Blood Ivory: The $10 billion-a-year Trade Fuelling Civil Conflict in Africa

“The price of rhinoceros horn has increased to around US$60,000 per kilogram –twice the value of gold and platinum – and it is now more valuable on the blackmarket than diamonds and cocaine” – WWF in association with Dalberg Global Development Advisors – fighting illicit wildlife trafficking: A consultation with governments (Dec 2012)

 For just under thirty years from 1974, civil war ripped through Angola. It was typical of the wave of liberation struggles that swept across Africa in the latter half of the twentieth century and, also typically, it was funded largely by the extraction and sale of conflict minerals. Similarly in Sierra Leone, perhaps the most infamous example, so-called ‘blood diamonds’ were allegedly exchanged by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) for weaponry and training from Charles D. Taylor’s government in neighbouring Liberia. As the violence simmered, and as the system of certification dictated by the Kimberley Process stamped down on the circulation of conflict diamonds, the illegal trade has since faced a sharp decline. Shift the perspective to central and east Africa, however, and it seems another valuable commodity is being used to finance the region’s rebel groups. Not diamonds, but ivory – and lots of it.

Records indicate that ivory has been exported from both Africa and Asia since the 14th century BC. The trade was responsible for wiping out North Africa’s entire elephant population, and during the colonial era the Western demand for luxury ivory products had a similarly devastating effect on elephant numbers within West Africa’s lush coastal forests. With economic depression came a lull in the demand for ‘white gold’ from Europe and the US but, from the 1970’s, there was a resurgence in demand for the luxury commodity: this time from East Asia. Despite the international ban in the ivory trade in January 1990 by CITES – the treaty organisation that sets international wildlife trade policy – the last couple of years have been some of the worst on record for elephant poaching. In 2011 poaching hit its highest level in a decade: 38.8 tonnes of illegal ivory was seized worldwide (the equivalent of 4,000 slaughtered elephant tusks). This escalation culminated in what is undoubtedly the worst single incident of mass poaching in the trade’s history – the slaughter of at least 300 elephants in the heart of Cameroon’s Bouba Ndijah National Park by armed groups from neighbouring Chad and Sudan. It was an episode that halved the park’s entire elephant population.


China is unquestionably the greatest villain when it comes to smuggling ivory – a fact that has alarmed many conservationists who fear that China’s increased involvement in infrastructural projects in Africa is simply fuelling the country’s immersion in the trade. China has recently been implicated in more large-scale ivory seizures than any other non-African nation, which simply begs the question: Why? In an extensive report in October last year, National Geographic author Bryan Christy uncovered the deeply religious value of ivory, not just in China but in Thailand and the Philippines too. Thousands of elephants die annually for their tusks to be transformed into intricate religious artefacts. In the Philippines province of Cebu the link between the church and ivory is so strong that the word for ivory, garing, also means ‘religious statue’.

In Thailand ivory amulets are worn for luck and protection against black magic. It isn’t just elephants that suffer at the hands of superstition – in Vietnam Rhino horn is being used as a palliative medicine for cancer, alongside its slightly less revolutionary use as a potent hangover cure. Although the uses for both luxury products seem superficial, and the given examples of such uses merely break the surface, they remain a deep and integral part of east and south-east Asian society. As conservation groups focus on curbing the demand, however, another aspect of the illicit trade remains largely overlooked – the effect it has at the source, particularly as a means of sustenance for some of Africa’s most notorious armed groups.

Fuelling Wars

So, like blood diamonds, it seems the latest conflict resource in Africa today is ivory. With such a high demand and the development of highly organised criminal syndicates with distribution networks across national boundaries, it is no wonder groups such as Uganda’s LRA are believed to be turning to ivory and Rhino horn to finance their terrorist activities. According to INTERPOL and UNODC – the UN office on Drugs and Crime – there has been an increase in the involvement of crime syndicates and rebel groups in wildlife crime to purchase weaponry to fuel their respective conflicts.

