The exponential militarization of the ivory trade is adding another dimension to what is already a major conservation matter. In a recent talk, “Insurgency, the Ivory Trade and Porous Borders”, Dr. Keith Somerville, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, considered the political aspects of poaching, looking at various rebel groups across the Africa continent – from Cameroon to Kenya – and whether they fund their insurgencies from ivory sales.
The historical span of Dr. Somerville’s research encompasses two thousand years of legal ivory trade, including when it was closely associated with the slave trade, up to the late 1980s when the trade in ivory was banned altogether.
The illegal profits remained predominantly with corrupt politicians and criminal networks up until the 1980s-90s, said Dr Somerville. Then demand from a booming Japanese middle-class re-ignited poaching, and though the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned ivory sales in 1989 they did issue permits allowing sales of existing stockpiles.
For Dr. Somerville this period saw the first examples of ‘political poaching’; as the illegal trade intensified, countries with no reported elephant populations filed for ivory export permits and concluded sales, much like conflict diamonds in Liberia. Similarly, Zimbabwean (then Rhodesian) Special Forces, supported by South African military intelligence units, funded operations in Angola and Mozambique with ivory sales through these same CITES loopholes.
Today militarized poaching from the Indian to the Atlantic oceans, covering Somalia, Kenya, northern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), south Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR), and northern Cameroon, forms a quasi-continuous zone where porous borders and insurgencies have become interlinked, and to some extent inter-dependent.
Dr. Somerville pointed out that there is an “ivory belt” which overlaps with numerous insurgencies; indeed, cross-border poaching incursions into northern Cameroon and the DRC, conducted by the Janjaweed militias as well as shamefully by the Ugandan and Congolese military forces, testifies to the security vacuum in this region.
Dr. Somerville includes groups like the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), a nomadic movement that avoids counter-insurgency initiatives and uses ivory as income while their suspected co-operation with the Séléka, currently the dominant security force in CAR, is also a matter of concern.
Destined for the Chinese market, the ivory is exported through Lagos, Douala, Khartoum or Mombasa, crossing through regional political ‘hot-spots’.
Dr. Somerville believes that Al Shabaab is directly involved in poaching and shipping ivory via small exporting networks linked with Asia and the Gulf; yet he thinks that there is little evidence of a nexus that links Al Shabaab, pirates and ivory poaching.
Clearly the link between insurgencies and wildlife-trafficking poses multi-dimensional challenges to central and east Africa. In an interconnected and organized trade, where borders and networks “blur and bleed” into each other, individual states are incapable of tackling all aspects of this problem; regardless of the will to do so, politics and marriages of convenience in all parties still maintain the trade, said Dr Somerville.
What about the options? Dr. Somerville’s view is sobering. Opportunistic poaching in local communities can be addressed with non-lethal counter-measures and community development, whereas organized insurgencies can only be countered in kind: sealing borders and escalating military efforts. Stephane Crane, MA War Studies student.