John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Tracking the Traffickers: Poaching Is a Symptom of a Deeper Disease

by Guest Blogger for John Campbell
April 8, 2013

The carcasses of some of the 22 elephant slaughtered in a helicopter-bourne attack lie on the ground in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Garamba National Park, in this undated handout picture released by the DRC Military. (Handout/Courtesy Reuters)


This is a guest post by Emily Mellgard, research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program.

Robert Hormats, U.S. undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment, recently flagged ivory as a “conflict resource.” His classification adds emphasis to what is by now a generally accepted reality; ivory trafficking funds instability in Africa.

Many organized criminal gangs, insurgents, and terrorists in Central Africa are, to varying degrees, funding their activities by slaughtering elephants and smuggling the ivory abroad. The porous borders and opaque border regulations, which often impede legal trade, facilitate illicit trade and smuggling.

Ivory from slaughtered elephants is transported across borders to international, predominantly Asian, markets. The money from these sales goes back to the trafficking networks, which are increasingly controlled by rebel groups and insurgents; hence, ivory smuggling directly funds instability in Africa. Keith Somerville, in January 2013, wrote about the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and janjaweed (Sudanese militias) involvement in ivory trafficking networks across Central Africa.

African governments cannot effectively tackle rampant poaching, the porous borders that facilitate ivory trafficking, or the incentives to participate in the slaughter and trade, without addressing the underlying issues that facilitates the illegal trade. African nations would need to nurture strong institutions, community engagement in the national culture, and grassroots incentives to conserve wildlife rather than exploit it. They need practical regional and international cooperation strategies to curb the demand that feeds ivory trafficking. These initiatives however, require political will and practical capacity, both of which are too often lacking.

A positive example of such cooperation may be the recent announcement of the creation of a multinational African force, approved by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). A force of one thousand soldiers would be deployed in Central Africa specifically to fight a group of Sudanese poachers blamed for the recent slaughter of eighty-nine elephants in Chad.

The effectiveness of the force remains to be seen. The troops must be adequately paid and trained, not only for combat and surveillance, but to sensitize them to in the vital role elephants play to African culture. This will hopefully prevent the troops using their mandate to partake in poaching and trafficking themselves.

That such cultural training is necessary is illustrated by a September 2012 incident—which many scientists and Congolese authorities attribute to a Ugandan military helicopter—in which a herd of twenty-two elephants, including the young, were shot and their tusks hacked off.

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  • Posted by Chike Chukudebelu

    This might sound tough to Westerners – but poaching isn’t one of Africa’s most serious problems, it is nowhere near.

    At the turn of the 20th Century one could still see elephants, gorillas, leopards and other associated wildlife in Southern Nigeria – they are gone today and nobody cares about their loss.

    The optimum solution would be to save some elephants & send them to save havens where they can breed, when living standards and job prospects improve: reintroduce them into the wild.

    I live in Lagos, Nigeria – a few weeks ago, a rare species of whale beached on the “bar beach”. Without wasting too much time, it was cut to pieces by hungry youth and the meat was shared. People neither have the time, energy nor money to engage in “conservation” in Africa – they need jobs and want to eat.

    Weak states that cannot protect the lives of human infants shouldn’t waste too many resources on baby elephants – tough but true. However, even if they are pushed to the wall, they cannot, so they shouldn’t waste too much time on it.

    Meanwhile, can farmers live without elephants? Sure they can, a single elephant can destroy a year’s worth of crops in a few hours – so what do we need them for?

    Elephants and other wildlife are of little more than sentimental value is states with appalling human capital indices. We can actually live without them.

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