Changing Planet

Al Shabaab and the Human Toll of the Illegal Ivory Trade

By Laurel Neme, Andrea Crosta, and Nir Kalron

As the bloody stain from Al Shabaab’s attack in Nairobi spreads, we grieve not only for those who died or were injured, and their families and friends, but also for the many innocents affected by its preparation and financing.

Tragically, that long list includes thousands of slaughtered elephants, because it is their ivory that, in part, helped finance the Westgate assault. Income from ivory smuggling helped pay the soldiers, buy the weapons, rent the shop used for scoping and staging, and likely even purchase the computer that tweeted updates as events unfolded.

The link between this attack and wildlife smuggling is clear. Andrea Crosta and Nir Kalron’s 18-month undercover investigation showed that the illicit trade in ivory and rhino horn supplies Al Shabaab with important financial resources.

Moreover, when Somalia’s Kismayo port was retaken from insurgents by the Kenya Defense Forces this summer, the illegal wildlife trade became a financial savior for Al Shabaab.

Al Shabaab as Middleman

The investigation detailed how Al Shabaab acts as a middleman, filling orders from agents in end-user countries in Asia or the Gulf states. It confirmed that the terrorist group pays better than average prices (U.S. $200 per kilogram in 2011-2012), making them desirable buyers of illicit ivory from small-time brokers.

It is then these small-time brokers, often related to the terrorists by clan, who engage the poachers, paying $50 per kilogram (although the price varies considerably) for what they know will make a hefty return.

Al Shabaab’s spot as a premier broker is attributable to its financial and organizational prowess but also to the lack of ready alternatives.

Recently, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has cracked down on ivory smuggling at its ports and airports, making Al Shabaab an even more attractive market, with a reputation for good prices, immediate payment, and ready access (prior to the Kenya invasion) to outlets at the ports of Marca and Kismayo as well as the airport in Mogadishu to conduct its smuggling.

Yet the real boon for Al Shabaab’s ivory business is soaring demand in consuming countries, which translates into high prices. Illicit raw ivory now fetches over $1,500 per kilogram in Asia; in China the “official” cost for raw ivory is supposedly more than $2,865 per kilogram. That means higher profits for Al Shabaab—and a treasury it can use to wreak chaos.

That cache of money allows Al Shabaab to pay their fighters well and regularly. Shabaab mercenaries get about $300 a month, while soldiers in Somalia’s regular army earn far less. It is these profits that help them recruit and sustain their fighters.

Ivory is their financial lifeline.

The Solution: Stop Buying Ivory

Consumers can help break that lifeline by not buying ivory.

Every illegal ivory carving purchased has an associated trail of blood that puts money in the pockets of terrorists who spend it on fighters and bullets and bombs to kill innocent people, most recently those in the Nairobi shopping mall.

While we welcome recent actions, such as President Obama’s Executive Order and the just announced three-year 80-million-dollar Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Commitment to Action, which brings together NGOs, governments, and concerned citizens to stop wildlife trafficking and the slaughter of Africa’s elephants, it is ivory consumers who have the real power.

It is consumers who must understand the human toll of their purchases—and act accordingly.

They must understand that their purchases exact a toll that is not limited to the victims of specific attacks funded by poaching. Or the rangers who lose their lives protecting elephants and rhinos.

The toll is wider and even more destructive. It includes farmers killed or injured by irate elephants reacting to their poaching-related traumas. It includes widows and orphans who lose husbands, fathers, and family breadwinners from death, injury, or incarceration. It includes villagers and disadvantaged communities who are exploited or forced into criminal activities. It is the consequent insecurity and lawlessness and corruption that shuts down tourism and weakens economies.

It cost roughly $200,000—the equivalent of 24 elephant tusks or one rhino horn—for Al Shabaab to plan, prepare, and execute the Westgate mall attack.

Consumers can kill the ivory market. They can end the deadly path of conflict ivory. It’s time for ivory consumers, traders, and everybody in between to take responsibility not just for the death of thousands of elephants but also for its very high human toll.

Laurel Neme, PhD, is the author of Animal Investigators, Andrea Crosta is the founder of the Elephant Action League, and Nir Kalron is the founder and CEO of Maisha Consulting

Laurel Neme is the author of ANIMAL INVESTIGATORS: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species, a narrative non-fiction “CSI for wildlife” with a foreword by Richard Leakey and endorsed by Jane Goodall that's been featured on ABC News Nightline and NPR’s Science Friday. She is also the author of the children's book, ORANGUTAN HOUDINI, based on a true story of an ape who outwits his zookeeper. She has hosted The WildLife radio show and addressed a range of groups on wildlife forensics and trafficking, and animal intelligence, including INTERPOL’s Wildlife Crime Working Group, the St. Louis Zoo, American Museum of Natural History, universities, school groups and libraries. Previously, she worked on natural resource and wildlife management as both a government officer and international consultant in dozens of countries around the world, helping her understand the real-life tradeoffs between wildlife protection and human economic needs. She holds a Master’s degree from the University of Michigan and PhD from Princeton University. See Laurel Neme's website for more.
  • char moreland

    Thanks for all the info. I don’t buy ivory & the few pieces I have are probably 100 yrs old & belonged to my mother. How can I help ?

