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Illegal Ivory Trade Funds Rebels in Central Africa

A seized handicraft item made of ivory sits near seized elephant tusks at a Malaysian customs office in Port Klang outside Kuala Lumpur, December 13, 2011.

A seized handicraft item made of ivory sits near seized elephant tusks at a Malaysian customs office in Port Klang outside Kuala Lumpur, December 13, 2011.

International and Cameroonian wildlife organizations blame rebel groups for the slaughter of almost 12,000 elephants in Central African countries since 2004. They say the rebels are working with corrupt government officials to sell the Ivory to Asia to finance their insurgencies.

The World Conservation Society, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, and the International Union for Nature Conservation are among the groups joining Cameroonian non-governmental organizations this week to accuse rebels groups in Central Africa of fueling the illegal ivory trade.

At a news conference late Thursday in Yaounde, they said 11,000 elephants were killed in Minkebe Park, in northeast Gabon since 2004. Last year, 300 elephants were killed in Cameroon and in March this year, 86 elephants - including 33 pregnant females - were killed in Chad.

Despite measures to protect the elephants - experts said their populations have fallen by more than 60 percent in the region in the past decade.

Jules Caron, head of communications for the WWF’s anti-poaching unit in Central Africa, said it no secret that rebel groups are using the illegal trade to fund their activities. “There is a group like the Lord’s Resistance Army that has been proving links between [setting an example of] how to fund their activities through illegal wildlife trade and ivory poaching. There is elephant poaching done by them in the north of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they use ivory to sell in return for arms," Caron stated. "It is the same with the Sudanese Janjaweed where there is links in the north of Cameroon and the Central African Republic with those hunters [poachers] that have links with the Janjaweeds.”

Rebels are accused of distributing sophisticated weapons to the poachers - some of which became available when countries like Libya were destabilized by uprisings.

This is forcing Cameroon to deploy its national army in the fight against these increasingly dangerous poachers.

But the rebels are only part of the equation. Experts said this trade could not happen without high-level cooperation. They said rebels work with well-established networks of government officials to kill the elephants and transport their ivory to Asia.

“It’s thousands and thousands of tusks. How is it possible? … Government, high level government officials, have not only been proven to be involved, but are being prosecuted for that,” said Caron.

The WWF’s Caron said the best strategy would be for Asian governments to ban all ivory trade, reduce the potential for profit. "The key action that we have been pushing is to ban the legal ivory trade in Taiwan. If Taiwan will ban ivory trade, then it will be one country less in illegal ivory trade. Then there is the issue of China. There is also illegal ivory trade in China,” he stated.

Wildlife organizations are strongly urging governments to adopt a zero tolerance policy on poaching to prevent the possible extinction of the African elephant.