The Illegal Wildlife Trade is Fueling Terrorist Groups

From the NYTimes

PRESIDENT OBAMA and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently stepped up the fight against poachers, who kill tens of thousands of animals worldwide every year, selling their body parts for enormous profits. As well as bringing much needed political focus to the issue, their efforts include more resources to train and equip anti-poaching forces.

This attention is part of a new understanding that poachers pose a threat not only to endangered species, but to American national security. A portion of the profits from poaching is funneled to terrorist groups, including Al Shabab, based in Somalia, and the Lord’s Resistance Army, which has killed more than 3,000 people and displaced another 400,000 in Central Africa in recent years.

Despite anti-poaching efforts across the developing world, the illegal killing of wild animals continues: the Wildlife Conservation Society says that 35,000 African elephants were killed illegally last year, and that the number of elephants on the continent has fallen to only 420,000, from 1.2 million in 1980.

Although it is impossible to know for sure how much money flows to terrorists from poaching, some reports suggest that the monthly profit for Al Shabab from the illegal ivory trade alone is $200,000 to $600,000. In the case of the Lord’s Resistance Army, witnesses report that Joseph Kony, the group’s leader, ordered the shooting of elephants in order to trade their tusks for arms, cash, food and medical supplies.

The poaching-terrorist link is not new: in 1998 a Somali warlord tied to poachers reportedly provided safe haven to operatives of Al Qaeda responsible for the bombings of the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed hundreds of people. But as both the global reach of terrorist groups and the market for illegal animal parts have grown, the nexus between the two has tightened.

Before stepping down as secretary of state, Mrs. Clinton began an effort, led by the director of national intelligence, to determine the impact of trafficking in animal products on American security.

The results of the report, which was finished this summer, have not been released. But its conclusions are easy to guess, as shortly after its completion President Obama created an interagency task force to develop an anti-poaching strategy and pledged $10 million to help African states combat poaching.

That’s a welcome contribution, but far below what is needed. To be sure, poaching is a complex, transnational threat, and cracking down on poaching is simply too big a job for the United States, or any government, to handle alone.

It is therefore noteworthy that Mrs. Clinton has continued to generate awareness of the issue since leaving office. On July 15 she announced she would use her influence to rally support from national leaders around the world behind anti-poaching endeavors. Her effort should catalyze other states to step up their own efforts against poaching and wildlife trafficking in Africa.

But the best shot at combating poaching must include nontraditional partners working together. This means that governments, multilateral organizations and technology innovators — from the Pentagon and United Nations counterterrorism units to the World Bank and conservation groups — must play a part in addressing the problem by coordinating strategies and sharing information.

A collaborative response is also needed to achieve development goals in Africa. Tourism is a key part of many African economies, and diminished wildlife populations, especially of popular animals like elephants and rhinos, is a direct threat to their prosperity.

Another key to any anti-poaching strategy should be to equip law enforcement and other authorities with the technology necessary to counter high-tech poachers, who use helicopters, night-vision goggles and automatic weapons. The United States, for example, should work with African governments to deploy unarmed surveillance drones to track poachers and identify their illicit networks.

President Obama’s and Mrs. Clinton’s engagement on poaching deserves credit. But to ensure the link between poaching and terrorism is severely disrupted, their words need to be followed by a serious commitment of money and resources, not only from the United States, but from conservation, development and security organizations worldwide.

Johan Bergenas is the deputy director of the Managing Across Boundaries initiative at the Stimson Center. Rachel Stohl is a senior associate with the initiative. Ochieng Adala, the acting executive director of the Africa Peace Forum and a visiting fellow at the Stimson Center, is a former Kenyan ambassador to the United Nations.

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