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LETTER TO THE UNITED NATIONS GENERAL ASSEMBLY: It is time to formally recognize conflict ivory

The 70th meeting of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) opened on September 15 amid an ongoing humanitarian crisis of refugees and migrants escaping various conflicts. The world’s heads of state are expected to discuss not only their fate but also what exacerbates the violence they flee. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP),...

The 70th meeting of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) opened on September 15 amid an ongoing humanitarian crisis of refugees and migrants escaping various conflicts. The world’s heads of state are expected to discuss not only their fate but also what exacerbates the violence they flee.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), during the past 15 years “at least 18 violent conflicts have been fuelled by the exploitation of natural resources, whether ‘high-value’ resources like timber, diamonds, gold, minerals and oil, or scarce ones like fertile land and water.”

Trafficked wildlife is joining the ranks of minerals and other natural resources used as a conflict commodity to get money, weapons, and ammunition, fueling violence in Africa. A comprehensive view of humanitarian crises must acknowledge the role of wildlife crime as a facilitator of this violence.

As with diamonds in Sierra Leone, charcoal in Somalia, and coltan, gold, and timber in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), ivory from poached elephants is exploited by armed groups in DRC, Central African Republic (CAR), northern Uganda, South Sudan, and northern Cameroon.

Of conflict resources, however, only diamonds have been formally defined by the UNGA, under resolution 55/56, adopted on December 1, 2000, as: “rough diamonds which are used by rebel movements to finance their military activities, including attempts to undermine or overthrow legitimate Governments.”

The formulation of a resolution on “conflict ivory” could be raised at this UNGA based on evidence that the sale of ivory from poached elephants contributes to the financing of violence.

“Elephant ranges and conflict zones overlap, with predictable results,” wrote Varun Vira and Thomas Ewing in Ivory’s Curse, a report last year on how ivory profits help empower perpetrators of conflicts in Africa.

The Enough Project, which works in conflict zones to expose social and environmental crimes, drew links between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and trafficking in ivory, gold, and diamonds, based on interviews—including with 11 Ugandan men who had defected from the LRA.

The September 2015 National Geographic article, “Tracking Ivory: How Killing Elephants Finances Terror in Africa,” implicating Joseph Kony’s LRA in poaching elephants and dealing in ivory, substantiates evidence that ivory is “bush currency.”

The investigative work of Bryan Christy points to the use of ivory by the same groups that deal in conflict diamonds: the LRA, janjaweed, and Seleka, a rebel group in CAR.

Sudanese and Chadian poachers, including groups that affiliate with the janjaweed, have been implicated in the mass slaughter of elephants in Chad’s Zakouma National Park and in Cameroon’s Bouba N’djida National Park. More recently, Seleka were responsible for the killing of elephants in Dzanga Bai, southwestern CAR.

CAR is one of four countries—including Gabon, Republic of Congo, and Cameroon—in the “Tridom protected ecosystem,” to which 85 percent of forest elephant ivory seized between 2006-2014 was recently traced.

National Geographic’s fake tusks, set into motion in CAR, on a path between Garamba National Park in DRC and Sudan, passed through an enclave in Darfur, Kafia Kingi, known to be a LRA-Kony hideout. The subsequent trajectory of the tusks was east toward Khartoum.

“Khartoum, along with Mombasa and Dar es Salaam, remains one of the most important export routes for poached ivory leaving Africa,” says Keith Somerville, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

Based on interviews with ex-LRA soldiers, Christy said in a recent interview with National Public Radio, “The Sudanese government is in the ivory business. This isn’t an animal story, or even a crime story, it’s a humanitarian one.”

It was on humanitarian grounds that the UNGA adopted the resolution on “conflict diamonds” that precipitated changes and reforms in their trade. Although non-binding, General Assembly resolutions carry moral and political clout, and feed into international law and intergovernmental process.

Before the UNGA resolution, the De Beers diamond monopoly had failed to monitor—or be transparent about—the sources of diamonds.

Outcomes of the resolution included the establishment of a means of certifying diamonds called the Kimberley Process (2003) and, a decade later, a ban on diamond trading with CAR—where Seleka have taken control over the diamond industry, one of the country’s economic mainstays.

