Transnational criminal syndicates, terrorist organizations and Islamic extremists are increasingly turning to wildlife trafficking to bankroll their operations. Specifically, elephant and rhinoceros ivory accounts for an increasing share of the budget of Somali militant groups and al-Qaeda affiliates. So far, the White House and international agencies have failed to effectively address this emerging threat.
The United Nations has categorized trafficking in wildlife products as a “serious crime” in order to protect the animals that produce ivory. Nevertheless, their tusks are in demand throughout Africa, Asia and the West.
Wildlife poaching is lucrative, yielding an estimated $19 billion annually. The only other illicit industries that generate more money are drugs, counterfeiting and human trafficking. A kilogram of elephant ivory commands about $2,000, and the same amount of rhino horn fetches $65,000. The enormous sums of money involved, coupled with trans-African corruption, extreme poverty, poor law enforcement capabilities and weak judicial enforcement, have led to a thriving illicit market.
As a result of these staggering numbers, poaching has grown exponentially in recent years. In the last two years alone, almost 60,000 elephants and over 1,600 rhinos were hunted down for their ivory.
According to the Stimson Center, a respected Washington DC think tank, “the spike in poaching and wildlife crime coincides with the increased involvement of sophisticated transnational organized criminals and terrorist organizations.” Al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda affiliate that carried out the recent attacks in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, now reportedly generates over 40% of its revenue from illicit ivory sales. Other groups, such as Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army and Darfur’s Janjaweed, are also said to be turning to wildlife trafficking to bankroll their operations.
The goal of al-Shabab, which Australia, Canada, Norway, the United Kingdom and theUnited States have designated a terrorist organization, is to implement its own Salafi brand of Islamic rule in Somalia. It subsidizes its budget — approximately $70-$100 million annually — not only through wildlife trafficking, but also through a wide variety of other means, including extortion of Somalia’s traders and shopkeepers and donations from the Somali Diaspora and sympathetic Islamic charities.
Al-Shabab appears to get the vast majority of its elephant tusks from Kenya. The 420-mile Somalia-Kenya border is porous and serves as a transit route for contraband. According to the Elephant Action League, a series of brokers provides al-Shabab with the ivory. It is then generally taken overland to ports, where it is placed in crates of charcoal and taken out to sea in dhows, small sailing vessels, which transfer their wares to larger vessels of Arab, Chinese, Iranian and Korean origin.
The two biggest markets for illicit wildlife products are the United States and Asia, specifically China, but the problem is ultimately global. Ivory is considered a status symbol, and among the uneducated, it is thought to cure diseases such as cancer and to treat hangovers.
How can the international community curb poachers’ ability to operate? The Obama administration’s Executive Order on Combating Wildlife Trafficking, issued in July 2013, created an inter-agency task force, called for assistance to foreign governments combating traffickers and encouraged global enforcement. This is a good start, but much more should be done. The U.S. Treasury Department should identify and blacklist wildlife poachers and others involved in the illicit ivory trade, and the Department of Defense should provide African nations with drones to track and target illegal activity, as they do on the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada.According to retired general Carter Ham, who headed the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) until last April, “the use of drones is not only desirable, but is also likely to be very effective.”
International organizations like the U.N. and the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) have an important role to play. The U.N. could work with high-risk countries such as Kenya and South Africa to improve their intelligence-gathering capabilities, track the trade routes used by poachers, and help follow the financial trails of terrorist organizations trading in ivory.
For its part, the FATF, an intergovernmental body that sets standards on terrorism finance and money laundering, should highlight the issue of wildlife poaching and how illicit actors use it to launder money and raise funds. This would make policymakers, law-enforcement agencies, and banking authorities around the globe more aware of the issue.
As the international community grapples with the threat of terrorism and the fate of species on the brink of extinction, it is time to consider bold action. The cost of allowing poachers free rein to traffic in blood ivory is high. Both conservationists and counter-terrorism officials can agree that poaching needs to be curbed for the benefit of all humankind.