Men in camouflage stand around an open field, cradling rifles and wearing shoddy bulletproof vests. Armed, western facilitators put the local men through their paces. The drill isn’t part of a “live” conflict. There is no official train and assist mission here, nor do the foreign men comprise official national forces from a different state. This is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the conservationists are being trained for battle against poachers seeking ivory in the country’s national parks.
African elephants are facing a crisis of extinction, fueled by rampant poaching rates. Between 2015 and 2016, around 20,000 African elephants were killed for their ivory tusks—more than were born in the same period. Garamba National Park in the DRC was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980 when its elephant population stood at an approximate 22,000. Now, 95 percent have been wiped out.
As poachers destroy local elephant populations, they seek out new animals elsewhere, and the poaching quickly spreads. The overwhelming driver of market demand is Asian appetite for jewelry and ornaments made of ivory, in particular in countries like China and Vietnam. And the enormous difference between ivory market price and local earnings means there is an almost unlimited supply of potential poachers.
But modern day ivory poaching is no longer solely a conservationist issue. In vast areas of central and western Africa, it has become a militarized process intrinsically tied to terrorist groups, militias, murder and rape. Rather than a haphazard process undertaken by an opportunistic villager, African poaching is often characterized by the sophisticated organization of poachers, the use of sophisticated weapons, and a growing access to transnational trafficking networks. Poaching kingpins centralize their control over land, “renting” out areas for poaching. In the DRC, rebel commanders provide ammunition and arms in return for ivory.
Villagers are often very willing to help; farmers require grazing land for cattle, which is limited by national park land and used by migrating elephant herds. In 2013, in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, poachers distributed almost a ton of cyanide to villages in return for ivory, resulting in the death of over 300 elephants.
Profits from ivory sales are often fed back into regional conflicts. It funds groups such as the Lord’s Resistance Army, which operates in the DRC, Uganda, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, and Janjaweed, a militia that operates in western Sudan and eastern parts of Chad. Profits have been indirectly linked to terror group al-Shabaab and Somali criminal gangs. In Mozambique, organized criminals are so militarized that they are willing to fight against the South African army for ivory. In the DRC, government soldiers have also been linked to poaching.
A Guardian wildlife trafficking investigation valued the industry at 18 billion pounds per year, making it fourth in value after arms, human and narco-trafficking. It’s also closely linked to these other crimes. In fact, ivory is moved through established transnational trafficking routes used for other illicit trade such as Mombasa, Dar es Salaam or Zanzibar Island. In a 2006 case, ivory from Cameroon was trafficked by a Hong Kong group also known for drug trafficking and money laundering. Ivory trafficking also follows similar methods to the movement of other illegal or sanctioned goods: items are undervalued, misrepresented or mixed with legal items. And yet, while other trafficking crimes have gained widespread attention in both the public and private sectors, wildlife trafficking continues to be severely under-investigated.
Ivory poaching has horrifying effects on the environment and fuels some of the most reprehensible wars in modern history. In the face of sophisticated weaponry, endemic corruption and human greed, already endangered and fragile ecosystems and animals stand no chance. According to the BBC, South African ex-military advisers to the Garamba National Park in the DRC have suggested that the only way to stop poachers is to hunt and kill them before they kill the remaining elephants. As a result, African national parks have been turned into conflict lines, “killing fields” and war zones.
How we tackle wildlife trafficking is a reflection of our humanity. If it continues in this way, the African elephant—an icon of the cradle of life and a source of joy and wonder—will be gone from the face of the earth within the next ten years. And with each loss of life, war and terror will continue to rage across parts of Africa.