A growing number of terrorist groups in Africa are turning to the illegal trade of elephant tusks to finance their operations, cashing in on a massive demand for ivory spurred by a burgeoning, wealthier middle class in Asia.
Al Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab in Somalia, Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa and Boko Haram in Nigeria are among the militants making money from trafficking ivory tusks from slaughtered elephants to pay their fighters and buy arms and ammunition.
“For al-Shabab, ivory, like charcoal, is just a fast and relatively easy way to make some cash, which is needed first of all to pay a salary to its militants, estimated at around 5,000 people,” said Andrea Crosta, executive director of Elephant Action League, who along with Nir Kalron, chief executive officer of the private security firm Maisha Consulting, has recently investigated al-Shabab’s links to ivory trafficking.
“The well-organized network that al-Shabab has in Kenya, the weak wildlife law and the scores of Kenyans willing to risk their life to make some money make the traffic in ivory easy, profitable and low-risk,” Mr. Crosta said.
Somali armed gangs have been poaching elephants in and around Kenya for many years, but al-Shabab has only recently started to exploit this situation. The investigation by Mr. Crosta and Mr. Kalron estimates al-Shabab’s monthly ivory income to be $200,000 to $600,000.
“The group became a very good ivory trader, buying ivory from poachers and traffickers in Kenya and reselling it immediately to intermediaries in Somalia, making a big profit,” Mr. Crosta said.
U.S. officials monitoring al-Shabab say they have clamped down significantly on the organization’s finances and that as a result the group is pursuing a variety of other revenue streams.
“We will continue our comprehensive efforts to target the funding streams benefiting al-Shabab and similar regional terrorist groups,” said U.S. Treasury Department spokesman John L. Sullivan. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control takes the lead among American agencies tracking and clamping down on terrorist financing worldwide.
In December, the U.N. Security Council called for an investigation into elephant poaching and ivory smuggling by the Lord’s Resistance Army.
An investigation by the Enough Project and the Satellite Sentinel Project this year found that Kony has ordered his Lord’s Resistance Army fighters to bring him elephant tusks, which are then used to buy food, weapons and ammunition.
The report, which studied rebels’ poaching operations in Garamba National Park in Congo, is based on information from multiple sources, including senior defectors from Kony’s group.
Boko Haram, which the State Department on Wednesday designated as a foreign terrorist organization, gets money from ivory trafficking as well.
Many other smaller and illegal armed groups in sub-Saharan Africa are involved in poaching elephants and trafficking ivory.
Ivory is one of many sources of income for terrorist organizations.
“What African governments are realizing and what the U.S. government has realized is that this is not just a conservation issue anymore because the money from this ivory is being used to fund terrorist activities and destabilize regions in Africa,” said Kathleen Garrigan, a spokeswoman for the African Wildlife Foundation. “[These governments] realize this is a peace and security issue.
“The U.S. government has definitely been getting more interested in this because a lot of the work the State Department does is being undermined by terrorist activities that are partially funded by trade in illegal ivory,” she added.
On Thursday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will, for the first time, destroy nearly 6 tons of African and Asian elephant ivory.
The crushing of the ivory stockpile at a warehouse in Denver is intended to send a message to poachers and traffickers that the United States will take all available steps to disrupt and prosecute those who prey on and profit from the killing of elephants.
The Philippines in June became the first consumer country to destroy its stockpile of ivory. Gabon, Kenya and Zambia also have destroyed seized ivory.
Besides the Philippines, large quantities of ivory have been seized in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda are the main sources of ivory in Africa.
In 1989, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora banned international trade in ivory. The ban resulted in a steep drop in elephant poaching, and elephant populations gradually grew.
However, with growing demand from a more wealthy middle class in Asia, particularly in China and Thailand, the price of ivory on the international black market has soared, triggering a dramatic increase in elephant poaching across Africa.
The Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington estimates that as many as 50,000 elephants are being killed every year. Assuming approximately 400,000 elephants are left on the continent, African elephants could be virtually extinct in the next decade, the center predicted.
A booming business
An analysis by the Elephant Trade Information System found the illegal trade in elephant ivory to be at its highest level in two decades.
Wildlife groups estimate that 10,000 to 25,000 elephants are slaughtered in Tanzania each year for their tusks.
In Zimbabwe, poachers last month killed more than 300 elephants using cyanide at Hwange, the country’s largest national park.
Local wildlife rangers tasked with monitoring vast areas are often outnumbered by significantly better-armed poachers.
Some terrorist groups have turned to ivory as other funding sources have been squeezed.
Al-Shabab lost control of important territory in Somalia in 2011 and 2012, including the strategic ports of Kismayo and Merka. These setbacks deprived it of some income, including the ability to levy taxes in parts of southern and central Somalia.
Mr. Crosta of the Elephant Action League said his sources in Africa, built over the course of a 24-month investigation, told him that al-Shabab has had to “reorganize many things logistically” after losing the Somali ports.
Ms. Garrigan of the African Wildlife Foundation said smuggling ivory is no different from trafficking in arms and drugs to the terrorists and criminal syndicates.
“It’s just another commodity that these terror groups and criminal syndicates use to fund their activities,” she said.
“The reason this has become so lucrative and a lot of groups are adopting this as a way to fund their activities is that a wildlife crime — shooting an elephant and trafficking its ivory — is very low-risk for poachers and traffickers. At least historically, all they get is a slap on the wrist, so it is not really a disincentive.
“Coupled with the fact that ivory is worth more on the black market than gold, those two realities combined on the ground make it very easy for them to make money.”
U.S. officials emphasize link
The State Department on Wednesday announced a reward of up to $1 million for information leading to the disruption of a wildlife trafficking syndicate in Laos, called the Zaysavang Network and led by a smuggler named Vixay Keosavang.
Rep. Edward R. Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who sponsored a bill to attack the wildlife smuggling, applauded the State Department action.
“If we can take down Vixay Keosavang’s network, the impact will be felt globally,” the California Republican said. “Vixay Keosavang, one of the worst actors in the black market of wildlife parts, has been given virtual immunity by the government of Laos.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, for whom protecting Africa’s wildlife has been a personal crusade in and out of office, has underscored the link between ivory trafficking and terrorist groups in Africa.
“There is growing evidence that the terrorist groups stalking Africa, including al-Shabab fund their terrorist activities to a great extent from ivory trafficking,” she said at a meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York in September.
On a visit to Tanzania in July, President Obama issued an executive order to combat wildlife trafficking.
The order calls on the U.S. government to develop a national strategy by the end of the year that may include proposed collaboration with other governments to fight wildlife trafficking.
“We are concerned by the growing involvement of transnational organized crime and armed militias in poaching and the illegal wildlife trade,” a State Department official said on background.
“These activities negatively impact economic livelihoods, health, security, and the rule of law across the continent.”