A few weeks ago, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service crushed six tons of confiscated ivory tusks and trinkets, turning tens of millions of dollars of contraband ivory into useless powder. This event sent a resounding message to the world that elephant poaching would not be tolerated. Although the international commercial trade of African elephant ivory has been banned since 1989, tens of thousands of elephants are killed annually. Officials estimate that poaching may be even worse than that of the 1980s, when poachers killed more than half of Africa’s elephants prior to the international moratorium on the trade. More than than 32,000 elephants have been illegally poached in the past year.
Law enforcement officials identify organized crime and militants as the principal reason for this rapid escalation in trafficking. Tom Milliken, director of the Elephant Trade Information System, an international ivory monitoring project, said that the smugglers are “Africa-based, Asian-run crime syndicates, highly adaptive to law enforcement interventions, constantly changing trade routes and modus operandi.” Like the blood diamonds from Sierra Leone, ivory has become the latest resource to fuel conflicts in Africa.
Militant organizations such as The Lord’s Resistance Army, the Shabab, and Darfur’s Janjaweed use ivory to buy weapons. Janjaweed militias were blamed for killing thousands of civilians in the early 2000s, when Darfur erupted in ethnic conflict. In Chad, heavily armed horseman, who conservationists suspect are janjaweed, killed 3,000 elephants in the past few years.
In Somalia, which for the past twenty years has operated without a functioning central government, illegal ventures such as sex trafficking, gunrunning, and pirating have now extended to ivory. The Islamist militant group Shabab, which has pledged its allegiance to Al-Qaeda, is currently training fighters to infiltrate Kenya and poach elephants for ivory to raise money. Several ivory retailers have also identified the Lord’s Resistance Army, a militant religious movement led by Joseph Kony, as a source for the trade.
Militaries have also been traced to the trade and are often the main perpetrators of illegal poaching. Last April, park rangers discovered twenty-two dead elephants in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Garamba National Park. Their tusks had been hacked away, and poachers walked away with more than a million dollars’ worth of ivory. The elephants had been killed from a helicopter, which both scientists and Congolese authorities believe to be from the Ugandan military. Interestingly, the Ugandan military is one of America’s closest allies in in Africa.
Garamba National Park rangers also frequently fight South Sudanese and Congolese forces. Leading elephant researcher John Hart wrote in 2010 that the ““Congolese military are implicated in almost all elephant poaching,” making the military “the main perpetrator of illegal elephant killing in D.R.C.” The rangers are considering using night-vision goggles, flak jackets and machine guns to fight poachers.
The tusks of a single adult elephant can be worth more than ten times the average annual income in many African countries. This economic incentive is extremely strong for soldiers in central Africa, who often get paid as little as $100 a month and have access to weapons for poaching. Some of the park rangers in Garamba have even been traced to poaching, who also live on extremely low salaries. Villagers in Tanzania and Gabon are also being enlisted by groups to poach elephants, sometimes for as little as a sack of salt.
China is the world’s largest importer of illegal ivory. Chinese investors call ivory “white gold” because it sells for more than $1,300 a pound on the black market. In 2008, the United Nations agreed to a one-time auction of African ivory to China and Japan, with proceeds going to conservation groups. The 68 tons of auctioned ivory was documented, and officials hoped that it would undercut the illegal trade. The trade has had the opposite effect, allowing for collectors to funnel poached ivory into the regulated trade. China’s economic growth has exacerbated the problem by expanding its middle class. Never before have so many people been able to afford ivory.
There are an estimated 500,000 elephants remaining in Africa. It is time for the world to take further steps to stop ivory trafficking and spread awareness in order to reduce demand. As Garamba’s director said: “It’s like the drug war. If people keep buying and paying for ivory, it’s impossible to stop it.” The illegal killing of African elephants is more than just an egregious animal rights’ issue: it is critical in the fight against terrorism.