Is elephant ivory helping to fund al-Shabab?

By Catrina Stewart

These tusks got as far as Hong Kong before they were seized. Photo / AP
These tusks got as far as Hong Kong before they were seized. Photo / AP

Al-Shabaab, the Somali Islamist group that killed dozens of people last month in a bloody four-day siege of the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, is deriving funds for its terror campaigns from elephant poaching in Kenya and elsewhere, activists and conservationists claim.

The Elephant Action League, which has dubbed ivory the white gold of jihad, said that elephant poaching and the trafficking of ivory is fuelling conflict in Africa by helping groups such as al-Shabaab to mount ever more deadly attacks.

The illicit ivory trade funds up to 40 per cent of the cost of al-Shabaab's army of 5000 people, according to Andrea Crosta, a director of the league and co-author of a 2011 report into the links between poaching and terror groups.

The spotlight on al-Shabaab's funding is more intense than ever after the most deadly terror attack on Kenyan soil since the 1998 US embassy bombings in Nairobi that killed more than 200 people.

The Westgate siege has propelled the affiliate of al-Qaeda to international attention. The group has warned that the slaughter, in which at least 67 people died, is just the premiere of Act One and continues to demand that Kenya pull its troops out of Somalia.

The poaching of elephants for their tusks has driven the animal in some countries - such as Sierra Leone and Senegal - to the point of extinction. More than 30,000 elephants were slaughtered in Africa last year alone, 382 of them in Kenya.

Armed with AK-47 machine guns, and with bows and arrows that are sometimes poisoned, poachers slip unnoticed past the few rangers who patrol the reserves and monitor the elephants.

Often, they target the calves first in the knowledge that the older elephants will bunch up to try to protect them. Then they kill the others.

It takes several bullets to bring down such sizeable mammals, and the elephants usually die after immense suffering. The poachers hack off most of the elephant's head to get at the tusks.

Not since the slaughter of the 1980s, which prompted the introduction of an international ban on the commercial trade of ivory, has the situation been so desperate, say conservationists. In less than 30 years, Kenya's elephant population has plunged from 167,000 to only 35,000. Armed gangs act with impunity, and officials are paid off all along the way. In the event that poachers are caught and brought to justice, they escape with trivial fines or short custodial sentences.

In relative terms, the rewards for everyone involved are huge. The poachers, who run the biggest risks, earn US$50-US$100 ($60-$120) a kg, and the price increases as the ivory moves up the chain. By the time it reaches its final market, which in most cases is China, it can fetch around US$3000 a kg.

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently unveiled a US$80 million plan by conservation groups and African governments to fight poaching, targeting the measures from the poachers to a reduction in demand for ivory.

- Independent

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