Beyond worries of the species’ survival, elephant poaching has given rise to security and terrorism concerns across central and eastern African countries.
Many poachers and ivory traffickers are funded and supported by organised gangs and criminal syndicates with ties to terrorist groups. Ivory has become the ‘white gold’ of Jihad militants, with funds from ivory sales helping to finance groups such as Somalia’s al-Shabaab (the al-Qaeda linked group responsible for the violence in a Nairobi mall in September 2013), Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, and Sudan’s Janjaweed militia. Al-Shabaab earns between $200,000 and $600,000 a month from ivory sales; around 40% of the funds it needs to undertake its terrorist attacks comes from ivory buyers and consumers.
Transnational criminal organizations and armed groups are taking advantage of high-level corruption and lack of border security to move ivory across borders and to avoid detection and prosecution.
Piles of confiscated tusks.
As well as the catastrophic fall in the elephant population caused by poaching, the close connection between poaching and organised crime is taking a heavy toll on local communities and the human population. Rangers are being targeted and killed in ever-growing numbers – over 1,000 in the past decade, plus thousands more are estimated to have been killed locally – while much-needed tourism income is being destroyed.
The links between ivory traffickers and African militias are undermining the very fabric of society in these countries, while the use of ‘blood ivory’ to fund terrorist groups has put the issue on the national-security agenda in the US, the UK and elsewhere.
The governments of African countries must find the coordinated political will to take the strongest measures possible to halt the ivory trade and save their elephants from being poached to extinction – in particular to increase the punishment for poaching and trafficking ivory and close the loopholes all along the chain. At the start of 2014 there were a few encouraging signs from some African countries that the problem was being addressed – such as Kenya’s new wildlife bill which brought in the harshest yet penalties for poaching and trafficking; the transport in Cote d’Ivoire of a group of elephants in conflict with humans to an area of safety; and the beginning of a recovery of elephant numbers in Chad, thanks to new anti-poaching measures.
And it was hoped that the measures agreed at the global conference on the illegal wildlife trade, held in London in February, would succeed in turning the tide.