Militarised conservation, wildlife trade and global terrorism

Conservation is becoming increasingly militarised. Managers of protected areas are using armed guards, (sometimes with shoot to kill policies), high-tech security and private security companies.

Rosaleen Duffy is Professor of International Politics in the Department of Politics, University of Sheffield. In September 2016, she started a major research project looking at the militarisation of biodiversity conservation.

In a recent article, Duffy argues that part of the reason for the increased militarisation of conservation is an attempt to stamp out the illegal wildlife trade because of claims that wildlife trafficking is financing international terrorism.

For example, a 2014 report published by UNEP and Interpol argues that wildlife trade and forest crime helps raise finance for organised crime and terrorist groups.

Ivory also provides a portion of income raised by militia groups in the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] and CAR [Central African Republic], and is likely a primary source of income to the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) currently operating in the border triangle of South Sudan, CAR and DRC. Ivory similarly provides a source of income to Sudanese Janjaweed and other horse gangs operating between Sudan, Chad and Niger.

There is no doubt that the illegal wildlife trade is a large scale problem. The illegal wildlife trade is the third biggest illegal activity, behind drugs and weapons. UNEP and Interpol estimate the value of organised environmental crime (including wildlife trade and forest crimes) at US$213 billion per year.

Conflating global terrorism and ivory trade

In a 2015 article in the New York Times, Kenya-based journalist Tristan McConnell reports that in 2013, Hillary Clinton linked the ivory trade with Al Qaeda’s East Africa branch, the Shabab. Clinton said that there is,

“growing evidence that the terrorist groups stalking Africa, including the Shabab with its horrific attack on the mall in Nairobi, fund their terrorist activities to a great extent from ivory trafficking.”

McConnell disputes the link between ivory trade and global terrorism.

He argues that “there’s no credible evidence that international terrorist groups like Al Qaeda or the Islamic State are involved.” And he differentiates between international terrorist groups and regional militias:

though it is true that murderous regional militias like the Lord’s Resistance Army and Sudan’s Janjaweed deal in illegal ivory, unlike the Shabab, Boko Haram or the Islamic State, they do not have an expansionist ideology with international aspirations.

The main source for the ivory-funding-terrorism story is a 2011 report published by the Elephant Action League, a US-based NGO. In the report, an anonymous source within the Shabab claims that the Shabab earned “up to 40 percent” of its money from ivory – between US$200,000 and US$600,000.

The UNEP and Interpol report describes reports that ivory is funding the Shabab as “highly unreliable”.

Warlords of Ivory

The “Ivory is funding global terrorism” story got another airing in a 2015 documentary for National Geographic, in which journalist Bryan Christy investigates the links between ivory trade in Africa and militias and terrorist networks.

Writing in the Guardian, Paula Kahumbu and Andrew Halliday announcedthat,

Christy’s investigation demonstrates without doubt what many people have long believed: ivory trafficking funds the activities of terrorist groups in Africa.

Kahumbu and Halliday also wrote that,

“According to Christy, there is also evidence suggesting that trade in ivory is one of the means being used to forge links among the LRA, Al Shabaab, ISIS and other terrorist groups.”

For his film, titled “Warlords of Ivory”, Christy had a fake elephant tusk made containing a hidden GPS tracking system. He passed the fake tusk to trafficking gangs in the Central African Republic. The fake tusk went via the headquarters of the Lord’s Resistance Army led by psychopath and war criminal Joseph Kony. From there the fake tusk went to Sudan, at which point Christy lost track of it.

Christy filmed dead elephants, recently shot with AK-47s. The poachers came by helicopter and cut off the elephants’ tusks with chainsaws.

Christy’s dramatic film shows clearly the horror of the Lord’s Resistance Army and a link with the ivory trade. But it provides no evidence of the involvement of global terrorism.