While al-Shabaab’s influence in the Horn of Africa today has been undermined considerably by African Union troops, the Somali military and Kenyan armed forces, they continue to recruit – and many of these recruitments allegedly involve missions into Kenya’s north eastern fringes to plunder its parks of their dwindling elephant populations. Skirting Mount Kenya is one of these reserves – the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy – which has set up a highly trained team of 150 community-based rangers to protect the conservancy from poachers. A report in Kenya’s Daily Nation discovered that one of the anti-poaching unit’s rangers, Julius Lokinyi, was once responsible for killing up to a hundred elephants, and maintained links with Somali middlemen who may have formed part of al-Shabaab’s Kenyan tributary groups. Luckily today, the former poacher is on the right side of the lucrative trade. Determining, however, the extent of al-Shabaab’s influence is no simple task, and according to former head of the KWS, Dr Richard Leakey, this influence on the ivory trade could be very minimal indeed.

‘I think al-Shabaab is much too big and much too powerful’, he said. ‘I think there may be minor players, who need to buy a canoe to get into the piracy business, but I don’t think it is an al-Shabaab/Al Qaeda thing at all and I think they have far better means of sourcing funds through drugs, through cartels, and through management of boundary crossing points to and from Somalia’.

‘There are people who may have access to some trading and some arms from al-Shabaab, and I suppose the situation is therefore still like it was in 88. It is a very small number of people doing the killing’. Dr Leakey’s sentiments were echoed by Frank Pope, the Chief Operating Officer of Save the Elephants, who similarly played down the role of al-Shabaab in the trade.

‘It is difficult to generalise about the background of the poachers that we are dealing with, but more often than not they are local gangs: disenfranchised members of the community’, he said. ‘Crucially, though, they are feeding into a highly organised criminal operation that is driven by the record high-prices of ivory’. David Daballen, head of Samburu’s Long Term Monitoring (LTM) programme, also mirrored Frank Pope’s sentiments concerning the local origin of Samburu’s poachers. ‘They are desperate’, he said. ‘People are taking advantage of very poor people in the neighbouring community’.

Paul Muya, though – the assistant spokesperson for the KWS – was less dismissive of the link between ivory and Somali militants. When asked if he believes profits from the lucrative trade are filtering into the hands of al-Shabaab, he said: ‘That is the case. The illegal trade in ivory generates a lot of money which in itself is an incentive for militias to get involved. It is easy and the financial gains are considerable, making it an obvious source of revenue to fund their activities’.

Opinion, then, is divided as far as the situation in Kenya is involved. But what about in other parts of Africa? Some of the continent’s most notorious rebel groups have been implicated in the slaughter of the World’s largest land mammal. Among them, Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army is believed to have used ivory to facilitate their years of conflict with northern Sudan, and allegedly poached elephants with propelled grenades. Sudanese militias, including Darfur’s Janjaweed who now operate in eastern Chad, may have been responsible for the mass execution of elephants in Cameroon’s Bouba Ndijah National Park. Joseph Kony – self-proclaimed spirit medium and leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – may too be facilitating his violence by poaching elephants in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.

Garamba National Park lies in the Congo’s north-eastern border with South Sudan, right in the heart of the LRA’s sphere of influence. When 22 elephants were found dead, with their tusks hacked off, the LRA were the likely culprits. As it turns out an unauthorised Ugandan military helicopter was seen flying over the area, which corroborates the military precision single-shot-to-the-head bullet wound that each elephant displayed. The United States pumps millions of dollars towards the Ugandan Army, as well as that of South Sudan – both of which have been suspected of utilising their specialist military equipment to poach elephants in Garamba National Park. In Leakey’s eyes, such instances are ‘perfectly possible, and indeed in some cases, very probable’.

That poaching levels are escalating in Africa is undeniable, and what seems equally clear is that the trade both feeds off and fuels instability within the continent. The temptation to cash in on an illegal industry so difficult to police is simply too appealing, and the rewards too high. As methods of poaching become more sophisticated, and criminal syndicates expand their distribution networks, ivory will continue to be an attractive source of revenue for rebel groups whose causes apparently outweigh the lives of thousands of African elephants. Without proper mitigation, the use of ivory as a conflict resource could escalate – threatening not just the stability of the regions in question, and the animals themselves, but the tourist trade and the tens of millions of dollars it helps generate every year.

Published in The East African newspaper