Ivory and Terrorism

Elephant ivory seized from poachers in Garamba.
Ivory and Terrorism - Derek Schlickeisen

What do endangered elephants and rhinos have in common with one of Africa’s most dangerous terrorist organizations? More than you might think.

Headlines were made around the world last September when masked gunmen attacked the upscale Westgate shopping complex in Nairobi, Kenya. The assault killed six security personnel and 61 civilians, including 2004 Johns Hopkins SAIS graduate Elif Yavuz. Credit for the brutality was claimed by al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda-linked jihadist group that controlled much of neighboring Somalia until late 2011, when a joint Kenyan-Somali military operation began to drive the militants out of their urban strongholds. In a statement after the attacks, al-Shabaab explicitly named Kenyan participation in the offensive as motivation for the slaughter.

Fewer headlines have been made, however, by Kenya’s other long-running battle against al-Shabaab: that being waged by the Kenya Wildlife Service in the country’s northeastern region against poachers from the militant group that slip across the border in search of “white gold” – tusks from the country’s 35,000 African elephants.

The global market for illegal wildlife products funnels more than $19 billion a year to international criminal syndicates and terrorist organizations like al-Shabaab. In 2013, an undercover investigation by Maisha Consulting and the Elephant Action League shed light on the role played by African ivory in this massive illicit cash flow.

Small bands of poachers, typically armed with AK-47 assault rifles, ambush elephant herds as they cluster around watering holes. After the adults have been killed, their tusks are hacked off and delivered to Somali brokers operating on behalf of al-Shabaab. Poachers appreciate working with the jihadists because they pay top dollar. In turn, al-Shabaab smuggles the ivory out of a Kenyan or Somali port through the Persian Gulf, where it is transferred by an Arabian or Asian criminal syndicate to its final destination (most often China). More than 22,000 African elephants were killed in this way last year, prompting TRAFFIC International – a group that monitors the international wildlife trade – to predict that the continent will lose up to one-fifth of its elephant population within a decade.

Yet conventional wisdom has for years done a disservice to international security by looking at ivory poaching as merely a wildlife conservation problem. The link to international security, however, could not be clearer: at up to $600,000 per month, al-Shabaab is suspected to be making enough money from the ivory trade to finance nearly 40% of the salary paid to its estimated 5,000 fighters. 

In part, international wildlife authorities have themselves to blame for a resurgence in the ivory market that is fueling this growing crisis. The illegal ivory trade was largely suppressed when ivory products were added in 1989 to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which outlaws trade in goods harvested from endangered species of plants and animals. A blanket ban on ivory provided both interdiction on the supply side and a clear public message – “ivory is taboo” – that reduced demand.

Yet after the successful 1989 ban, intense lobbying from African nations with idle stockpiles of ivory and Asian nations with traditional ivory-carving industries led a series of ill-advised “exemptions” to be granted. In 1999, a one-time sale by several African countries to Japan was approved as an “experiment” to test the impact of an attempt to set up a monitored and controlled trade in ivory under the auspices of the CITES agreement. In 2008, the mistake was repeated, with CITES approving China as a buyer for 108 tons of ivory from state stockpiles in Botswana, Numibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

As detailed in a scathing Environmental Investigation Agency report, the new ivory sale stimulated demand for both legal and illegal ivory by removing some of the public taboo around ivory and lending a veneer of legitimacy to the ivory business. In turn, ivory poached and sold on the black market in response to this soaring Asian demand has undercut the price of legal ivory, making ivory bought at state-sanctioned and monitored outlets unappealing. China’s economic boom in recent years has propelled tens of millions into the middle class, creating a vast new base of potential buyers for ivory products. Today, Chinese demand is considered to be primarily responsible for a spike in African elephant poaching that made 2011 and 2012 the two worst years on record since the 1989 ban.

Policymakers can address this growing security crisis and ecological disaster, but only by correcting some of the mistakes of the past.

On the supply side, developed countries and international agencies like INTERPOL need to work with African source countries to increase law enforcement training and on-the-ground capacity. The international ivory trade must be treated with the same seriousness as drug and human trafficking: penalties need to be stiffened, and “best practices” in law enforcement – like incentivizing captured suspects to cooperate in sting operations – need to replace a current strategy that relies far too much on a military-first approach of engaging and killing poachers in the field. Only by severing the high-level links between al-Shabaab poachers and the international buyers of their goods can these jihadist militants be driven away from the lucrative ivory trade.

On the demand side, CITES and the broader international community at a minimum need to enforce existing provisions regulating the sale of ivory in China, including effective monitoring of legal ivory markets and the elimination of rampant low-level customs corruption that allows illicit ivory into the country. An even better step would be to announce a complete ban on any further “one-time” sales and simply burn existing stockpiles – a step recently taken in China’s semi-autonomous Hong Kong region – to send a powerful public message that ivory is once again a social and legal taboo.

It is time for international policymakers and their partner countries in Africa and Asia to take coordinated action on the illicit ivory trade, cutting off the financial spigot that is funding some of the most dangerous terrorists operating today.