Latest Lion Aid News

Black gold or white gold of jihad?

Thursday 26th June 2014

Black gold

An Al-Shabaab collection centre just down the road


Recently, I wrote a blog questioning the involvement of ivory as a major source of income for terrorist groups in contrast to local militia groups. Doubtless both are dangerous and cause much instability, but the alleged involvement of “terrorist” groups like Somalia’s Al-Shabaab in ivory trafficking sent alarm bells ringing across the world.

The information about Al-Shabaab’s significant involvement in ivory trading (reportedly worth 40% of their income came from a report by the Elephant Action League and was picked up after some time by the New York Times. The NYT article ends with this call to action:

“… the U.S. military [should] join the fight to save elephants in Africa. We will all be safer if they do.”

No mincing of words there – send in the Marines!

But - are terrorist groups (as opposed to militias) involved in illegal ivory trafficking?

Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution says no:

“… terrorism is not proliferating because of poaching. Terrorism is driven by its own enabling factors, which are varied and complex. Poaching has nowhere is the world generated new terrorists … it is equally crucial to acknowledge that much poaching – in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa – takes place in the absence of violent conflicts and are not carried out by terrorists or other armed groups”.

The Elephant Action League says yes. In fact, they say -

“In effect, ivory serves as one of the lifelines of al-Shabaab, enabling it to maintain its grip over young soldiers, most of who are not radically motivated. According to a source within the militant group, between one to three tons of ivory, fetching a price of roughly US$200 per kilo, pass through the ports in southern Somalia every month.

A quick calculation puts Shabaab’s monthly income from ivory at between US$200,000 and US$600,000.”

That would translate to $2.4 million to $7.2 million annually.

Most recently, the UN says no. A report entitled “Illegal trade in wildlife: the environmental, social and economic consequences for sustainable development”, mentions the following:

“Ivory … provides a portion of the income raised by militia groups in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and is probably a primary source of income for the Lord’s Resistance Army currently operating in the border triangle of the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. Similarly, ivory provides a source of income for the Sudanese Janjaweed and other horseback gangs operating between Chad, the Niger and the Sudan. Given the local abundance of elephants and the estimated number of elephants killed within striking range of these militia groups, the likely annual income from ivory for such groups in the whole of eastern, western and central sub Saharan Africa is probably in the order of $4 million–$12.2 million.”

“Al Shabaab’s primary income appears to be from informal taxation at roadblock checkpoints and ports, and they have been known to make up to between $8 million and $18 million per year from charcoal traffic at a single roadblock in Somalia’s Badade District. The export of charcoal from Kismayo and Baraawe ports in particular has increased since the institution of a Security Council charcoal export ban. Al Shabaab retains about one third of the income from that export, which represents between $38 million and $56 million. The overall size of the illicit charcoal export trade from Somalia has been estimated at between $360 million and $384 million per year. Although further investigation is needed into the role of charcoal in threat finance, for African countries in conflict, including the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Somalia and the Sudan, a conservative estimate suggests that the militia and terrorist groups in the regions may earn, depending on prices, from $111 million to $289 million annually from their involvement in taxing and their control of the illegal or unregulated charcoal trade.”

This is a massive trade, but who in the world cares about charcoal? It’s not like chopped trees generate as much public concern and interest as slaughtered elephants. But the impact of the removal of that number of trees must be having devastating consequences on the environment.

Doubtless Al-Shabaab earns some money from the illegal ivory trade – but let’s not send in the Marines yet. As I mentioned in the original blog, ivory trading is very likely much more under the control of criminal networks than terrorist groups. Hence the recent seizure of a significant pile of ivory stored in a local company warehouse in Mombasa.

If we are to realistically design a strategy to combat illegal wildlife trafficking, we need realistic information and not scare tactics. Implicating terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab might be good for donations, but distracts from what local businessmen in Mombasa (and politicians) are doing under our noses.

It should be pointed out that the Elephant Action League has recently started an information network called “Wildleaks”. People with information about illegal wildlife trafficking can contribute details anonymously. Let’s hope some clarity will emerge about the real extent of involvement of Al-Shabaab in the illegal ivory trade.

And meanwhile, let’s concentrate on the real kingpins.

If you have not already signed up to our mailing list, you can add your name here and keep up to date with our ongoing work and, most importantly, DONATE to support our work to conserve the remaining fragile lion populations. Thank you. 

Posted by Chris Macsween at 18:18

No comments have been posted yet.

Add a new comment

Existing user

New user sign up