Links between terrorism and the ivory trade overblown, study says

By Ashoka Mukpo

  • As killings of elephants in Africa spiked in the early 2010s, some conservation organizations claimed the ivory trade was financing armed groups like al-Shabaab and the Lord’s Resistance Army.
  • According to a study published in Global Environmental Politics, those ties were overstated and strategically pushed by NGOs in order to attract funding for anti-poaching efforts.
  • Despite shaky evidence for some of the claims, they helped frame wildlife trafficking as a global security issue and were subsequently repeated by policymakers from the U.S. and elsewhere.
  • The study said the confluence of conservation and security policy has had “material outcomes for marginalized peoples living with wildlife, including militarization, human rights abuses, enhanced surveillance, and law enforcement.”

The white gold of jihad.” “Case proven: ivory trafficking funds terrorism.” “How killing elephants finances terror in Africa.” Just a few years ago, headlines like this were commonplace, as conservation campaigners looking to draw attention to the slaughter of elephants and other wildlife touted the involvement of terrorist organizations like al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria. But a new study published in the journal Global Environmental Politics says that evidence for those links was flimsy, even as they were cited to justify tougher and more punitive conservation policies in Africa.

“The publicly available evidence base for the relationship between poaching and armed non-state actors is very thin,” said Rosaleen Duffy, the study’s author and chair of international politics at the University of Sheffield, U.K. “In the al-Shabaab case I think it’s been largely discredited.”

The study presented the findings of 43 anonymous interviews conducted with conservation practitioners who included donor organization staff, ranger trainers, and NGO workers. Despite little evidence that the wildlife trade was a primary source of financing for armed groups, some of the interviewees said the narrative had nonetheless been useful in fundraising and capturing the attention of U.S. policymakers.

“The conservation community has not really expressed a whole lot of skepticism because it is driving money their way,” one of the interviewees, described as a “D.C.-based conservationist,” said as quoted in the study.

Community rangers guard elephants in Sera Conservancy, Northern Rangelands, Kenya. Image by USAID Biodiversity & Forestry via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Recent claims that the ivory trade finances terrorism in Africa trace back to the early 2010s, when a heavy spike in poaching led to as many as 40,000 elephants being killed per year. Alarmed at the gruesome toll, Duffy said some conservation groups overplayed connections to militant groups in order to get the problem onto the radar of Western policymakers who were preoccupied with international terrorism and the rise of ISIS.

“This was a way of tapping into bigger resources in the international system,” Duffy told Mongabay. “If you can make the case that tackling the illegal wildlife trade also tackles global security, you can help elephants, but you can also address terrorist threats against the U.S. and Europe, and that’s a really potent mix for organizations to promote.”

At one point, some groups claimed that as much as 40% of the salaries earned by al-Shabaab fighters were paid out of profits from ivory trafficking, and others said it was also a key revenue stream keeping Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army afloat. But those claims were later challenged by researchers and academics, who say they created a skewed picture of poaching in Africa and let more consequential culprits off the hook.

“For the Kenyan government to be blaming al-Shabaab instead of looking at corruption in the [Kenya] Wildlife Service or local customs officials, it’s much more convenient to say the problem is an evil external actor or terrorist group than to say, ‘we have massive problems in our house that we need to clean up,’” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of a 2018 study on the involvement of militant groups in the wildlife trade.

Members of the Al Shabaab in 2012, after giving themselves up to forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in Somalia. Image by AMISOM Public Information via Wikimedia Commons.

Even as the depiction of terrorists and militant groups as central actors in the wildlife trade gained traction with donors in the U.S. and Europe, the most commonly cited cases didn’t hold up to close scrutiny. One group of researchers, for example, found that the Lord’s Resistance Army played a smaller role in poaching in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Garamba National Park than opportunistic raiders from South Sudan. And the organization that first publicized allegations of links between al-Shabaab and East Africa’s ivory trade, the Elephant Action League, later said its work had been misinterpreted by the media.

Still, the group said the narrative had nonetheless been valuable in bringing attention and resources to fighting the trade. “[I]t can be argued that the publicity helped to wake up the international community to the extent of the current elephant poaching crisis,” it wrote in a follow-up to its research.

According to an anonymous staffer at a donor organization who was interviewed for the Global Environmental Politics study, the framing was particularly effective in bringing the attention of the United States to bear on the wildlife trade.

“[If] there is a link to terrorism, they will look at it,” they said.

Garamba National Park staff examine the carcass of an elephant poached in May 2012. Image by Nuria Ortega/African Parks Network and Enough Project via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Shaky evidence, long reach

Despite limited publicly available evidence to back it up, the depiction of ivory trafficking as fuel for terrorism and militancy has featured prominently in U.S. conservation foreign policy discourse. As recently as 2017, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton told an audience that elephant poaching supports “terroristic activity,” and at a 2015 hearing held by the U.S. Congress, representatives of both parties asserted that the wildlife trade was funding terrorist groups. Politicians normally at odds with one another have found rare common ground over the framing of wildlife trafficking as a national security issue.

“The notion that you link to something that’s salient for policymakers isn’t new, and it can be a smart way to change policy,” Felbab-Brown said. “But it becomes problematic when it presents a distorted or exaggerated picture that skews policy towards the wrong focus.”

