molesting altar boys, a charge he denied, and returned to his hometown of Cebu in the Philippines, where he is now a monsignor.

Christy's three-year investigation revealed the political and religious roots of the illegal ivory trade that, despite a 1989 ban, he reported, was causing the slaughter of tens of thousands of elephants every year.

Relaxed in a black long-sleeved T-shirt and tan cargo pants, he spins tales of his adventures, like knocking on the steel gates of a smuggler's compound in rural Kenya, wearing a hidden camera in his eyeglasses to record a woman offering to sell illegal ivory in China.

"I tend to like bad guys more than the good guys," he says. He gets frustrated with well-intentioned nonprofits and government agencies that seem blind to their failures.

Bad guys, at least, are under no delusions that what they are doing is wrong.

Contact Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

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