Last week Kenya burned 105 tons of ivory, which were estimated around 150 million dollars. The enormous bonfire was set in the Nairobi National Park and the President Hururu Kenyatta symbolically lit it in front of all the major officers of the country, UN representatives, presidents of foreign countries, business figures and conservationist experts and a number of NGOs representatives.
The initiative was widely reported by the media and it was backed by some celebrities worldwide, such as Elton John and Bear Grills. On social media the hashtag #LightAFire and #Tweet4Elephants picked up.
The debate which sparkled on the media has so far been around the question of burning ivory, with some pointing out that this action will actually increase the price of it on the black market, making it more lucrative for the people involved in poaching. This claim and all the arguments against the burning of ivory were fiercely rejected by Kenya.
What is surprising about all the news reports on the event, is that the conversation about poaching is framed only in terms of wildlife conservation. Wildlife conservation is the practice of protecting animals and their habitats against threats such as man-made extinction; poaching is seen and addressed as one of the aspects that endangers wildlife and the political aspect of it is often ignored.
President Kenyatta declared that “In 10 years in central Africa we have lost as many as 70 percent of the elephants […] The elephant, as has been said, is an iconic symbol of our country. Unless we take action now we risk losing this magnificent animal.” The WWF president echoed the President declaration, defining the park rangers in Kenya as the “custodian of the wildlife in Kenya” and praising their hard and dangerous work.
Although the poaching business primarily affects the life of the animals, and therefore the environment in which they live, the illegal trade of wildlife goods also contributes to conflict, but the issue is dramatically ignored by the mainstream media.
Worldwide, the sole ivory trade – ignoring the other illegal wildlife goods trade – is estimated to be worth over a billion dollar per year. With the raising price of ivory, and the tragic decrease of elephants, the figure is likely to increase over the next few years.
The profits of the ivory trade, which is illegal in 182 countries worldwide, end up in the pockets of a number of African conflict actors, from Al Shabaab militias in Somalia to the North Sudan Government, empowering them and fueling the conflicts in which they are involved.
A joint report from the conservationist NGOs Born Free and the security and data experts C4ADS, found that the ivory trade “exacerbates and perpetuates militarization, increased corruption, conflict, and the breakdown of governance.”
The phenomenon is not new: as a matter of fact, the use of ivory for financing conflicts is reported back to the ’70s and ’80s, when South Africa used to sell ivory stocks to fund the wars in Angola and Mozambique; around Southern Africa elephants were extensively killed in organized campaigns in order to get the precious ivory, which was commercialized outside the global commodity chain and became an institutionalized conflict commodity.
In Sudan, during the Darfur crisis, militias linked to the Khartoum government raided into Chad, Cameroon, Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in order to poach elephants. The profits from the hunts contributed to the tribal conflict, helped the government of Sudan to overcome the difficulties of the international sanctions and allowed the government to finance operation in Darfur.
The ivory trade has been found to destabilize alliances in DRC, as the market value of ivory attracts corrupted military and political elites who, in exchange of ivory, sometimes end up to arm the militias and the rebels they are supposed to be fighting.
In Zimbabwe, similarly to the Sudan case, political elites use poaching profits to circumvent Western sanctions and get precious foreign currency.
Kenya is increasingly becoming a poaching center, as Al Shabaab militias -the jihadist terrorist group linked to Al-Qaeda-,alongside with other warlords and the regular military from Somalia, raid Northern Kenya for ivory, which is then sold on the black market and the profits used to finance the ongoing Somalian conflict. Under Siad Barre Somali regime, poaching was a key conflict commodity which resulted into the complete disappearance of elephants in Somalia.
In Mozambique organized crime and some corrupt security forces have the monopoly on the poaching business, which has turned recently into a highly militarized and organized industry. Poaching is mostly done cross-borders with South Africa, where the poaching militias are often involved in fights with the South African anti-poaching force.
Other examples from the report of how the ivory trade is increasing corruption and conflict include Tanzania, South Africa and Gabon.
The damage on the African wildlife is worrying and real but we also have to focus on the damage on the African society in order to better address the issue.
We need to realize that poaching is an international business and that its profit are used as conflict commodity, exacerbating violence and organized crime; therefore we need to move beyond conservation in order to protect the elephants and to deprive conflict actors from the profits of ivory.
Ranging can’t be the only solution; as a matter of fact what rangers can accomplish is the seizure of the hunters, who are normally local “subsistence” poachers, who are paid as little as 30$/kg and exploited by who really profits from ivory.
We need to tackle the problem from a top-down point of view, seizing the patrons who are up in the ivory trade chain. We need to tackle military and political elites corruption which is often involve in the illicit trade.
Rural poverty in wildlife rich areas must also be addressed as local communities are sometimes left with no other option than poaching to survive, due to the lack of cultivable land but also due to the displacement caused by the creation of hunting reserves and national parks.
The Ivory trade is a complex process with different outcomes: from the destruction of wildlife and its habitat to the fueling of conflicts and political corruption.
Burning ivory will do little if it’s not built into a political solution.