Al Shabaab and ivory (2)

By Dr Rosaleen Duffy, Professor of Political Ecology of Development, Department of Development Studies, SOAS, University of London.

The Elephant Action League report (which claimed that Al Shabaab was heavily involved in ivory trading – please see previous blog-post) was ignored when it was initially posted on their website in 2012, but seems to have been seized upon in the wake of the Westgate Mall killings in Nairobi in September 2013.

After the attacks some conservation NGOs started to spread the message that ivory was funding terrorist networks, notably Al Shabaab. It was an effective strategy to gain attention from policy makers and from the public. As criticisms grew, many conservation NGOs have started to soften their phrasing, and some have even distanced themselves from the claims. And, of course there were people on the inside of those organisations who were trying to voice their concerns all along. Even EAL have started to rephrase their statements – see the recent arguments with Stephen Corry (Survival International) [4]- clarifying that ivory is not as significant for Al Shabaab now as it was in 2012, and agreeing that charcoal is the main source of ‘threat finance’.

But the ‘terrorism’ genie is now out of the bottle and it still features strongly in campaigning – President Obama has even referred to it and issued Executive Order 13648 on Combating Wildlife Trafficking. Some conservation organisations are now more careful not to refer directly to Al Shabaab, and instead refer to Boko Haram, Janjaweed and Lord’s Resistance Army, or they refer to a vague notion of ‘ivory funded terrorism’.

For example, a central pillar of the current 96 Elephants campaign of the Wildlife Conservation Society is ‘Terror and Ivory’ and directly refers to ivory as the white gold of jihad [5] (the phrase in the EAL report); Save the Elephants has also repeated the message that ivory funds terrorism.[6] Ian Saunders of Tsavo Trust has repeated the claim and it is a centre-piece of their ‘Stabilcon’ initiative in Kenya.[7] John Scanlon, Head of CITES has also drawn attention to the idea that ivory is used to fund terrorism.[8] It has even been the subject of a short animated film ‘Last Days of Ivory’ by Hollywood director Katherine Bigelow – the accompanying slogan is ‘End Ivory Funded Terrorism’.[9] At the initial screening at the New York Film Festival, Peter Knight of WildAid said ‘it’s not about the facts it’s about the emotion’.[10] As recently as last month National Geographic carried a major story by Brian Christy entitled ‘How Killing Elephants Finances Terror in Africa.’[11]

Put simply, arguing that there is a link between ivory poaching and terrorism is a sure way to make people sit up and take notice, especially those in powerful positions in governments, international organisations and philanthropic foundations.

This brings me to the second reason (for more background of the report, please see previous blog-post): money, and terrorism certainly sells. If NGOs are expected to exist in a competitive environment in which they have to bid for funding, arguing the terrorism link had the potential to be very lucrative indeed. I think we can understand this in the context of disappointing revenues from the much celebrated ‘win-win’ solutions of Payments for Ecosystem Services and REDD+. NGOs were looking for new ways to get funding, and much greater resources are available in the international system for security initiatives (especially tackling terrorism) when compared with those available for biodiversity conservation.

A raft of new funding initiatives for tackling poaching and wildlife trafficking were announced in 2014-15. Two illustrative examples: USAID committed US$40 million for tackling wildlife crime and the Clinton Foundation linked up with Wildlife Conservation Society, African Wildlife Foundation, Conservation International, International Fund for Animal Welfare, and World Wildlife Fund-US, vowing to raise US$80 million. [12]

And now to the third reason (please see previous blog-post): strategic interests. On the national level, the alleged link between terrorism and ivory can suit the interests of national governments seeking to gain greater levels of control in areas that are slipping from their grip. This is a key issue in national politics in Kenya: talking up the terrorism link has the capacity to attract attention from very powerful global actors, including The United States Africa Command (Africom).[13]

At a global level, the United States has been less inclined to engage in interventions that involve deployment of personnel on the ground in the wake of their experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, yet, tackling networks like Al Shabaab remain an important driving-force of US foreign policy. Being able to hook any US support (training, finance etc) to saving elephants provides a more acceptable rationale to a US public.

Why does any of this really matter? Talking up the link between ivory and terrorism distracted from a focus on the possible drivers of increased poaching and from designing effective policies to tackle them. Some, though not all, conservation organisations have (either knowingly or unknowingly) been spreading a message about ivory and Al Shabaab that is not accurate, which has the capacity to undermine confidence in the sector as a whole. Those who did not try to make the link, or even argued against it, might also feel the effects of the ‘taint’ in the longer term.

Promoting the link with terrorism also intersected with wider calls for a more forceful approach to conservation, including ‘shoot to kill’: such approaches can (and do) implicate conservation NGOs in human rights abuses and can alienate the very communities that live with wildlife.[14]

The greatest danger is that conservation organisations run the risk of producing ‘war by conservation’: that they willingly implement counter-terrorism strategies including greater surveillance, development of intelligence networks and use of deadly force against people they identify as both poachers and as terrorists on the basis of very flimsy evidence.

This blog-post first appeared in ‘Just Conservation’ on September 25:

[8] John Scanlon, expert witness testimonial to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing ‘Ivory and Insecurity: The Global Implications of Poaching in Africa, 22.05. 12,
[12] ‘Clinton Global Initiative Commitment to Action: Partnership to Save Africa’s Elephants’, (accessed 30.04.14).

Further information:
– Possible links between wildlife trafficking, terrorism and militias are debated in a forthcoming themed issue of Geoforum on Security and Conservation, edited by Dr Alice Kelly (University of California, Berkeley) and Dr Megan Ybarra (University of Washington).

– See Duffy, R., St John, F.A.V., Büscher, B. and Brockington, D. (2015) ‘Towards a new understanding of the links between poverty and illegal wildlife hunting.’ Conservation Biology. DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12622 for discussion of the how they ways we understand poaching ultimately determine the policy response, for better or worse.

This entry was posted in Africa, Conservation, Illegal Wildlife Trade, Ivory, Kenya, poaching, Tiger. Bookmark the permalink.

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