Poached Ivory Is the New Criminal Currency

The lucrative and illegal ivory trade is funding criminal enterprises across continents.
Ivory has become the currency of illegal wars fought in Africa and the Middle East. (Photo: Massimo Pizzotti/Getty Images)
May 30, 2013· 1 MIN READ
Joanna writes about environment and energy for the NYT, Popular Science, OnEarth Magazine, and more.

It's official. Africa's poaching crisis is no longer just keeping conservationists up late at night, it is a global security nightmare. Every conflict has its currency—diamonds in Sierra Leone, opium in Afghanistan, and now, elephant ivory in Central Africa has been connected with armed militia groups, including the Lord's Resistance Army and groups with links to Al-Qaeda.

In a briefing to the United Nations Security Council this week, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reported that "Poaching and its potential linkages to other criminal, even terrorist, activities constitute a grave menace to sustainable peace and security in Central Africa."

It's hardly worth romanticizing, but poaching used to be the domain of local subsistence farmers trying to earn a little cash on the side to improve their livelihoods.

Throughout much of Central Africa, poaching has metastasized into large-scale organized crime with the profits going to ammunition and weapon purchases.

The Secretary-General's report highlights the growing links between elephant poaching, weapons proliferation and regional insecurity. "Illegal ivory trade may currently constitute an important source of funding for armed groups," the report says. "Also of concern is that poachers are using more and more sophisticated and powerful weapons, some of which, it is believed, might be originating from the fallout in Libya."

"Conservation organizations are not the ones that are going to be there, standing on the front lines shooting back at armed militias," said Crawford Allan, director of TRAFFIC North America. "That's not our role. We do everything we can to protect wildlife and conserve their habitat, but ultimately a lot of the work that needs to be done now will involve serious, security-related issues like breaking up terrorism rings."

"I was recently in South Africa, in Kruger Park, and you are constantly aware of the sound of military helicopters flying overhead," said Allan. "You hear news that military drones are being used to track down poachers in the park, you hear that the army has gotten into fire fights with poachers and both sides are suffering casualties. It's very much like a war."

At present, ivory is going almost exclusively to China, with a bit headed for Thailand, and a bit coming to the U.S. after being carved in China.

For the Chinese, ornate ivory carvings are a highly desirable status symbol, and the price has gone through the roof.

The high prices for ivory, low penalties for poachers and the ever-growing business interests of China in Africa, open up easy avenues for illegal transport of ivory, and make ivory a kind of dream product for organized crime.

"Elephants are walking around with literally tens of thousands, if not millions of dollars on their faces," said Allan.

"All these gangs have to do is roll up with their weapons, mow them down, hack out their tusks and ship them back to where they can sell them with the consolidators who are trading with the Chinese businessmen set up in Africa. Then, before you know it, it's on its way in a shipping crate back to China and everybody is happy, except for the elephants and the people who care about them."

What more should be done to apprehend poachers in Africa and hold them accountable? Let us know in the Comments.