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.
  • Daniel Stiles

    One of the best arguments I’ve seen of why it is of critical importance to save elephants. But depending on anti-poaching measures alone and the increasing militarization of wildlife agencies is not only dangerous for the future stability of Africa, it diverts resources from where much more action should be directed – reducing the demand for ivory amongst consumers, which is the principal driver of the poaching.

  • susan farrington

    GREAT article! Bringing the awareness of this connection may be the only way to stop the slaughter. Understanding the security implications may finally make it important enough to bring it to the forefront of international attention. I will be sharing this article with everyone!

    • Richard Ruggiero

      Thanks, Susan. Please spread the word about the plight of elephants, their habitats, and the people of Africa. It takes a global village, so to speak.

  • Richard Ruggiero

    Thanks, Daniel, absolutely correct. Although anti-poaching is important and should be expanded, we have must focus more on the big-scale traffickers, corrupt enablers, and those who use their profits and influence to build demand in consumer countries. Better policy in consumer countries is also necessary. The poachers are the mere instruments of a larger evil.

  • Diane Symonsa

    Thank you for this information Elephants are so important to this world

  • Tory Braden

    Until governments pressure China to close its Carving Factories, the poaching and terrorist insecuity will continue. It is not just reducing demand because in China ivory is allowed to be sold and the consumers are not plugged into the fact that the “teeth” do not fall out and regrow. Carving is the Bottle Neck of the trade on two aspects. Nothing carved = no orders for more tusks from the carving factories = no poaching. Nothing carved = nothing to buy = no demand. The tusks end up in the literal laps of the carvers. #ChinaStopCarving. Close down your caving factories.

  • Tory Braden

    Richard Ruggiero. We have been advocating for elephants on all fronts for 4 years on Facebook. Please join us. – and of course have shared the article. You many not allow Save All Elephants link on comments, but this is to let you know there are thousands of activists who support getting the ivory out of China’s hands.

  • Maria Wessel

    Good article! Continue to write this kind of articles, it makes people more aware.
    Of course the elephants (and other Endangered animals) are important for us humans and the earth / world.
    I do not think it is possible to compare the slaughter of elephants by ex. human smugglig.
    If the elephants disappears (and other animals) from the earth, it will become permanent.
    Number of people just increases and increases in the world. Rather, we are a “problem” for the earth, who have not learned to respect the earth terms.
    It is we who “kick out” animals and nature from our planet. We have not learned the earth terms.
    Time is short, to balance up our assets we have received from Mother Earth. It’s not easy to “drag” the brakes when everything is already at such a rapid spin.
    If all countries want to bring back the balance of the earth, it is possible.
    We don´t have much choice, if we want to continue to exist on this planet …
    Best regards
    Maria Wessel
    Stockholm Sweden

  • Miriam Davis

    Very informative–and scary–article. A many-sided approach in many countries is necessary.

  • Thea Khama

    With obscene amounts of US Dollars and funding going to countries that appear to be hardest hit, and with very little of this resource going to assist countries like Botswana who are battling to protect the largest population of African elephants, isn’t this a lack of foresight? I say they “appear to be hardest hit” but at the end of the day the ecosystem of Botswana will not be able to sustain so many herds. The elephants have crossed borders into Botswana for sanctuary where they know instinctively and from experience it is safer. African leaders need to be incentivized and pressurized in surrounding countries to take an equal stand for the good of the African savannah. I don’t believe enough is being done to pressurize them or not enough funding is going to programs or countries who cant, instead all I see is the west pump all the money into military efforts in countries where they benefit in terms of the military bases and other resources but who are not really fighting themselves to curb the poaching. This approach, in my opinion is short-sighted and is not always successful.

    Funding needs to flow into Botswana so it can help build sustainable solutions from an African perspective where the problem is most imminent, in order to maintain the co-existence of humans with elephants ensuring that longterm love for the species continues to grow and there is continued buy-in of the communities who live with elephants and are actors needed to protect the huge population. It is a fragile balancing act for Botswana and its protectors unless the neighboring countries can build, revise and implement their conservation policies to create safe havens for the animals to cross back in safety. My plea is that more funding come our way in Botswana. The political will here is evident in the statistics. We are creatively and passionately moving ahead in the fight against endangared species and illegal wildlife trade together with a bigger herd to protect and less assistance from the West than other African states.

    I believe a balance must be struck. it seems as if my home country (USA) only funds those countries it has ties with politically. What about the politically stable democracy of Botswana? Is there a genuine concern for the reasons in the article above from the decision makers?

    Let us be authentic. Elephant lives are at stake.

  • Richard Ruggiero

    I am gratified that there is a growing sense of urgency regarding the status of elephants in Africa. The comment by Thea Khama makes some good points. I agree with the point of political will being a key factor. Botswana, along with Gabon, have political leadership that focuses on conservation of natural heritage. When the will exists, preferably at all levels, there is reason for optimism. Indeed, Botswana has protected its elephants better than neighboring countries, and while seeking refuge from the guns and landmines to the north, the concentrated herds are having significant effects on vegetation in some areas.

    Botswana should be applauded for their support of conservation, and President Khama is a true leader in this regard. However, the point of large-scale financial support to military operations in Africa versus spending on conservation is a difficult one to discuss. There are exceptions to this dichotomy. For example, President Obama’s Executive Order on Wildlife Trafficking mandates that US government agencies work together to combat the rising tide of the trafficking. The Department of Defense through AFRICOM is working with other agencies to support wildlife conservation when possible and practical, and the trend seems to be moving in a very positive direction.

    Regarding provision of funds to one African country or another, this is also a complicated issue. Poor countries need help more than well-off countries, but they may or may not have the will and capacity to take full advantage of foreign assistance for wildlife conservation and management. A balance must be struck to focus on countries that desperately need support and have the will to use the support effectively and avoid the pitfalls of inefficiency and corruption, and those who may have more economic capacity and can, in theory, provide more for conservation that poorer countries.

    Lastly, I do not agree that ‘obscene amounts of US dollars’ are going to the hardest-hit countries. This is not to say that funds are always spent as effectively as one would like, but we could do so much more if we could put existing funds to better purposes in countries that have the awareness, will and either the immediate capacity or the willingness to receive help to built necessary capacity.

    I feel that Botswana deserves not only plaudits for protecting wildlife but also assistance to build the capacity to address problems associated with high elephant densities, particularly human-elephant conflict and habitat modification, but also for the inevitable increase in poaching pressure that will come as other countries’ elephants decline.

  • Mitchel

    A fascinating discussion is definitely worth comment.
    I believe that you ought to publish more about this subject matter, it
    may not be a taboo matter but generally people don’t discuss such topics.
    To the next! Kind regards!!

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