  • Ann Lewis

    The problem is how to make the public aware of the illegal Ivory trade and its connection to Terrorism. The majority neither know nor care. I suggest that the Social Media can be used to great advantage (and small cost) to broadcast the facts worldwide – especially in the Far East. The only hope for the future of elephants is to stop the DEMAND for ivory, bring the price of ivory down and take away the profit. Has anybody tried using Facebook, Twitter and the Chinese equivalents? The young people in China are open to suggestion.

  • Ann Lewis

    The destruction by various African countries of their stockpiles of ivory, although a noble gesture, may not be the best solution? Surely this merely signs the death warrant for more and more elephants? Until the DEMAND is curbed, there must be a way to USE this ivory in a more productive way? Why not collect one massive shipment and send it to Asia with the clear message that THAT”S IT – there is NO MORE! Do you see what I’m saying? Better ideas are required please?

  • Daniel Stiles

    Yes, consumers can kill the market – much more effective than killing poachers…

  • Edna Livne

    excellent article! Thank you for sharing this important information.

  • sameul

    Is it true that the ivory tusks are exported from east africa to far east?if yes,how? from which port?

  • sameul

    How ivory reach to China? by ship or by air? through which countries? How Al shabaab hide it during loading to oversea?

  • Save All Elephants

    Why is the solution of getting China to shut its carving factories rarely mentioned? Bryan Christie was very explicit on this point. The Chinese carvers put in the orders for poached elephant tusks, carving is the bottle neck of the trade. No carved objects, nothing to buy. They demand that they be allowed to carve in their state sanctioned factories. Their demand must be stopped. If young people in China are open to suggestion, it is to go protest at the carving factories.

  • dipi

    Stop travels to and from China.
    Stop all modes of transport in and out.

    Punish those who deal in animal parts, buy or sell.,

  • Thomas Wayne

    The greatest irony of all within the proposed ban is the so-called “fat-cat loophole”. The news hasn’t focused on this much, but one IMPORTANT clause in the new law would allow any American “hunter” to travel to Africa and slaughter up to TWO Elephants per year!

    Of course, you’ll have to be rich and powerful like the Obamas (Michelle Obama reportedly owns and regularly wears elephant ivory jewelry), or some fat-cat congressmen or Safari Club member or guys like that – AND you’ll have to pay hefty fees for USFWS permits to massacre those majestic adult Elephants and import their huge tusks back to the U.S. But hey, what’s $50k – $60k when you’re having fun slaughtering elephants?

    Meanwhile, an unaware/innocent American tourist visiting China could easily buy a tiny little Elephant ivory bracelet made of LEGAL ivory in the LEGAL Chinese carving market and get “caught” with it in her suitcase when she gets to U.S. Customs. At that point she would be facing as much as FIVE years in prison, and fines & “restitution” that could bankrupt her (literally). All this, even though the ivory SHE had came from the HUNDREDS of TONS of legal “natural death” ivory that falls to the African floor every year.

    That’s right, fellow citizen, a massive amount of ivory falls to the African floor every year, simply because Elephants don’t live forever. The African Elephant has a natural mortality rate of 4% – 7% per year, depending on their location – over the entire African continent it averages 5.5%. That amounts to about 25,500 Elephants that will die every year without a single one being “poached”.
    Since a large percentage of those natural deaths occur among older Elephants the bodies they leave behind will typically bear large tusks, and that “free” ivory does not rot or biodegrade. The estimates among experts in Elephants and the ivory trade put that annual amount of renewable ivory at no less than 100 TONS and as much as 900 TONS. That’s EVERY YEAR.

    If you really care about Elephants there are four VERY important questions you need to ask yourself, your friends, and your government:

    1) Why would the White House and USFWS be pushing a regulation to supposedly PREVENT Elephant deaths, but then sell permits to rich people allowing them to KILL Elephants… AND let them import the ivory back to the U.S.?
    2) With the U.S. deficit at $17.5 Trillion, and growing by $2.75 Billion every day, who will be funding the millions upon millions of dollars need to manage and protect African elephants in African nations so poor they can’t even afford to feed their own children?

    3) What should the world do with the hundreds of tons of ivory that fall to the African floor every year worth hundreds of millions of dollars, since it won’t rot and it doesn’t biodegrade?

    4) Why not use the perpetually renewable resource of natural death ivory to end poaching, fund Elephant protection and conservation, and feed and employ millions of starving Africans?

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