The African Union’s increased military presence in Somalia has recently succeeded in as many as a dozen communities once held by al-Shabab, the al-Qaida affiliate seeking to create an Islamist state in the Horn of Africa.
Al-Shabab’s years-long Somalia insurgency has been funded by various enterprises, including massive exports of charcoal to the Middle East. But in 2010, Andrea Crosta of the non-profit Elephant Action League began hearing rumors of al-Shabab’s well-organized ivory purchase and export operation. Two years later, Crosta and an Israeli colleague, Nir Kaldron, hired a translator and began a year-long inquiry centered in Nairobi.
“We started these investigations mostly under cover,” says Crosta. “We met dozens and dozens of people, poachers, small traffickers, big traffickers, even ex-warlords, mostly connected to Somali society both in Kenya and Somalia. And slowly we built this very worrying puzzle. And we understood that al-Shabab rightfully started a great opportunity.”
Crosta and Kaldron slowly gained the confidence of many involved in an illicit trade that extends throughout the region. They secretly recorded conversations about al-Shabab’s trafficking operations. The investigations revealed the carefully defined business perspective of an organization that has waged war against western and democratic influences in the Horn of Africa.
Rebels discover a good business opportunity
“They understood, of course, that the price was rising and rising in Asia and the demand was, well, so there was a great business opportunity,” says Crosta. “And they started to act as buyers, basically.
“Unlike other armed groups and terrorist groups in Africa involved with poaching, al-Shabab does not really poach the elephant, kill the elephant. They act as buyers, as very good buyers.
“Slowly, we understood there were about one to three tons of ivory getting onto Somali through al-Shabab every month, so we are talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits every month.”
As the African Union military mission to drive the militants out of Somalia gains momentum, they shut down the insurgency’s access to major ports. But al-Shabab has demonstrated an ability to adapt. They buy ivory and rhino horns from Kenya and neighboring central African countries. They ship the tusks from variety of ports by skiff to Iranian, Korean and Chinese ships anchored in the Indian Ocean. Some skiffs even originate, Crosta says, in ports AU-controlled areas on the coast and even in Kenya.
“They just had to readjust themselves logistically because they still control a large part of the Somali countryside and the traffic is still going on. They just use different ports and exit points.”
Their trafficking chain many helping hands
“Do not forget,” Crosta says, “they also have a lot of power also in Kenya and it is connected to a lot of businessmen and traffickers who actually provide funds for al-Shabab. So, even ivory collected in Kenya and then leaving Kenya from the Mombasa port, for example, might be connected to al-Shabab.”
The league’s report was published in spring of 2013, but didn’t receive much attention until after the devastating al-Shabab attack on the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi last year that took the lives of more than 60 civilians.
More recently, Crosta founded a whistle-glower organization to encourage improved intelligence-gathering on poaching in many countries. However, Crosta says he has also gained a wider perspective on problems created by poaching and efforts to contain it.
“Everybody is talking, of course, about elephants,” Crosta says. “You might talk about rangers dying sometimes, but actually the human toll is much, much wider. It is about rangers, it’s about thousands of poachers losing their lives every year, leaving behind very large families with orphans and widows. And now you also have armed gangs and terrorist groups and the human toll of the ivory trade.”
Too many victims to count
Crosta is concerned also about the larger economic and political tendencies that perpetuate poaching and the consequences for the communities that surround Africa’s poorly protected game reserves. The puzzle Crosta talks about now is more complex than identifying who is killing Africa’s elephants. While poachers may be viewed as predators, Crosta asks that the public look more closely at the Africans who kill these animals.
The Elephant Action League wants to call attention to the widespread human devastation.
“You have armed gangs of very dangerous person but you and you have poor local people,” he says. “One elephant with nice pair of tusks represents a few years of salary for someone who has no salary and maybe 10 people waiting at home for him. So you can imagine the temptation.
“It is also about them. It is about widows, it’s about orphans, it’s about children who become child soldiers, about officers and judges getting bribed. It’s about the weapon that is bought to kill an elephant and is later used to rob a bank. It’s about a lot.”
Tanzania’s rangers stray from their target
In Tanzania, where poachers have killed large numbers of elephants, an all-out anti-poaching crackdown called Operation Terminate last year resulted in a sharp reduction in elephant kills: only two elephants died. But the wildlife success led to monumental political failures and the kind of lawlessness and human
But the moral cost was high as security units operating under a shoot-to-kill policy were accused of killings, torture and rape during the anti-poaching campaign. A parliamentary inquiry revealed the murder of 13 civilians, arrests of over 1,000 people and other abuses by members of the operation, which included soldiers, policemen, game rangers and forestry officers.
President Jakaya Kikwete sacked four top ministers and asked for foreign governments’ guidance on a better way to save the wildlife they depend on for much-needed tourism revenues.