According to Duffy, the discourse surrounding terrorist links to ivory trafficking helped shift U.S. and European conservation policy — and funding — in Africa toward an approach that prioritizes law enforcement and the aggressive defense of protected parks. Between 2010 and 2016, of $1.3 billion spent by 24 international donors on ending the global wildlife trade, 65% was directed toward protected areas and law enforcement initiatives, in comparison with only 15% that went toward livelihood support for communities living near areas with high rates of poaching.

“A security and law enforcement approach may be entirely appropriate in some situations, I’m not trying to deny that much of this activity is against the law,” Duffy said. “But I think the overwhelming focus on the illegal wildlife trade as a matter of crime and insecurity prompts a crime and insecurity response, which privileges things like enhanced law enforcement or judicial reform, funding the expansion of courts and so on, and shifts the lens a little bit away from seeing the trade as an issue of global wealth and inequality.”

Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference, London 2018. The discourse surrounding terrorist links to ivory trafficking helped shift U.S. and European conservation policy — and funding — in Africa to support protected parks. Image by Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

During their terms in office as U.S. president, both Barack Obama and Donald Trump signed executive orders describing the illegal wildlife trade as a threat to U.S. national interests and directed law enforcement agencies to disrupt it. In the U.S. State Department’s 2021 review of the Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt Wildlife Trafficking Act of 2016, it said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now has attachés posted to the embassies of 10 countries as well as AFRICOM, the U.S. military’s command center in Africa. In recent years, some of those agents have been involved in intelligence gathering and cross-border arrests of wildlife traffickers.

While in some rare cases the move towards a coordinated law enforcement approach has led to the prosecution of high-profile poachers, the dirty work of killing wildlife is often carried out by poorly equipped locals looking to supplement their incomes rather than heavily armed traffickers or militant groups. When arrests and prosecutions are made, they tend to be the ones in the docket rather than the well-connected smugglers and traders who earn the highest profits and are rarely convicted even when caught.

“Local hunters and now poachers get very little but do all the labour and carry the risks,” said Keith Sommerville, author of the book Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa.

While organized and well-armed poaching cartels do exist, Duffy said focusing too much on them can be a distraction from more effective strategies that address the core drivers of poaching. One study published in the journal Nature Communications, for example, showed that the most reliable indicators for elephant poaching rates were demand in East Asia along with the level of poverty and corruption in countries where traffickers operate.

“When you change the mindset towards a militarized approach, with that comes different ways of thinking about local communities. Now that community is either an informant or a threat to wildlife. It can recast them in very different roles and ones that aren’t necessarily positive in the longer term,” she said.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe speaks in front of the ivory tusk tower assembled to be destroyed during the “U.S. Ivory Crush” event in 2013. Ashe said he hopes this effort would raise awareness on elephant poaching and help to ensure their survival. Image by Gavin Shire / USFWS Mountain-Prairie via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

When the only tool is a hammer

Even some groups whose mission includes training and equipping rangers to patrol protected areas in Africa say that in recent years they’ve come to realize hard-line approaches can make poaching problems worse. Damien Mander, founder of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation and an Australian veteran of the Iraq war, said his experience chasing poachers between South Africa’s Kruger National Park and neighboring Mozambique eventually led him to shift toward a more collaborative approach with communities.

“Our mission there was to stop poachers from coming into Kruger, and we were able to help play a part within a bigger system of driving a downturn of incursions from Mozambique from 75% down to 30%. But the ultimate truth was that we were repeating the same mistakes we made in Iraq of bringing in an occupying force to try and control the local population. That is a failed theory,” he told Mongabay.

Mander, who now supervises ranger deployments in Zimbabwe and other parts of Southern Africa, said military hardware and law enforcement alone aren’t enough to tackle poaching.

“We want to look at hunting [as] more of an equation to be solved than an argument to be had. So we stay away from ‘hunting is bad’ — right or wrong, our job is to try and find a solution to hunting,” he said.

Park rangers in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Image by Ptera via Pixabay.

Protecting wildlife in Africa continues to be a dangerous job. Six park rangers were killed in an ambush in the DRC’s Virunga National Park in January 2021, and just a few months later Rory Young, the co-founder of Chengeta Wildlife, was killed in an attack in Burkina Faso’s Arly National Park along with two Spanish journalists. Supporters of aggressive law enforcement and anti-poaching efforts say the risks are worth it. Elephant poaching in Africa is at its lowest rate since 2003, and countries like Tanzania and Kenya have arrested thousands of traffickers in recent years, helping to facilitate modest recoveries in elephant populations.

But others point to China’s 2017 ban on ivory sales as the reason why poaching rates dropped, as the steep decline in prices — and thus, profits — that followed made the trade less lucrative for traffickers.

Even with growing recognition that harsh conservation tactics can inflict harm on communities, Duffy said her research shows that the incentives to frame wildlife trafficking as a security problem aren’t going anywhere. As long as policymakers in the U.S. and elsewhere are more attracted to the language of terrorism and criminality than the pressures of poverty, that’s where the bulk of the funding is likely to flow.

“I don’t see them moving away from it. We’re about 14 years in now of treating the illegal wildlife trade as a matter of crime and security, and of enhanced law enforcement and militarization,” she said. “And that changes the culture of organizations, it changes the recruits that you get, and it changes the whole outlook. That’s really difficult to stop and reframe.”

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