Why Elephants Matter

By Richard Ruggiero, J. Michael Fay, and Lee White

Wildlife trafficking will receive overdue world attention this week at the United Nations General Assembly and by the Clinton Global Initiative and other elite platforms.

The ongoing slaughter of African elephants will be in particular focus, as African states and their partners seek to craft consensus on how best to save the largest land mammal from extinction.

There are ecological and moral considerations related to the survival of species, but with so many people throughout the world suffering from war and privation, it is fair to ask why we should care about elephants.

The reason: There is a tangible connection between wildlife trafficking and human security.

Countries that do not value and cannot protect their natural heritage tend to be less stable, less secure, and less bound by global norms, with attendant risks to us all.

The issue is much bigger than localized tensions between communities and wildlife that are known to farmers and ranchers the world over.

Increasingly, criminal and violent extremist organizations operate in sophisticated, multi-national networks.

These networks aggressively target weak spots in the global system to gain money and power, either because that is their sole aim or in order to further ideological ends.

Illicit trafficking across borders of guns, gems, drugs, wildlife—and humans—is their source of money and power.

Ivory Enables Criminal Networks

The criminal syndicates know what makes cash: Ivory is more profitable than heroin or raw diamonds. A kilogram of ivory can fetch up to $3,000 in final markets but only costs between $100 and $300 to acquire in range states.

It is no surprise that these groups seize what they see as a profit center to massacre the last herds of elephants.

Weak states are weak for complex reasons.  Wildlife crimes are not the sole driver of conflict but they erode rule of law and can inflame conflict.

The threat to states metastasizes like cancer. It takes a gun to bring down an elephant. When the elephants are killed off, followed by other wildlife, men who make their living by the gun turn to other illicit activities, menacing civilian populations and government authorities that get in their way.

In East Africa, the multibillion dollar tourist economies, decades in the making, are at risk. Tanzania’s elephant herd is being slaughtered, with an estimated 50 percent of the population killed in the last six years.  As Tanzanian President Kikwete recently put it, “We are under attack.”

For the United States and its partners, these conflicts are no longer local.


Seized tusks awaiting registration and eventual destruction in Libreville, Gabon, 2012. copyright: R.G. Ruggiero
Seized tusks awaiting registration and eventual destruction in Libreville, Gabon, 2012. copyright: R.G. Ruggiero


Spillover Risks

When extremists destabilize states, inevitably the security risks proliferate beyond their borders.

No longer anecdotal, the evidence that violent extremist organizations use ivory as one of many sources of funding is clear.

Earlier this year, elephant tusks were found in a camp of the Lord’s Resistance Army in eastern Central African Republic.

Shiftas, the term for Somali bandits who were responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of elephants and untold numbers of people in Kenya in the 1970s and 1980s, still kill elephants in Kenya’s national parks and engage the Kenya Wildlife Service in deadly firefights.

The ivory moving northward into Somalia is believed to be a funding source for Al-Shabab, a group affiliated with al-Qaeda that claimed responsibility for last Saturday’s shopping mall killings in Nairobi.

Multinational criminal networks know that wildlife crimes carry lower risk and higher reward than other crimes, as wildlife protection is often not seen as a national security issue and receives far fewer resources than counter-narcotic or counter-terror efforts.

Stopping the Criminals

To stop them, we must recognize that the threats are comingled, and we must develop a network of committed, capable partners who can prevent wildlife crime and ensuing violence and lawlessness in the hinterland from taking root.

The good news is there are great opportunities for partnership because wildlife brings together a unique combination of interests: conservation, security governance, and the private sector.

Wildlife managers are often fully integrated with local communities and can team with security entities and commercial firms in ways that are far more cost-effective than permitting local conflict to go global.

An Effective Partnership

In the central African state of Gabon, the United States advises and supports the government as it shores up its interdiction capacity, strengthens its legal regimes and institutions, works with communities to raise awareness of the country’s heritage and external threats, develops the country’s first natural resource conservation graduate program, and develops its tourism sector.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partners with the Gabonese National Parks Agency and funds the Wildlife Conservation Society and the World Wildlife Fund as they attempt to help Gabon improve conservation strategies and law enforcement data collection, storage and analysis, and bolster the institutional capacity of Gabon’s parks and wildlife professionals.

At the same time, through the U.S. Africa Command, the U.S. has sent marines and naval personnel to train a combined unit of Gabonese park rangers and gendarmes (police under military command) in small unit patrol, field navigation, and riverine tactics to assist with border security and the interdiction of illicit trafficking.

On the regional level, Gabon works with its neighbors and a range of multilateral and international institutions in the Congo Basin Forest Partnership to propose solutions to complex cross-border policy issues.

Finally, following the issuance of President Obama’s July 2013 Executive Order—Combating Wildlife Trafficking—the U.S. assigned a task force to create a strategy to support anti-poaching efforts among partners like Gabon through law enforcement, the dismantling of trafficking networks, and the enforcement of international trade rules.

Gabon’s long stability in a rough neighborhood makes it an excellent partner for the U.S. on regional security.

President Bongo Ondimba made conservation and tourism centerpieces of his efforts to diversify the Gabonese economy from over-reliance on hydrocarbons.


Two bulls joust in the Dzanga Bai, Central African Republic, 2011. Copyright: R.G. Ruggiero
Two bulls joust in the Dzanga Bai, Central African Republic, 2011. Copyright: R.G. Ruggiero


Gabon is home to the last great reserves of forest elephants in the world, supporting over 50 percent of survivors in just 10 percent of Africa’s rain forest.

Time is fleeting, however. Armed and organized networks moving through the continent have killed as many as 20,000 forest elephants in Gabon during the past eight years alone.

But the government of Gabon is responding, and the U.S. is supporting its efforts.

Elephants matter not only because of their ecological importance, their aesthetic beauty and power, and their value to developing economies but because their very existence symbolizes stability, security, and the triumph of good governance and the rule of law.

Dr. Richard Ruggiero is the Chief of the Africa Branch of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of International Conservation. Dr. J. Michael Fay is a National Geographic Explore-in-Residence and Senior Conservationist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. Dr. Lee White is the Director of Gabon’s National Parks Agency.


The battle for the survival of the forest elephant will be won or lost in Gabon. NGS photo by Michael Nichols.
The battle for the survival of the forest elephant will be won or lost in Gabon. NGS photo by Michael Nichols.
Richard Ruggiero is the Chief of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Division of International Conservation. He arrived in Africa in 1981 as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Central African Republic. During his almost two decades on the ground, Richard also worked in Kenya, Zimbabwe, the Republic of Congo and Gabon. Although elephants are still the centerpiece of his work, he also focuses on protected area management, helping to build the capacity and collaboration of African conservationists, and addressing the threat posed by illegal international wildlife trade. The opinions expressed in Richard Ruggiero's blog are his own and not necessarily those of either the USFWS or the National Geographic Society.

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (dbraun@ngs.org)

Social Media