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Ivory: Africa’s New Blood Diamond


As the international financial community implements electronic regulatory measures to identify and stymie terror financing, a funding source for African terrorism has emerged that is far less detectable by computerized systems: elephant and rhino poaching.

Armed rebel groups and government militias have cashed into the lucrative profits ivory yields in worldwide markets, particularly in Asia. Although the 1989 Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species prohibits the ivory trade, the poaching of elephants and rhinos in Africa funds international terrorism and risks driving the animals to extinction.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, poachers kill an estimated 30,000 elephants every year for their ivory tusks. Armed poachers encircle and shoot animals from helicopters as forces on the ground approach to cut off the ivory and leave the carcasses to rot. Much of the activity occurs in Central Africa, where regions such as Congo’s Garamba National Park are home to concentrated elephant populations. African governments, often battling corruption and lacking strong local infrastructure, have struggled to combat the practice. In some countries, such as Congo and Uganda, government armies themselves perpetrate poaching activities.

In addition to government militias, African rebel groups are also frequent poachers, using the profits to acquire weapons and ammunition. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), notorious for abducting children, raping women, and pillaging communities, uses poaching profits to support warlord Joseph Kony. Darfur’s Janjaweed and Somalia’s Al-Shabaab, the latter of which is a branch of Al-Qaeda, also conduct some of the most active rebel poaching activity. These groups have contributed to genocide, violence, and instability within Africa, as well as support for terrorism beyond the continent.

Jonathan Hutson, Enough Project spokesman and author of “Kony’s Ivory,” told The Politic that the organized, global structure of the ivory trade has made curbing the practice a multi-faceted and cross-jurisdictional effort.

“International criminal syndicates, aided by corrupt officials, broker the multi-billion dollar black market in wildlife trafficking, which ties consumers in Asia to suppliers in Africa,” Hutson said. “We must understand the entire supply chain, including who brokers the global trafficking routes between the demand side and the supply.”

The New York Times reports that an estimated 40 tons of ivory were poached and shipped from Africa in 2011. Using routes common to illicit drug trafficking, smugglers transport the ivory to coastal ports where goods often depart uninspected. The vast majority of the ivory arrives in China, where it sells for up to $1,300 per pound. Demand is fueled by a rising middle class, a desire for status symbols, and a belief that ivory talismans cure disease. With ivory tusks weighing over 100 pounds apiece, every poached elephant represents a sizable profit – and a potential boon to terror activity.

“The risk/reward equation remains heavily stacked in favor of poachers, and will only move in favor of conservationists when BOTH the demand and supply side dynamics are successfully addressed,” Richard Vigne, CEO of Ol Pejeta Conservancy, a Kenyan wildlife conservancy, told The Politic. “However, the primary driver of both elephant and rhino poaching remains demand from the Far East.”

Poaching also depletes endangered animal populations and the ecosystems they help support. From 2002 to 2011, the number of Central African elephants fell by 62 percent. Conservation groups warn that forest elephants, which help maintain forest density and facilitate the passage and feeding patterns of other wildlife, may be on the brink of extinction. Furthermore, wildlife populations and safe areas for tourist viewing provide many African countries with a major source of revenue, now at risk due to poaching.

In the absence of wide-scale, effective efforts by African governments to curb poaching, international governments and advocacy organizations have increased their roles. U.S. non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the U.S. federal government have encouraged LRA defections through airdropping over 700,000 leaflets and deploying 100 American military personnel for non-combat support to African troops. Over the past five years, USAID contributions to combat wildlife trafficking globally totaled 24 million dollars. As U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton pledged American support for a global wildlife enforcement system to protect endangered species.

Another new strategy includes using unarmed aerial vehicles to monitor the areas where poaching often occurs and to provide real-time information to authorities to intercept poachers. Google has donated $5 million to the World Wildlife Fund for one such program.

Other African organizations purchase their own drones to protect against poaching. Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy, home to a large black and white rhino population, was the target of a poaching incident in March 2013. The conservancy raised funds to purchase a drone from an American company, received in July 2013.

The deterrent effect of drones “will play a major role in making people rethink the balance between risks and benefits when poaching,” explained Robert Breare, Ol Pejeta Commercial Director, to The Politic. “[Drones] are not a ‘silver-bullet’ solution, but rather an addition to the armory against what is becoming an increasingly sophisticated and professional poaching onslaught.”

While efforts to combat poaching continue to evolve, critics argue that the U.S. and the international community must dedicate more resources and broaden their tactics to fully address the poaching epidemic. As some of Africa’s most violent militias increasingly derive financial support from the sale of ivory, poaching poses not only an ecological danger, but also a threat to regional and global security.