By Keith Somerville
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. More....