Save the Elephants, End Terrorism

The recent attacks in Paris have left the international community with one important question: how could this happen? More importantly, how can we prevent it from ever happening again? To begin to answer this question, we need to ask where terrorist organisations are receiving the funding to carry out such large scale attacks.

Image Courtesy of the ENOUGH Project © 2013, some rights reserved

Image Courtesy of the ENOUGH Project © 2013, some rights reserved

Widely known sources of income for terrorist organisations include extortion, drugs, bank robbery, kidnapping, and oil smuggling[1]. However, there is also a more obscure but equally significant source of funds—the ivory trade.

Everyone on social media has heard of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign and remembers #Kony2012. Most people know that #BringBackOurGirls was a response to the kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian schoolgirls carried out by the terrorist group Boko Haram[2], and #Kony2012 was a response to the film created by the charity Invisible Children to spread awareness about the abuse and killing of children at the hands of Joseph Kony, the leader of the Ugandan militia group Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)[3]. However, many do not know that these groups were able to commit these atrocities because of the money they received from poaching elephants and selling ivory on the black market.

Tens of thousands of elephants die each year at the hands of poachers [4]. “Save the elephant” campaigns are prolific; everyone has seen, heard of, and maybe even participated in one. These campaigns focus both on the fact that elephants are beautiful and intelligent animals, and that their loss has serious ecological implications (elephants disperse seeds, create water access by digging, and open up forest land)[4].

There have been legal movements attempting to end elephant poaching, including a ban on the international trade of ivory, which was introduced in 1975 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)[5]. However, even though elephant poaching is now illegal, does not mean that it has stopped or even slowed down. The statistics are alarming: one elephant is killed every 15 minutes[6]. Between 2010 and 2012, more than 10,000 African elephants were illegally poached, and Central Africa has lost 64 per cent of its elephants in only ten years[4].

This is disconcerting not only because the violent deaths of these beautiful animals are tragic and appalling, but because the money from the ivory generates staggering amounts of funds for terrorist organisations. Al-Shabaab’s income from ivory is about US$600,000 every month, and the Lord’s Resistance Army, Janjaweed Militia, as well as Boko Haram are benefiting financially. [6]. The US State Department’s Marty Regan stated that, ‘ivory operates as a savings account for Kony.’ [7]

To stop terrorism, it is necessary to cut off the funds of terrorist organisations, and for this to happen there needs to be increased awareness about the role of elephant poaching and the ivory trade. This was the goal of Bryan Christy, a reporter for National Geographic, when he had an artificial elephant tusk made with an embedded tracker. Christy travelled to Africa to put the artificial tusk on the black market so that he could track its movements and identify who is selling tusks, who is buying them, where they are being taken, and to show how the Lord’s Resistance Army participates in and benefits from this contemptible industry[7].

Especially important to Christy is that, ‘park rangers are often the only forces going up against the killers. Outnumbered and ill equipped, they’re manning the front line in a violent battle that affects us all[7].’ Christy spent time interviewing these park rangers. Jean Marc Froment, then director of Garamba National Park, describes the conflict between the poachers and the park rangers as a ‘war’ [7].

Christy put his artificial tusks on the black market between Garamba and Sudan, and found that the tusks were being transported on foot to Joseph Kony’s camp, which is located in a disputed area of the border of Sudan and South Sudan[8]. It is not only rebel groups participating in the ivory trade, but also governments. The LRA sells the ivory to the Sudanese army in exchange for money and weapons. In addition, the Congolese army will not allow the Garamba park rangers to buy better weapons to help them combat the poachers even though the money is available [7]. This shows the extreme levels of government corruption, raising the question of what can be done when it is an official government violating international law and directly supporting terrorist activities.

Unfortunately, ending the illegal trade of ivory is not as simple as creating new laws, as they will not be followed, or even stopping the poachers themselves. Many of the poachers were forced to become part of the LRA, and Christy speaks to a former LRA member who says that some members were assigned to kill people, and others to kill elephants[8]. The LRA is ‘made up of children and young men who are kidnapped and forced to commit unspeakable acts of violence, or suffer the same fate themselves[8].’ In many cases, the poachers and elephants are equal victims of terrorist organisations. This means that there are moral implications to going after the poachers themselves, and that killing the poachers will not solve the problem because the LRA will simply abduct more people.

What can be done then to cut off the funding of terrorist organisations? How do we make sure events like the attacks in Paris never happen again? Combating the ivory trade would be a start. Individual governments can increase the punishment for ivory smuggling to deter imports, the UN Sanctions Committee can facilitate financial punishment and public shaming of wildlife poachers and smugglers, and Interpol can issue arrest warrants for known ivory smugglers and suppliers[6]. However, none of this will be possible without increased awareness of the ivory trade’s role in funding terrorism. We have to save the elephants, not only because they are beautiful animals, or because they are endangered, or because they are important to the environment. We need to save the elephants for our fates are tied to theirs.

[1] “How poaching fuels terrorism funding.” Ted Poe, CNN. 22 October 2014.

[2] Bring Back Our Girls

[3] “Kony 2012.” Invisible Children, 2014

[4] “100,000 Elephants Killed by Poachers in Just Three Years, Landmark Analysis Finds.” Brad Scriber, National Geographic. 18 August 2014.

[5] “African Elephants.” WWF Global. 2015.

[6] “End Ivory Funded Terrorism.” Last Days of Ivory. 2015.

[7] “How Killing Elephants Finances Terror in Africa.” Bryan Christy, National Geographic. 12 August 2015.

[8] “Case proven: ivory trafficking funds terrorism.” Paula Kahumbu and Andrew Halliday, The Guardian. 30 August 2015.