What is driving the demise of the African elephant?

Keith Somerville on the diverse and dangerous networks behind the ivory smuggling trade

The diverse and dangerous networks that are driving the demise of Africa's elephants

In recent years reports of the slaughter of elephants in national parks in Cameroon, Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have highlighted the role of a variety of rebel and militia groups in ivory poaching and smuggling. They have come to dominate the media narrative on ivory and the conservation of elephants.

A number of official, scientific and media reports in the last few months have served to emphasise both the long-term threat to the survival of Africa's elephants and the connection between poaching, conflict and insurgent movements in West, Central and East Africa. But there is also growing evidence of the role that political, military and other forms of corruption are also playing in the diverse and dangerous web of factors accelerating poaching and the threat to elephant populations around the continent.

A particularly interesting development was the conference of intelligence chiefs from African states held in Harare at the end of July. Meeting under the auspices of the Committee of Intelligence and Security Services of Africa (Cissa), the participants warned that poaching was a serious political/security problem and there was "a great deal of evidence of fledgling linkages between poaching and wildlife trafficking on one hand and transnational organised criminal activities, including terrorism and weapons proliferation, on the other".

They were at pains to demonstrate the extent to which the illegal ivory trade is funding insurgent groups in West and Central Africa. They showed particular concern over the role of Al Shabab in Somalia, the Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), South Sudanese rebels, and insurgents group from Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR) in elephant poaching.

The alarm sounded by the intelligence heads coincided with a detailed report  in the August volume of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, by a group of researchers led by George Wittemeyer of Colorado State University. This calculated that poachers have killed about 100,000 elephants in Africa since 2011. The rate of killing exceeds 7% - even higher in Central Africa - while the average annual population increase is only 5%.

This suggests a process of attrition that could if unchecked lead to the extinction of the elephant in Central and West Africa and even in areas of East Africa. Populations further south, notably in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, are less threatened. But in the danger areas, elephants are scattered in relatively small population groups in a latitudinal band from the southern Sahel regions of west and central Africa, notably Mali and Chad, through Cameroon, CAR and northern DRC into South Sudan, northern Kenya and Somalia.

This is a region where weak governments, poor policing of reserves, porous borders and widespread conflict mean that insurgent groups have proliferated using local resources as a means of prolonging their conflicts and enriching their leaders.

Ivory funding insurgency

The intelligence meeting, reported in detail by South Africa's Mail and Guardian, identified serious "terrorist" threats to Africa, linking them with poaching and smuggling. The meeting discussed evidence that groups from South Sudan, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Nigeria were all benefiting from the poaching and trafficking of wildlife and recommended that the matter be treated as a transnational security concern.

One might say that they have come late to the game and have only now publicly admitted to a problem that has been increasingly researched and reported by conservationists and campaigning NGOs.

Not surprisingly, the intelligence chiefs said nothing openly about the role of African armed forces - including the Sudanese government-backed Janjaweed militias, the DR Congo army and the Ugandan army - in poaching.

Neither did they examine the threat to conservation nor to the accountability and probity of governments of the growing body of evidence that political elites and government officials in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Tanzania are heavily involved in poaching and the smuggling of ivory and rhino horn for personal enrichment and to fund networks of political patronage.

They also skated over the smuggling routes used to get the ivory out through Khartoum, Dar es Salaam, Mombasa, Lagos, Douala and other cities, with the connivance of corrupt politicians and officials. These have traditionally been the routes for ivory smuggling to East Asia, where China and Vietnam are now very lucrative markets.

Groups like CITES, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Interpol put the market price for raw ivory in countries like China and Vietnam at $3,000 per kg - poachers as individuals or criminal/rebels groups may get $50-100 per kg, with middlemen taking perhaps four times that amount.

Groups like the Sudanese Janjaweed appear to be both poachers and middlemen, poaching elephants as far west as Cameroon but also in Chad, DRC and CAR, then shipping it out through Khartoum or Mombasa, the latter through established criminal networks in Kenya with a long history of ivory and rhino horn smuggling.

The meeting of African intelligence chiefs wanted to make the point that movements like Boko Haram and Al Shabab, which are of concern to Western governments with their eyes on areas of insecurity and the apparent growth of armed Islamist movements in Africa, are benefitting from a trade that is viewed with disgust by governments and many people in Europe and North America.

The states concerned, like Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya, clearly see this as a way of getting increased Western funding and political backing for military cooperation between sub-Saharan African states in combatting these threats to their regimes' security. The United States, Britain and France are already involved to varying extents in the search for LRA leader Joseph Kony, the conflicts in the Central African Republic and Mali, and the search for the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria in April.

In early September, US special forces carried out a raid in southern Somalia aimed at killing leaders of the Al Shabab movement. Western governments are helping to fund AMISON, the African Union military force fighting Al Shabab in Somalia.

