from Africa in Transition

Tracking the Traffickers: Poaching Is a Symptom of a Deeper Disease

April 08, 2013

Blog Post

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa



Wars and Conflict

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

This is a guest post by Emily Mellgard, research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program.

Robert Hormats, U.S. undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment, recently flagged ivory as a “conflict resource.” His classification adds emphasis to what is by now a generally accepted reality; ivory trafficking funds instability in Africa.

Many organized criminal gangs, insurgents, and terrorists in Central Africa are, to varying degrees, funding their activities by slaughtering elephants and smuggling the ivory abroad. The porous borders and opaque border regulations, which often impede legal trade, facilitate illicit trade and smuggling.

Ivory from slaughtered elephants is transported across borders to international, predominantly Asian, markets. The money from these sales goes back to the trafficking networks, which are increasingly controlled by rebel groups and insurgents; hence, ivory smuggling directly funds instability in Africa. Keith Somerville, in January 2013, wrote about the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and janjaweed (Sudanese militias) involvement in ivory trafficking networks across Central Africa.

African governments cannot effectively tackle rampant poaching, the porous borders that facilitate ivory trafficking, or the incentives to participate in the slaughter and trade, without addressing the underlying issues that facilitates the illegal trade. African nations would need to nurture strong institutions, community engagement in the national culture, and grassroots incentives to conserve wildlife rather than exploit it. They need practical regional and international cooperation strategies to curb the demand that feeds ivory trafficking. These initiatives however, require political will and practical capacity, both of which are too often lacking.

A positive example of such cooperation may be the recent announcement of the creation of a multinational African force, approved by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). A force of one thousand soldiers would be deployed in Central Africa specifically to fight a group of Sudanese poachers blamed for the recent slaughter of eighty-nine elephants in Chad.

The effectiveness of the force remains to be seen. The troops must be adequately paid and trained, not only for combat and surveillance, but to sensitize them to in the vital role elephants play to African culture. This will hopefully prevent the troops using their mandate to partake in poaching and trafficking themselves.

That such cultural training is necessary is illustrated by a September 2012 incident—which many scientists and Congolese authorities attribute to a Ugandan military helicopter—in which a herd of twenty-two elephants, including the young, were shot and their tusks hacked off.