Every decade or so, dating back to the 1970s, there is an upsurge of media interest in the slaughter of elephants for their ivory, and the implications for wildlife conservation. Here, Keith Somerville a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS), who is currently researching ivory poaching in Africa, provides an account of the current state of the illicit industry that is threatening to wipe out elephants and other species.

Reports of the mass killing of these majestic animals to satisfy luxury markets in rich countries generate support for anti-poaching operations, conservation organisations and international efforts to combat the smuggling of ivory from Africa to East Asia. But in recent years, reporting has concentrated heavily on links between insurgent movements, brutal but strategically insignificant rebel groups, and the smuggling of tusks to the newly wealthy elite of China.

This media discourse – that poaching by rebels is wiping out elephants at a greater pace and that the proceeds from ivory is increasing insecurity in Africa and, by implication globally – has gained pace and also the attention of world leaders and decision-makers in the United States. Fighting the ivory trade is seen in this narrative as a way of conserving a keystone species. But increasingly it is a means of waging war on Islamist groups as part of the war on terror, or on groups which threaten the security of the West’s military allies, like Uganda or Kenya.

A series of articles in leading American newspapers, including the New York Times, reporting the wholesale slaughter of elephants in Central African national parks, has helped to fuel concern in the US about the national security implications of the trade.


Author: Riccardo Pravettoni, GRID-Arendal

Investigations by journalists, conservationists and governments revealed the killings, sometimes of whole herds in a single attack, were the work of a range of groups. They include the Lord’s Resistance Army (driven out of Uganda, but now surviving as a nomadic and predatory group on the borders of the DRC, Central African Republic and South Sudan), to the Seleka rebels in the CAR and the Janjaweed, the militias used by the Sudanese government in massacres of civilians in Darfur.

More ominously, in the eyes of Western governments, Elephant Action League’s (a conservation advocacy group) investigations show the Somali Islamist Al Shabab movement earning between $200,000 and $600,000 a month from ivory poaching and smuggling. Some Western security sources and President Kenyatta of Kenya have also said the Al Shabab raid on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in which 67 people were killed, was funded by ivory smuggling.

Current US Secretary of State John Kerry, describes ivory poaching as a security threat to Africa, a menace to African states’ economies and a cause of violence, insecurity and the ‘degradation of stability’ of whole regions. After the Westgate attack, former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton announced that she was involved in an $80million campaign being run by conservation groups working with African governments to combat the trade. Reports from the Born Free conservation group and the US-based Centre for Defense Analysis have further highlighted the insurgent–ivory connection, suggesting that the Boko Haram rebels in Nigeria have also been involved.

I was prompted by this new discourse to start researching this connection and the current scale and nature of ivory poaching in Africa. The results will be published as a book and peer-reviewed articles charting the history of the ivory trade over millennia, but with a strong emphasis on the current nature of poaching and the way it is embedded in the political economy of African states.

The work I have carried out so far, assisted by the body of academic works by people like Edward Alpers and Edward Steinhart, suggests the current nature of the ivory trade fits into a constantly evolving and mutating pattern of connections between ivory, economic development, political hegemony and both corruption and criminalisation stretching back to the Roman Empire and before. The trade is almost entirely externally driven, with little other than some symbolic value placed on it by most peoples across Africa.

Demand from wealthy states, empires and classes (whether Roman patricians, European and North American capitalist classes that developed in the 19th century, or the new capitalist class in China) has, over time, taken traditional hunting for meat and use of ivory for ceremonial purposes and converted it into a valuable commodity trade. A trade that was criminalised with the advent of European colonialism.

This criminalisation, combined with the substantial income from poaching and trading, has ensured its continuation. Those who poach, or are middlemen, are varied and insurgents are involved. However, the evidence proving significant Al Shabab or Boko Haram engagement, looks increasingly flimsy.

The picture is complex and far from static. For example, in countries such as Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Tanzania, the trade is about corruption, organised criminal networks and venal politicians whose ivory earnings are for personal enrichment and patronage.

My research is intended to demonstrate that complexity, and tease out the different strands relating them to the political economy of the states and regions where poaching is such a threat to the survival of the elephant.

Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, teaches journalism at the Centre for Journalism, University of Kent and edits Africa News and Analysis. He recently wrote ‘What is driving the demise of the African elephant’, an account of the current state of ivory poaching in Africa for the South African Politicsweb news website.

Image: Ivory trade in East Africa during the 1880s and 1890s