But, the UNGA definition of conflict diamonds was overly narrow, restricted to rebel groups.

According to Global Witness, this meant that the Kimberley Process “was not empowered to address the broader range of risks to human rights posed by the trade in diamonds, such as those which have been documented in Zimbabwe.”

In 2012, an African ivory-trading system modeled on the De Beers diamond cartel was proposed for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES is a multilateral agreement administered by UNEP and reporting to UNGA.

Called the Decision-Making Mechanism (DMM), it was written by a group of consultants selected by CITES who made a case for the establishment of a Central Ivory Selling Organization (CISO).

One elephant expert, Phyllis Lee, of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, suggested that the consultants “epitomize the specific views of southern African stakeholders who will ultimately benefit from initiating an ivory trade.”

Those are countries, Lee says, “where elephant populations are unrepresentative of those facing threats in central African forests or the ‘killing fields’ of Tanzania.”

Despite strong criticism that the DMM model would promote demand for ivory, destabilize the security of elephant populations, and fail amid corruption and incapacity to self-police, the DMM lingers on the agenda for next year’s CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP17), to be held in Johannesburg in September-October 2016.

Given the highly organized nature of ongoing elephant poaching and increasing use of ivory by gangs that operate blatantly outside any lawful system, a CISO—even with a certification scheme for “non-poached” “non-conflict” “non-blood” ivory—is bound to get circumvented. Ivory obtained legally through CITES authorized auctions has already obfuscated and provided cover for illegal ivory sales.

And access to elephants is easier than access to diamond mines. Setting up a trade mechanism in a commodity known to finance violence is reckless, ultimately risking—in the case of elephants—ever greater militarization of conservation.

The effectiveness of a system to stamp out a conflict resource depends on how it’s defined, says Khadija Sharife, a reporter at the African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting.

“With diamonds, we’ve seen a convenient sensationalization of the issue by limiting the definition to rebels or militia,” Sharife says. “Yet ivory, like diamonds, is intertwined with a host of institutional actors, including governments, on whose integrity the system depends.

“Furthermore, there’s little chance for ‘certification’ to regulate legalized trade in the case of commodities that fall into the ‘conflict’ category, where there’s added incentive to conceal.”

Like conflict diamonds, conflict ivory may not form a major part of the illegal trade, but the use of ivory money by rebels and national armies nevertheless has multiple and dire consequences.

A UNGA definition of conflict ivory would have to encompass the use of ivory by groups other than rebels—militias, armed forces of national governments, corrupt officials—and preclude any future proposals to certify and legally trade ivory.

So far, the UN has adopted only one resolution on wildlife crime.

If conflict ivory were to be recognized by the UNGA, it would help elevate on international agendas the crisis elephants face by linking it to human violence.

It could also lead to the development of a legal framework such as a convention on wildlife crime (similar to the UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime) that would operate independently of CITES and of the impetus to trade.

Crucially, such a resolution would clearly convey to consumers of ivory far removed from conflicts that buying ivory not only results in mass elephant slaughter but also helps finance violence in Africa.

Dr. Katarzyna Nowak is a research fellow in anthropology at Durham University, U.K.; a research associate in zoology at University of the Free State Qwaqwa, South Africa; and scientific advisor to the Southern Tanzania Elephant Program. Twitter @katzyna

Elephants at an important last waterhole at the end of the dry season near a tourist camp in Zakouma National Park. The elephants had to come and drink even though human scent was all around. ©2006 Michael Nichols/National Geographic Creative.
Around the time these elephants came to drink at a waterhole in Chad’s Zakouma National Park, Sudanese and Chadian poachers—including groups affiliated with the janjaweed—were slaughtering elephants in the park en masse. ©2006 Michael Nichols/National Geographic Creative.

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Meet the Author

Katarzyna Nowak
Katarzyna Nowak is a conservation scientist affiliated with the Zoology Department at the University of the Free State, Qwaqwa, South Africa. She has spent fifteen years researching and writing about the behavior and conservation of wild monkeys and elephants, and human-wildlife interactions. She helped establish and advises the Southern Tanzania Elephant Program. She's currently based in Colorado's Front Range. Photo credit: Trevor Jones