In Christy’s film, it is Ed Royce, a member of the Republican Party and Chairman of the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs, who suggests a link with global terrorism. Christy tells him that the Lords Resistance Army is trading ivory for arms with the Sudanese armed forces. Royce replies,

“It makes sense. Because Kony in the past has gotten a lot of his ammunition through Sudan. So the terror networks in the area here would allow the Janjaweed, Al-Shabaab, Boko Horam, ISIS and other terrorist organisations to team up with Kony.”

And that is all the evidence that Christy needs. In his film, Christy says that the meeting with Royce was “fantastic”.

“Not only did he confirm everything that was the cutting edge of what we’ve uncovered, he confirmed that the Sudanese government is in the ivory game. He confirmed that there are linkages across and among these groups, operating across Africa. So he’s linked Shabab with LRA, with Boko Haram, with ISIS in ways that I hadn’t thought of before. It’s money. Money is connecting these groups.”

The global terrorism funded by the ivory trade story is “largely wrong”

A 2015 report by UK think tank the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies states that while the story of Al-Shabaab receiving funding through the ivory trade is a “powerful narrative, espoused by some politicians”, it is “largely wrong”.

The report states that,

Evidence for Al-Shabaab involvement in poaching and trafficking remains extremely limited and controversial. Briefings given to policy-makers on terrorism and the illegal ivory trade continue to refer to unverified sources. This is a cause for concern: such a narrative risks diverting attention from the trade’s main facilitators and, counter-intuitively, from Al-Shabaab’s known funding sources.

McConnell argues that global terrorism and the ivory trade are separate problems that require separate strategies. Mixing up the two undermines the fight against both.

Part of the reason for the conflation of global terrorism and the ivory trade is an attempt by conservation organisations to access funding. Duffy writes that,

For states (especially parks and wildlife departments), conservation NGOs, and private conservation organisations, the ability to claim that their activities will contribute to national and global security has provided an important opportunity to justify their continued existence, and to leverage additional funding from donors, governments and private sector. The development of a global context in which security is a leading concern has opened new opportunities to leverage significant resources for conservation.

Duffy describes the militarisation of conservation as a “triple fail”: for security; people; and wildlife. It produces responses that are not effective for countering terrorism, and that do not help tackle poaching.

She gives a list of dynamics that drive poaching that militarisation fails to address:

  • demand from wealthy communities around the world;
  • poverty, inequality and the lack of opportunities in poorer source countries;
  • the collusion of officials;
  • organised crime networks; and
  • private transport companies.

And Duffy concludes that,

Simply focusing on military-style protection of wildlife from poaching is not effective: it can produce short term protection, but ultimately undermines wildlife conservation because it pits local communities against wildlife, reducing support for wildlife amongst people who live with it: the very people conservation ultimately relies on.


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  1. Chris, I share your concern about the trend towards militarization, but the issue of terrorism is a red herring. A terrorism narrative is not required to drive home the point that there is a war on wildlife. The death of more than 300 rangers in the line of duty in the DRC alone in the past decade illustrates this abundantly. This unfortunate fact underlies the stark choices before us. Militarization drives a wedge between ordinary people and conservation. Without an appropriate level of response, the problem will eventually go away – along with the wildlife. Sometimes the appropriate level of response is going to require force. We’re all looking for solutions; perhaps Prof McConnell can turn his attention to the real political economy of wildlife crime, now that he’s dispensed with the paper tigers.

  2. Thanks for this comment, John. I agree that terrorism is a red herring – hence the sub-heading: The global terrorism funded by the ivory trade story is “largely wrong”.

    But people such as Nir Kalron use the ivory-trade-is-funding-terrorism story, presumably at least in part because it’s good for business. Kalron runs a private security firm called Maisha Consulting. WWF and WCS hired Maisha Consulting in the Dzangha-Ndoki National Park in the Central African Republic.

    I also agree with you that this is not a straight-forward problem. And that solutions are important and urgent. I’ll write more about the militarisation of conservation in future.

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