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Money Talks: The links between poaching and terror and why they matter

Frank Charnas is a senior intelligence analyst specialising in Sub-Saharan African affairs at a geopolitical risk consultancy based in the Middle East.

By their nature, terrorist organisations do not publish their balance sheets, and therefore it is very difficult to ascertain the financial standing of these groups or the source of their income. It is generally understood that much of the financial support for militant activities is derived from illicit and criminal activities, and at this time poaching and trafficking are very lucrative. It is not too far a stretch to assume that poaching and related activities are funding rebellion, terror and violence throughout the African continent.

Poaching has very low barriers to entry for already armed militant groups with access to local populations and pre-established smuggling routes. Terrorist groups are better armed, funded and organised than wildlife protection agents, who have limited funding, resources and training. Poaching is in essence driven by economics, and as long as there is a high demand and a low supply, ivory and rhino horn are likely to remain highly valuable currencies. Moreover, once ivory has been obtained, there is a need to traffic it, and here again, criminal and terrorist networks are profiting.

Reports show that Boko Haram has been implicated in poaching and smuggling of ivory from Cameroon, in which the group maintains operational bases. In the DRC the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) of Joseph Kony has been identified as operating a massive poaching operation in the Gambella reserve, a key source of finance for the group. The Elephant Action League has estimated that Somali-based Islamist militant group al-Shabaab receives as much as 40% of its revenues through activities connected to illegal poaching of elephants and rhinos (although these statistics are extremely difficult to verify). Additionally, criminal and militant groups including the Sudanese Janjaweed, the breakaway Mombasa Republican Council, as well as suspected rebel soldiers from Uganda, DRC and South Sudan have all been linked to poaching in some way.

Having already caused the extinction of the West African Black Rhino, poaching threatens the future of our natural world and forces several other species perilously close to the same fate. However, as the West is not home to any of these species, there is a lower financial and sentimental or ideological pull to invest in the anti-poaching fight.

That is, unless you consider the link to international terrorism. African terror groups are gaining notoriety in the West as they target locations popular with Western tourists and undertake increasingly brazen and publicised acts – think the Westgate mall attacks by al-Shabaab, the international attention brought to the LRA by the #kony2012 campaign, or the Boko Haram kidnapping of the “Chibok” girls in Nigeria.

Exposing the link between poaching and terrorism increases the cost of international inaction. This is because the international community can diminish the funding of these groups, the essence of their ability to operate, by taking action against poaching. In this respect, a relatively small investment in anti-poaching activities, which should include a military component, could avoid a much larger investment in anti-terrorism efforts across the continent. This logic is equally applicable for African nations blighted by militancy and separatist groups.

That said, unless the fundamental economics that make poaching such a lucrative practice are changed, there will always be those drawn to it, especially in poverty-stricken areas. Of course, poverty alleviation can go a long way to providing would-be poachers with alternate means of survival. However, this could only be attained through a structural change in a society, which would take more time to display effectiveness than elephants and rhinos can afford at this point.

There is thus a need to take greater effort in diminishing demand for illicit goods. Contrary to the current practice, this may mean legalising the trade, and flooding the market with stockpiled and counterfeit ivory and rhino horn.

Asia has long flooded African markets with counterfeit goods; maybe it is time Africa returns the favour. Lower prices are likely to make the trade in these goods significantly less profitable, whereas pushing the trade to the black market has increased its profitability without noticeably denting demand.

Moreover, there is a clear need for a more aggressive campaign disputing the medical benefits of rhino horn. Here again, small and well designed campaigns can save a greater outlay of capital at a later stage by stopping funding to terrorists and criminal networks, through the removal of income generators.

The economics of trading in ivory are fuel for international terror and criminal networks. By highlighting and consistently addressing the nexus between terror, criminal networks and poaching, the international community may begin to view the destruction of elephants and rhinos as an essential security issue. Beating poaching will require a multipronged approach that has to take economics of the trade into account – but by addressing this threat, the international community can end a growing source of terror funding, and diminish future threats to continental and international security. Money talks – it’s time to have a conversation. DM


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