The relationship between conflict and terrorism and ivory trafficking is often poorly understood. This article examines some of the realties underpinning this relationship, and calls for greater cross-sector cooperation in responses to ivory trafficking.
The Terrorism-Ivory Link: Overhyped (but Underestimated?)
In recent years, some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and activists have promoted a narrative that the ivory trade is a key source of funding for terrorist groups like al Shabaab and Boko Haram, and that terrorists in turn are significant players in the ivory trade. This is, however, as New York Times journalist Tristan McConnell has written, "a beguiling story divorced from reality." In one oft-repeated but now thoroughly debunked claim, al Shabaab supposedly obtained 40% of its annual revenue in 2010-2012 from the illegal ivory trade, a percentage that would have required the terrorist group to have been responsible, quite implausibly, for killing nearly every poached elephant in East and Central Africa over that time period. As the respected UK security think tank RUSI assessed in a detailed analysis of these supposed linkages, "Any al Shabaab involvement in the ivory trade to date is likely to have been opportunistic, ad hoc and small-scale." More broadly, they concluded, the terrorism-ivory trade nexus is in large part an "illusion" that "distracts policy-makers and law-enforcement agencies from effectively managing limited resources to tackle both terrorist financing and the illegal ivory trade."
However, while it is clear that the ivory-terrorism relationship has been grossly and counterproductively exaggerated for, perhaps, well-meaning as well as likely self-serving reasons, available evidence (not all of it published), does indicate that there are nonetheless some important overlaps in the criminal and financial networks used by both ivory traffickers and terrorist groups. Ivory traffickers active in East Africa, for example, have been documented to do business with certain individual Somali financial remittance providers previously implicated in terrorist financing activity. Similarly, reliable reporting indicates that small cells of extremists based along the Swahili coast of Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique – one of the major export regions for illegal ivory – work with at least some of the same cross-border smuggling networks along the same overland and maritime trafficking routes used by ivory traffickers to generate funds and move people and weapons. In addition, there are anecdotal reports of ivory being trafficked through the territory of terrorist groups in Africa, including al Shabaab, Boko Haram, and jihadist groups in Libya (although there is no indication that this trade is large scale or a significant source of revenue for these terrorist groups).
More Intelligent, Cross-Cutting Research Needed
The author F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that the true mark of intelligence is "the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." Regarding the supposed terrorism-ivory nexus, on one hand it is clear that ivory is not a significant source of revenue for terrorist groups, and similarly terrorist groups are not significant players in the ivory trade, despite over-simplistic, Hollywood-ready narratives to the contrary.
Nevertheless, at the same we are probably underestimating the extent to which ivory trafficking and terrorist networks in Africa exist side-to-side, and also are driven by at least some of the same macro-level political, economic, and societal trends, such as the ebb and flow of violent extremism along the Swahili Coast or the nuances of Somali diaspora dynamics in Africa and beyond. Further documentation and exploration of these overlaps is thus not only warranted, but, indeed, critical for understanding both the ivory trade and terrorism in Africa today. To do so effectively, however, will require greater collaboration between conservationists and security and counterterrorism analysts, a partnership in which both sides will need to invest to make worthwhile and effective.
Conflict and War: A Multifaceted Threat to Elephants
Unlike terrorism, armed conflict is one of the most important single supply-side drivers of elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade.
In active conflicts, elephants are a source of protein as well as extra income for combatants and civilians alike. Large elephant groupings in particular become inviting targets for individual militia and entrepreneurial combatant commanders, providing a quick and lucrative source of cash and materiel for poachers. The ongoing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, for instance, have devastated elephant populations in those countries, with central Africa as a whole losing 62% of its elephant population in the first decade of the 21st century. In Angola and Mozambique, conservationists are still struggling to bring elephants back to anywhere near the numbers they enjoyed prior to those countries' brutal civil wars, now almost three decades after they ended.
The toll exacted on elephants by human conflict extends far beyond the battlefield as well. Over the past decades, tens of thousands of elephants have been killed across Central and West Africa by combatant groups operating outside their original conflict theater. Poaching by Janjaweed militia from Sudan, Seleka militias from the Central African Republic, and the Lord's Resistance Army originally from Uganda, are all byproducts of dead, dormant, or diminished conflicts. At a more individual level, former combatants have also often emerged later as successful poachers, putting their skills with weapons and operational knowledge of the bush to use in the illegal ivory trade. In Tanzania, for example, many of the most notorious poachers active in the vast elephant habitat in and around Ruaha and Katavi National Parks are former combatants from the ethnic conflicts in Burundi.
Militia and non-state groups are not the only drivers of poaching and the illegal ivory trade originating from conflicts. Government military forces too have been complicit, with numerous allegations in the media and other reliable reporting of soldiers and officers from D.R. Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, and Uganda being implicated in poaching or the illegal trade in ivory. Adding further complexity, conflict-driven humanitarian emergencies and related flows of refugees, internally displaced people, and other victims of conflict also at times exacerbate or drive poaching and ivory trafficking activity, often by providing cover for organized criminal activity and the movement of related contraband and people. In southern Tanzania, for example, government security forces raided twelve villages within the recently decommissioned Katumba refugee camp complex, and arrested an extensive network of professional poaching gangs, small arms manufacturers and suppliers, and key logistics middlemen known to be actively engaged in poaching, as well as trading ivory to organized criminals for later sale and export.
Greater Cross-Sector Cooperation Needed
Compared to terrorism, war and conflict are far more devastating to both humans and elephants in Africa. This carries the powerful implication that any effort to combat ivory trafficking must involve greater and more productive engagement between conservationists and relevant counterparts in other sectors working to address conflicts and their impacts.
In the first instance, more needs to be done to bridge the almost total disconnect between conservationists and humanitarian organizations. Information sharing and alignment or even direct coordination of programs in areas impacted by conflict would pay dividends for both sectors, given humanitarian and conservation professionals both work extensively on the ground and share ultimately mutually reinforcing objectives, especially over longer terms.
In addition, the centrality of conflict to the illegal ivory trade implies a critical need for greater communication and cooperation between security sector actors, including militaries, and the conservation community. This can come as either greater engagement of conservationists with security sector practices and actors, such as embracing military and paramilitary style tactics (i.e. intelligence-driven patrolling), or conversely, encouraging greater military or security sector familiarity with and even direct involvement in achieving conservation outcomes. There are potential downsides to such approaches of course (especially given the involvement of some African militaries in poaching discussed above), but if done effectively and in accordance with the rule of law, security sector organizations are potentially powerful allies in the fight against ivory trafficking, especially in areas impacted by conflict.
Ultimately, the ivory trade is closely but often much more subtly intertwined with conflict and terrorism than is often publicly portrayed. Greater documentation and understanding of the complex and nuanced realities underpinning this relationship, and learning from and working with other relevant spheres of practice, especially the humanitarian and security sectors, are therefore critical ingredients to any effective effort to combat ivory trafficking.