Is Poaching Linked To Terrorism?

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[November 19th, 2012. Nairobi, Kenya]

Is poaching linked to other international crimes such as drug trafficking and illegal arms trade? This is a view that is emerging in a number of African nations notably South Africa, Kenya, DRC, Chad, Central Africa, Cameroon and Botswana which have been affected severely by poaching activities. Environmental conservationists are now arguing that linking poaching to terrorism, narcotics and illegal arms trading would help in getting international support for anti-poaching operations. “Poaching is as much an international crime as drug trafficking and arms trade and should be treated as such.”  Dr Winnie Kiiru, the Director of Conservation Kenya argues.

The link between international criminal networks and illegal wildlife trade first came to light a decade ago when the Wolverhampton University released their “International Wildlife Trade and Organised Crime” study of 2002 which had found out that the Colombian drug cartels, Russian Mafia and the Japanese Yakuza gangs were deeply involved in poaching to finance their operations.

By roping in the security and terrorist angles into the fight against poachers, it is apparent that officials manning wildlife bodies as well as non-governmental organisations conservationists believe that this would get the United States and other countries to give their support. For instance, when a number of conservationists from Africa and global financial experts were invited to give testimonies on poaching by the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in May, 2012, under the banner of “Ivory and Insecurity: The Global Implications of Poaching in Africa” they drew strong connections between poaching and regional and global security.

Some even went ahead to accuse international terrorist cell Al-Qaeda and its affiliates of using poaching to raise money. Indeed, On May 25, 2012, a former Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Julius Kipng’etich, told the US Congressional Staff that Al-Shabaab, -the Somali-based Al-Qaeda affiliate has been benefiting from poaching. He then went ahead to ask his American audience to stop wearing jewels made from ivory as doing so was tantamount to supporting Al-Qaeda.

Kipng’etich’s sentiments were supported by Tom Cardamone, Managing Director of the Global Financial Integrity (GFI). However, Cardamone was more candid in connecting poaching with terrorism. To him, when the US effectively froze most of Al-Qaeda’s sources of financing, this forced the terrorist organization and its allies to look for newer and creative sources of funding. He told the Committee that poaching and illegal wildlife trade are some of the ways the terrorists have been using to raise money for their activities.

GFI is a US-based research organization that probes how the secrecy inherent in the global financial system facilitates tax evasion, money laundering, corruption as well as its implications on global security. The oversight body estimates that the global value of the illicit trade in wildlife stands at between $7.8 and $10 billion.

Besides Al-Shabaab, other Al-Qaida affiliates accused of poaching include Jama’atul Mujahideen and HarkatulJihadalIslami of Bangladesh who are said to be raising funds through poaching for ivory, tiger pelts, and rhino horns in the Kaziranga jungle in northeastern India. In his presentation Cardamone named Janjaweed, FDLR, CNDP as some of the militias using poaching to raise funds for their acitivities

But is there evidence?

For one, none of the testimonies made before the FRC gave any comprehensive account of how the terrorists’ organisations are involved in poaching. It is also not clear whether Al-Qaeda and its links, whose capacities to wage terror have now been greatly diminished, have the wherewithal and the personnel to engage in elephant and rhino killing particularly in Africa. Further, such claims have not been corroborated by security agents in countries such as Kenya, whose security and armed forces are deeply involved in the war against Al-Shabaab extremists.

More importantly, questions must now be asked on what has motivated these claims. Could there be a selfish motive on the part of the conservationists? While there is no conclusive evidence that the claims are motivated by a selfish motive, there is evidence that the US government takes very seriously any attempt by Al-Qaeda and its allies to raise their ability to wage war and has kept a close tab on international money laundering. This then begs the question could the relevant conservationists be banking on this scenario to get the US to support their agenda and interests?

To answer this question, one needs to recall what one of Kenya’s prominent conservationists Iain Douglas-Hamilton told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on May 24, 2012. After accusing criminal gangs and militias in different countries of being involved in poaching and profiting from killing elephants and harvesting illegal ivory, Iain Douglas-Hamilton who runs the Save the Elephant NGO, pleaded with the US to render not just political support to anti-poaching initiatives, but also high-tech solutions and resources. He specifically asked for helicopters, planes, remote sensors, gunshot indicators, more trained tracker teams as well as drones in his presentation titled

The most telling of testimonies before the Senate committee was that produced by John Scanlon Secretary General of the Convention on International Trade In Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)  who noted that.

“INTERPOL and the United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice have both recognized the increasing involvement of organized crime syndicates in wildlife crime, syndicates that: carry out detailed planning; have significant financial support; understand and utilize new information technology, and are often well armed.” Scanlon said. “These syndicates engage in the international management of shipments and do not hesitate to use violence or threats of violence against those who try to stand in their way. They constantly adapt their tactics to avoid detection and prosecution, making national borders increasingly irrelevant. And such tactics are particularly evident with illegal trade in African elephants and rhinos.”

The link drawn between poaching, international criminal networks and terrorism is no longer an academic exercise but a strategic issue with security implications. Poaching in Africa is now a highly lucrative venture that has attracted major criminal networks into the trade in wildlife products thanks for the demand in wildlife products in Far Eastern nations notably China, Vietnam and Thailand. The demand for ivory in China appears to be fueled by unprecedented growth in its middle class which is said to have risen to more than 300 million people over the last 15 to 20 years –or 50 percent of its urban population. China’s middle class is expected to grow to between 700-800 million.

The financial returns that the international criminals earn from poaching are attractive as a kilogramme of rhino horns is said to be fetching as much as US$68,000. If this is true, then the latter must be having the financial muscle capable of recruiting local poachers and bribe game rangers, customs officials, security agents and even pay fines imposed by local magistrates.

But will the claim of involvement of terrorists and international criminals move the US and other countries to render the assistance the conservationists have been calling for? Again, much of the information we have on US’ willingness to support African countries in anti-poaching has come from the conservationists. But how much the superpower is actually willing to invest in anti-poaching operations in Africa has not been clear.

One also needs to consider that getting international cooperation to fight poaching is easily said than done. This is because in the past, many foreign nationals have either given lip service to anti-poaching initiatives or sent mixed signals on how to combat it.

Reports attributed to wildlife managers in different African countries indicate that the heightened poaching activities in the continent is an operation conducted by well-coordinated networks of international and local criminals who have been employing highly sophisticated methods. The reports also reveal that arresting or killing local poachers does very little to stem the widespread killing of animals, particularly of rhinos and elephants.

But even as many other African countries grapple with how to stop poachers, many countries are yet to solve teething challenges hampering their anti-poaching campaigns

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