Is ivory poaching in Gabon funding terrorist group Boko Haram?

In May 2018, three very similar articles about the ivory trade in Gabon appeared in British newspapers. The hook was a team of British soldiers, in Gabon, training eco-guards to stop elephant poachers.

Here’s the Ministry of Defence’s comment on the articles on its “Defence in the media” blog:

The Daily Mail, The Times and The Guardian all report that British soldiers have been deployed to Gabon to help stop elephant poachers who have links to Boko Haram. Gabon hosts 50-60% of the world’s remaining 45,000 forest elephants. Gabon’s national parks, however, have seen an increase in poachers in recent years. 2nd Battalion the Rifles have been sent to train the rangers in the parks to combat the poachers.

All three articles amount to little more than a public relations exercise on behalf of militarised conservation in Gabon. None of the articles makes any mention of the human rights abuses and impacts on local communities caused by this model of conservation in the country.

Here are the three headlines and summaries:

The three journalists spoke to pretty much the same people, none of whom were likely to talk about the problems associated with militarised conservation.

In her article for the Daily Mail, Larisa Brown includes comments from the following:

– Lee White, head of Gabon’s national parks;
– Hubert Ella Ekogha, technical director at Gabon’s national parks;
– Gavin Williamson, Britain’s Defence Secretary;
– Captain Rob Prince, 2nd Battalion The Rifles;
– Major Simon Swindells, 2nd Battalian The Rifles.

The Guardian‘s Damian Carrington interviewed the following:

– Lee White, head of Gabon’s national parks;
– Hubert Ella Ekogha, technical director at Gabon’s national parks;
– Marie Louise Nyangui Mbaki, eco-guard;
– Nelly Ntsame Mba, eco-guard;
– Etienne Monboue, district chief of Kazambika, a village in Lopé national park;
– Captain Rob Prince, 2nd Battalion The Rifles;
– Corporal Andy Whicker, 2nd Battalian The Rifles.

Jerome Starkey’s article for The Times included interviews with the following:

– Lee White, head of Gabon’s national parks;
– Hubert Ella Ekogha, technical director at Gabon’s national parks;
– Darile Makaya Ndembi, eco-guard;
– Gavin Williamson, Britain’s Defence Secretary;
– Captain Rob Prince, 2nd Battalion The Rifles;
– Major Louis Cascino, from the US embassy’s office for security cooperation;
– Lance Corporal Andy Whicker, 2nd Battalion The Rifles;
– Lieutenant Chris Kelk, 2nd Battalion The Rifles.

Conservation-Watch will use the three articles as the basis of a mini-series looking at conservation in Gabon. The point is not just to criticise the journalists, but to dig out more information about conservation in Gabon, including about ivory trafficking, the militarisation of conservation, and the role of Lee White, head of Gabon’s national parks.

This first post in the series questions whether ivory trafficking is really a source of funding for Boko Haram.

Is ivory poaching in Gabon funding Boko Haram?

Both The Times and The Guardian report Lee White as saying there is “compelling evidence” that profits from ivory poached in Gabon is going to the West African terror group Boko Haram. The Daily Mail reports that, “Intelligence suggests some of the profits go to the IS-linked terror group Boko Haram in Nigeria.”

In The Times, Starkey adds that,

The claims are partly based on evidence from mobile phones and laptops that were seized in a joint investigation into a trafficking ring last year carried out by Gabon and the French foreign intelligence service. Nine people, including four members of a Chadian family, were arrested in November but this was kept secret until January to avoid alerting accomplices.

(A January 2018 New York Times report on the arrests states that, “Officials said their analysis of the suspects’ laptops and cellphones had revealed links to Boko Haram”.)

Francis Masse, a post-doc researcher at Sheffield University, asked Damian Carrington and Jerome Starkey whether they had investigated White’s claim of the ivory trade funding terrorists.

Carrington replied that White told him he had seen “compelling” intelligence from Gabonese and other intelligence agencies. The information was classified.

Starkey replied that he had checked the claims with two international wildlife investigators, some East African conservationists and a respected Cameroonian journalist. “They were divided,” he wrote. “The investigators, who had worked in and on Gabon, said there was evidence of tangential links to Boko Haram.”

A paper published this year in Conservation and Society looks into the linkages between Boko Haram and wildlife poaching in Waza National Park. The authors show that there is “no evidence that Boko Haram are using wildlife products from the park to sustain their operations”.

They write that,

The idea that the poaching of ivory or other animal products is being used to enrich extremist groups in Africa has been challenged by academics, the news media, and international organizations alike as being “highly unreliable,” “unsubstantiated,” “unverified,” “altogether anecdotal,” and in some cases, just plain wrong.

Instead, the authors argue that cattle are “most likely a major source of sustenance and funding for the operations of Boko Haram” and that the “poacher-as-terrorist” narrative allows Boko Haram violence against pastoralists to continue.

Of course, just because Boko Haram isn’t profiting from ivory poaching in Waza National Park doesn’t mean that Boko Haram isn’t profiting from ivory poaching in Gabon’s national parks, but the arguments about Boko Haram’s raiding of cattle and the impacts on pastoralists remain relevant.

In his response to Masse’s questions, Starkey also referred to a press briefing on Widlife trafficking and Transnational Crime in Africa that took place in Washington, D.C. on 8 May 2018.

During the questions, Richard Glenn, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, was asked whether he had any evidence that violent extremist groups such as al-Shabaab in Somalia and rebel groups in South Sudan are benefiting from poaching and wildlife trafficking.

Here’s Glenn’s reply in full:

Thanks for the question. I’ll tell you what I’ve seen and what I have not seen. I have not seen anything that indicates a direct link between wildlife trafficking and extremist groups. However, we do know that extremist groups do fund their activities – much of their activity – through typical types of transnational organized crime, including drug trafficking. It is certainly possible, and would not be beyond the realm, for them to have engaged in wildlife trafficking.


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