Last year's attack by Al Shabab on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi is said by some conservation consultants to have been partly funded by proceeds from trading in ivory poached in northern Kenya and this has given impetus to the examination of ivory as a source of funding of rebel groups from Somalia, Uganda, the CAR and now Nigeria, too.

According to Nir Kalron (Founder & CEO of Maisha Consulting) and Andrea Crosta (Executive of the Elephant Action League), between one to three tons of ivory, fetching a price of roughly US$200 per kilo for Al Shabab, pass through southern Somalia every month.

They believe Al Shabab may earn between$200,000 and $600,000 a month from ivory. This can help pay for to maintain its force of jihadis. The movement also earns money through engaging in illegal charcoal trading, which is having severe effects on the environment in Al Shabab controlled areas.

Specialists with the international ivory trade and poaching monitoring organizations Traffic and MIKE (which work with the IUCN and CITES) have questioned both the funding of the Westgate attack and the extent of Al Shabab involving in poaching and the ivory trade, warning that the evidence is far from solid and care needs to be taking in assessing the movement's earnings from ivory.

This demonstrates the problems of identifying the involvement of insurgent movements in poaching and trading and the tendency for the media and campaigning groups to seize on rumour, partial information or small-scale ivory finds to create a narrative that utilizes a link with the "War on Terror" framing of conflicts like Somalia to highlight the threat posed by poachers and to use a movement's notoriety to publicise the threat to elephants.

Much of this evidence of the link between ivory and insurgency is supported by a recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Interpol, which says that environmental crime globally brings in $123bn a year and that significant funds from these illegal earnings finance criminal, militia and "terrorist groups" and threaten "the security and sustainable development of many nations"

The report, entitled  The Environmental Crime Crisis, says that conservative estimates indicate that between 20-25,000 elephants are killed annually in Africa from a population of 420,000 to 650,000. It points to a particularly high rate of killing of forest elephants in Central Africa, whose population has declined by 64% between 2002 and 2011.

This report does not, though ignore the role of corrupt government, police, military and other officials in enabling and benefitting from poaching and smuggling through links with highly organised criminal networks. Its findings are supported by another in-depth study produced by Born Free USA and the Centre for Defense Analysis (C4DA).

 The evidence from this research is that poaching "is no longer just a conservation issue...[it] funds a wide range of destabilizing factors across Africa with significant implications for human conflict". Ivory poaching is not a motivation for these conflicts and certainly not a contributory cause but it does provide significant funding and has led to the development of links between groups like the LRA and the Sudanese Janjaweed militias (who were heavily involved in the slaughter, rape and plundering of communities in Darfur and are still involved in localized conflicts there and in deadly livestock raiding raiding) and between armed groups in the CAR, Chad and both Sudans.

It is also suggested that the Nigerian Boko Haram movement is also becoming involved. The Born Free USA report warns that "Cameroon's last elephants are trapped between waves of conflict and spillover from all directions, including horseback poachers backed by the Sudanese military, armed groups and refugees spilling out of the Central African Republic, and Boko Haram forces moving out of Nigeria into Cameroon's far north".

Care is needed, though, in coming to hard and fast conclusions about the involvement of some groups in the ivory trade. It has now become commonplace for Nigerian newspapers and some Western ones like the The Washington Times and even the reputable scientific journal New Scientist to say there is evidence of the involvement of Boko Haram in poaching and in trafficking ivory to get arms and ammunition.

Many cite the Born Free report, but that is carefully worded and does not suggest that is has clear evidence of the Boko Haram role in the ivory trade. Andrew Dunn of the World Conservation Society, told the author that while small quantities of ivory were found in a suspected Boko Haram hideout in Kano recently, there is no suggestion of a major role in or income from ivory.

But they are a potential danger to elephant populations in both northern and southern Cameroonian parks bordering Nigeria - as it is established that Boko Haram uses remote areas of Cameroon as a safe haven. The group also operates in Bauchi State of Nigeria, home to Yankari National park, which is home to most of Nigeria's few remaining wild elephants.

One area where conflict is a serious threat to elephant populations, and poaching is used as a means of providing funds for arms and meat for fighters, is South Sudan. The conflicts that continued there between what is now the national army, the SPLA, and splinter groups or community-0based militias after the peace deal with the north in 2005 and independence in 2011, are a serious threat to elephants.

In July last year, the South Sudanese government and the World Conservation Society launched a USAID funded elephant monitoring and protection programme. Elephant numbers had declined over the decades of the civil war from over 80,000 in the 1960s to a mere 5,000 in 2013.

These are now under threat from poachers, many linked with South Sudanese armed groups and the Ugandan LRA. In mid-2013, fighting between a rebel group from the Murle people, led by David Yau Yau, and the South Sudanese army in the Boma National Park in Jonglei led to increased poaching both for ivory and bushmeat. A counter-offensive by the South Sudan army led to the destruction of park infrastructure, the killing of three wildlife rangers and the park warden, all from the Murle community.

