Wildlife Poaching and Insecurity in Africa

This June in New York City’s Times Square, officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were joined by law enforcement and celebrities for the second annual “ivory crush.” The event, in which several tons of illegal ivory seized by customs officials were publicly destroyed, was intended to send the message that the U.S. market is closed to the illicit ivory trade.  Yet these initiatives, while welcome, have limited impact on the global trade. In Africa, elephant and rhinoceros populations are being decimated by poachers, while local law enforcement agencies lack the capacity to confront the multinational criminal syndicates feeding a massive illicit market, primarily in Asia. The CSIS Africa Program will look at the crisis of ivory and rhino horn poaching in a major conference on July 15, in which African, U.S. and European experts will share innovative law enforcement and community-based approaches to the problem.

Q1: What is the scale of elephant ivory and rhino horn poaching in Africa?

A1: The current poaching crisis is massive and yet impossible to quantify with precision. Given the vast tracts of remote land over which elephants and rhinoceros range and the scant resources invested in monitoring, many illegal kills are discovered only months or years after they occur, if ever. Estimates are made by extrapolating from the amount of ivory seized by law enforcement, which is believed to represent only a sliver of the overall illicit trade.

These estimates paint a dire picture. A 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences—the largest undertaken to date—suggested that 100,000 elephants were killed between 2010 and 2012, a number far in excess of the species’ ability to reproduce. In 2011 alone, an estimated eight percent of the entire African elephant population was killed. Today, fewer than 500,000 are believed to remain, and the study’s lead author suggested that many elephant populations were on pace to be wiped out within a decade. According to the transnational crime and illicit network analysts at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), poachers have already eliminated the bulk of elephant populations in the traditional habitats of central Africa (Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and northern Cameroon) and are pressing both east into Kenya and Tanzania and further southwest into Republic of Congo, Gabon, and southern Cameroon. Only southern Africa is experiencing elephant poaching below true crisis levels, but as populations elsewhere are hunted to extinction, this region is expected to come under increasingly severe pressure as well.

In southern Africa, meanwhile, rhinoceros populations are being hunted to near extinction, pursued relentlessly by poachers for their horn, which is used in traditional medicine and for decorative purposes in much of Asia.  While its medicinal properties have been soundly refuted, demand continues to soar: rhino horn was estimated in 2013 to be worth up to $65,000/kg on the illicit market, compared to $3,000/kg for elephant ivory. South Africa, which is home to the vast majority of Africa’s white rhinoceros and a significant portion its black rhinoceros, is at the epicenter of the crisis. Despite significant resources devoted to anti-poaching efforts, the number of confirmed kills rose from 83 in 2008 to more than 1,200 in 2014, according to the South African Ministry of Environmental Affairs.

Q2: What is fueling the latest poaching surge?

A2: During the 1970s and 80s, under-funded government forces and militias fighting in Africa’s many conflicts poached elephants and rhinoceros by the hundreds of thousands, providing bush meat as well as high-value ivory to barter or sell to sustain their operations. Together with poaching gangs, these groups fed international criminal networks that delivered poached ivory to what was then a legal ivory market. In response to the decimation of elephant populations, the ivory trade was effectively banned in 1989 when ivory was added to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). But the illicit ivory trade has reemerged in the wake of two misguided “one-off sales” allowing certain African nations to sell their stockpiles; one to Japan in 1999 and another to China in 2008. Significant demand was rekindled for a good that had become increasingly taboo during the post-1989 ban.

In both the frequency and scale of seizures, the Chinese market has been more heavily implicated in the illicit ivory trade than any other country. Ivory workshops and markets abound today in China, where a legal domestic trade provides cover for a massive illicit market. While ivory demand also remains high within Africa and in other Asian countries like Vietnam, China is by far the world’s largest end-use market for ivory. According to TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, up to 70 percent of illegal ivory seizures are destined for China, and China is believed to be capable of supporting the international illegal ivory trade by itself.

Q3: To what extent are ivory and rhino horn “conflict resources” in Africa today?

A3: Considerable effort has been made to investigate links between the illicit ivory trade and terrorism in Africa, including the question of whether Al-Shabaab may have funded its 2013 massacre at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya with ivory proceeds. Despite circumstantial evidence, however, there is not yet conclusive proof that al-Shabaab has funded its activities by trafficking ivory. More easily proven is the link between ivory poaching and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army as well as the Sudanese Janjaweed, both of which have been implicated in poaching by forensic evidence.

What is also clear is that poaching-related violence threatens wildlife rangers and civilian populations in and around elephant and rhinoceros ranges. In Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to both savanna and forest elephants as well as critically endangered mountain gorillas, more than 150 rangers have been killed in the line of duty since 2004. Virunga has been affected by nearly two decades of civil war in which under-equipped forces on both sides supplemented their rations with bush meat from the park and sold or bartered ivory to sustain their operations. In April 2014, the park’s Belgian chief warden Emmanuel de Merode was shot and wounded in a roadside ambush the park. Meanwhile, thousands of civilians have been displaced or had their livelihoods destroyed by the conflict. The Virunga story is repeated across Africa: while multinational criminal syndicates and ivory dealers reap the financial benefits of the illicit trade, rangers and civilian populations suffer the insecurity left in their wake.

Q4: How is the U.S. government responding to the crisis?

A4: In February, the White House published an implementation plan for its National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking that pledges to use development assistance, law enforcement assets, and diplomatic resources to tackle the trade in ivory and rhino horn. In addition to tasking agencies within the Justice, State, and Interior Departments with numerous enforcement missions, the plan aims to place pressure on Asian countries to crack down on trade in illicit wildlife goods and work to reduce demand for ivory and rhino horn. Yet the implementation plan is backed by only minor increases in funding for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s enforcement division, which despite sending officers abroad for the first time in its history remains woefully understaffed in the face of its expanded mission.

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have also taken an interest in a legislative response to the crisis. This May, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY) introduced the “Global Anti-Poaching Act” (H.R. 2494). The bill authorizes the Secretary of State to withhold certain assistance from countries designated as having “failed demonstrably” to uphold international agreements on threatened species, authorizes the president to provide security assistance to African countries for counter-wildlife trafficking efforts, and supports the expansion of multi-country wildlife enforcement networks (WENs) as well as the professionalization of partner countries’ wildlife security services. Sen. Chris Coons, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs, also plans to introduce anti-poaching legislation this summer.

Jennifer Cooke is the director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. Derek Schlickeisen is a program consultant with the CSIS Africa Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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