Ivory does not fund Al Shabaab, so why was that message so readily promoted?
By Dr Rosaleen Duffy, Professor of Political Ecology of Development, Department of Development Studies, SOAS, University of London
Since 2013 several wildlife conservation organisations have promoted the message that ivory is used to fund terrorism, that it is the ‘white gold of jihad’. While allegations about poaching by Janjaweed and Lord’s Resistance Army have circulated for some time, it was the claim that ivory provided up to 40% of Al Shabaab’s funding that caught international attention.
This claim is hotly disputed, and even Elephant Action League, who spread the message in the first place, have started to accept it might have been an over estimation (at best). So why was it so readily taken up and repeated in the media, social media, by world leaders, by conservation NGOs and by international organisations? The answer lies in a potent mix of strategic interests and the need to grab international attention to raise funds for conservation.
‘Money from wildlife poaching and trafficking is directly linked to the funding of dangerous rebel organizations and terrorist networks. These include the Janjaweed militia in Darfur, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and Al Shabaab in Somalia — which is now linked to al Qaeda’.This quote from Conservation International is indicative of a rising narrative in conservation circles: that poaching and trafficking fund terrorism.
For several months I have been one of a number of individuals and organisations who have questioned the claims that trafficking ivory was a substantial source of funding for Al Shabaab – and on 22 September the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) launched their report on the issue. The report by Tom Maguire and Cathy Haenlein ‘An Illusion of Complicity: Terrorism and the Illegal Ivory Trade in East Africa’ thoroughly and effectively deconstructs and challenges the claim.
For the past 18 months I have been trying to understand the rise of the claim that ivory provided up to 40% of the funding for Al Shabaab. I began to search through press reports, expert witness depositions to the International Conservation Caucus of the US Congress and official documents by international organisations such as UNEP.
It quickly became clear that the commonly cited source was a 2012 Elephant Action League report which called ivory the white gold of jihad. So I contacted EAL to ask about the evidence base, but Andrea Crosta could not provide much detail. I fully understand that the recordings need to be kept confidential to protect informants, but there is a need to be detailed, clear and (crucially) accurate when making such a high-profile claim. The RUSI report comprehensively shows that the main sources of funding for Al Shabaab remain charcoal trading (to Saudi Arabia and Yemen), expat finance and ‘taxing’ the movement of goods such as concrete from the areas they control.
The RUSI report also correctly points out how the claim that ‘ivory funds Al Shabaab’ has distracted from more pressing issues such as tackling the role of corruption, of organised crime networks, and the importance of demand reduction in key markets for ivory. The findings are supported by an earlier report for UNEP/INTERPOL by Christian Nelleman et al (2014) which states that claims saying Al Shabaab was trafficking 30.6 tonnes of ivory per annum (representing 3600 elephants per year) through southern Somalia are ‘highly unreliable’ 
So if the claim was not credible, why was it taken up so enthusiastically? There are three answers: attention, money and strategic interests.
(This blog-post first appeared on the Just Conservation blog-site: http://www.justconservation.org/war-by-conservation
 ‘Global Stability’ http://www.conservation.org/what/pages/global-stability.aspx (accessed 14.08.14).
 Nellemann, C., Henriksen, R., Raxter, P., Ash, N., Mrema, E. (Eds). 2014. The Environmental Crime Crisis – Threats to Sustainable Development from Illegal Exploitation and Trade in Wildlife and Forest Resources. A UNEP Rapid Response Assessment. United Nations Environment Programme and GRID-Arendal, Nairobi and Arendal. Pp: 78-81.