Elephants: Critical to America's National Security | Commentary

Though Ahmed Godane, the leader of the Somalian terrorist group al-Shabab, was killed in a U.S. airstrike earlier this month, Ugandan authorities uncovered a 19-person al-Shabab cell armed with explosives just last week. What action can the United States take against African terrorist groups that advances American security, protects U.S. service members, and fits within budgetary constraints? One approach suggested by Rep.Peter A. Defazio, D-Ore., might surprise you: Protect Africa’s elephants with the Targeted Use of Sanctions for Killing Elephants in their Range, or TUSKER, Act.

Every 15 minutes, an elephant is killed in Africa to feed the $7 to $10 billion global demand for ivory. According to Adam M. Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA, “The elephant poaching crisis has reached historic levels and, shockingly, some elephant populations face extinction in our lifetime. An estimated 35,000 to 50,000 elephants are now poached every year.”

These numbers are not the result of a lack of conservation efforts. While the poaching of elephants is not a new problem, this illicit industry is becoming increasingly militarized. Organized crime syndicates, terrorist organizations, and even government militaries are all taking advantage of record high prices for ivory. As a result, rangers are often times outgunned and outmaneuvered; at least 1,000 park rangers have been killed while on duty over the last ten years. This increasing connection between armed groups and wildlife trafficking highlights that protecting elephants is not only a conservation imperative, but a security necessity as well.

In 2012, an 18-month undercover investigation revealed an indisputable link between the illicit ivory trade and al-Shabab: The organization has been “actively buying and selling ivory as a means of funding their militant operations.” Al-Shabab, acting as middlemen, purchase ivory in Africa and sell it to global markets. It is estimated that the illegal ivory trade is financing up to 40 percent of the terrorist group’s operations and allowing them to pay their soldiers $300 a month — far more than the inconsistent $100 monthly salary of Somali soldiers. This drastic salary difference has been previously used as a tool to encourage Somali soldiers to defect and join al-Shabab.

The link between the illicit ivory trade and terrorist financing extends beyond al-Shabab. Joseph Kony’s infamous Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa, state-sponsored militias like the Janjaweed who were blamed for killing thousands in Darfur, and even members of some African national militaries are suspected of participating in the killing of Africa’s elephants to trade for or purchase weapons and finance their operations.

While the ivory trade funds terrorist and rebel groups throughout Africa, the largest market lies in Asia. Born Free reported in August that “Chinese ivory traffickers in particular have been arrested across nearly every single African range state and operate at nearly every point along the ivory supply chain.” Typically, ivory is collected by African criminal networks and then shipped to Asia for international distribution. These transnational criminal networks are taking advantage of poor governance, fragile states, and porous borders to feed a seemingly endless demand for ivory trinkets.

In February of this year, President Barack Obama announced a National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking that aimed to tackle America’s own domestic ivory demand. As the second largest market for ivory in the world, this was a great first step toward undermining the global ivory trade, but more can be done. Additional policy changes that provide support to indigenous African conservation efforts and interrupt the global demand for ivory have the ability to increase American security while simultaneously protecting Africa’s elephants.

Recently, Defazio introduced legislation that attempts to do just that. The TUSKER Act proposes amending the African Elephant Conservation Act to require certain nations to work towards ending all illegal ivory trade into, out of, or within that country. If a given country’s anti-poaching efforts are not satisfactory, specific and targeted imports of wildlife, fish and plant products would be prohibited.

The TUSKER Act was named after Satao, a large “tusker” elephant recently killed by poachers in Kenya, and has received wide support from international wildlife and conservation groups. Defazio, however, is pitching the legislation for its security implications as much as its conservation effects saying, “The illegal wildlife trade funds  . . .  extremely dangerous terrorist groups that threaten regional stability in Africa and national security in the United States.”

Weakening the global ivory trade is not a silver bullet to ending the financing of any of the world’s terrorist groups. It does however present a low-risk, cost-effective option the United States can take to significantly disrupt the financial lifeblood of organizations like al-Shabab. With the public opposed to almost any mention of military intervention and operating within extreme budget constraints, Congress must start getting creative with the tools it uses to promote American security. The U.S. should start considering how it can support park rangers and indigenous conservation efforts as well as diminish global demand for ivory to both promote American security and protect Africa’s elephants, and Rep. Defazio’s TUSKER Act is a good place to start.

Kerry Kraemer is the Policy Program Coordinator at the Truman National Security Project and the Center for National Policy.

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