The continuing conflict between President Salva Kiir and forces loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar has had a devastating humanitarian effect with over 10,000 people dead as a result of the fighting and the mass displacement of communities, but it is also having a serious environmental.

Lt-Gen Alfred Akuch Omoli, of the South Sudan Ministry of Wildlife Conservation and Tourism said recently that, "Since the start of this conflict we have noticed that poaching has become terrible. Rebels are poaching and the government forces are also poaching because they are all fighting in rural areas and the only available food they can get is wild meat". The WCS is very concerned that the civil war could lead to a heightened threat to the elephants and could lead to their extermination.

This all adds to the growing body of evidence of and research into the links between conflict, insurgency, ivory poaching and other forms of environmental crime - from rhino horn smuggling to illegal logging and the charcoal trade. The involvement of insurgent movements - particularly those like the LRA, Al Shabab and Boko - has dominated the reporting of poaching in Africa.

This is not surprising, given the combination of security concerns and the threat to vulnerable species and conservation in general. But care must be taken to treat poaching and insurgencies on a case by case basis, while not ignoring the evident connections between poaching and the inter-linked conflicts or movements of central Africa. There is not "one" African poaching problem or network but many and they differ from country to country and region to region.

Crime and corruption in East and Southern Africa

The Born Free report has highlighted the criminal and political connection when it comes to poaching and ivory trading in Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Mozambique. In these countries elephants are increasingly under threat as the depletion of central African elephants means that the huge Chinese and East Asian demand for ivory is leading to a growth in the already worrying level of poaching in these states. Zimbabwe's situation is an example of the way that political corruption and crime, replicated in the other two countries in various forms, is now threatening major elephants populations.

The major problems in Zimbabwe is that as political elites close to President Mugabe, the ZANU-PF party and the security forces have gained control of large areas of land through land seizures and the purchase of land by the rich, many conservation areas have fallen into the hands of people concerned more with wealth than preservation of keystone species like elephants.

There is also a growing problem of rural poverty and hunger than has increased poaching for bushmeat. There are even reports of poachers directly selling elephant meat to army barracks to feed soldiers, as the government's dwindling finances cannot support its large army and police forces any longer.

Born Free USA cites Masvingo province Governor Titus Maluleke, who has gained land in the area of the environmentally important Save Valley Conservancy as saying, "We are not interested in wildlife, we do not want to learn about the business. We want cash."

Politicians, army officers and politically-connected businessmen are able to use their influence and support for the government to escape investigation or prosecution for wildlife offences.

The trail of involvement goes right to the top with one of the most powerful men in Zimbabwe and a contender to succeed Mugabe, Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, accused of being members of a rhino horn smuggling syndicate. Poaching in Zimbabwe is increasing, the most notorious case being the poisoning of over 80 elephants with industrial cyanide in the world famous Hwange reserve in September 2013.

In Tanzania the problem of corruption and a high rate of killing of elephants to feed a mainly market is growing increasingly serious. In November, the news broke that during an official visit to Tanzania in March 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping and a large official delegation created a boom in illegal ivory sales and caused local prices to double. In December 2013, a Chinese naval task force docking at Dar es Salaam fuelled another surge in the illegal ivory markets of the capital city, Dar es Salaam.

Conspiring with corrupt officials in what has now become the world's largest source of poached ivory, Chinese dealers bought up tens of thousands of dollars of illegal ivory. The report, by the Environmental Investigation Agency, found that the buying spree led to the price in Tanzania for poached ivory doubling to $700 per kg.

The Chinese government has denied this, but even the tightly-controlled media in China has in the past reported the use of diplomatic bags and immunity to smuggler ivory from Tanzania to China.

The revelation provided an insight into the varied nature of the ivory trade and diluted what was becoming the dominant story about poaching -- that ivory proceeds may be funding rebellions and brutal militia groups -- that has captured the attention not just of conservationists but of intelligence organizations and governments concerned with insecurity in East, Central, and parts of West Africa, as well as allies concerned with instability in the region.

The reality of the threat to elephants

Poaching is now a deadly threat to the survival of elephants in many areas. But this threat cannot be reduced to a simple formula of insurgency = ivory poaching=escalating insurgency. Insurgency and conflict are part of the problem but so are political corruption, organized smuggling and criminal networks and the inability of weak law enforcement and judicial systems to put existing laws into effect and hold all poachers to account, regardless of their position in society or political or military clout. Once more good governance is the answer.

The country in Africa with the best record of conservation of Botswana - there corruption is not out of control, politicians are accountable and the courts are independent and effective. Good governance means effective conservation.

Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, teaches journalism at the Centre for Journalism, University of Kent and edits Africa News and Analysis (

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