A Very Real Problem

Johan Bergenas
Senior Associate, The Stimson Center

“I’m sorry, but I don’t care if Dumbo takes one to the head,” said one senior European law enforcement official to a colleague at an international meeting on transnational organized crime earlier this year. Clearly, not everyone cares about the perils of one of the world’s most iconic creatures, but his statement is strange, because it came at a time when the links between poaching, wildlife crime, and national and global security had been settled.

While many organizations these days are eager to claim credit for highlighting the links between poaching, transnational criminal networks, and even terrorist organizations, if it was not for Hillary Clinton and the United Kingdom government, the issues probably would have remained far, far away from the national and international security debate.

In 2012, while serving as U.S. Secretary of State, Clinton ordered an intelligence analysis to determine the security implications of poaching and wildlife crime. The results were pretty straightforward when the National Intelligence Council published its summary report in September 2013. Yes, some terrorist organizations are financing their activities through direct or indirect participation in poaching. Yes, wildlife trafficking networks are probably the same networks that facilitate drugs and arms smuggling in Africa and elsewhere.

The UK government backed up the connections during an international conference in 2014, and independent research and analysis, as well as anecdotal evidence from the field, made the same conclusions. Yet, there was still much controversy about what we knew and didn’t know about the links. This was partly due to some organizations’ overestimating the actual flows from the wildlife trade going to one specific terrorist group, Somali-based al-Shabaab (some even suggested that 40 percent of Shabaab’s funding came from the ivory trade).

More recent analysis, however, suggests that Shabaab’s involvement in ivory smuggling is more opportunistic and correctly emphasizes the involvement from highly organized transnational criminal syndicates in wildlife trafficking. Nevertheless, the consequences remain largely the same: human, national, regional, and global insecurity, coupled with significant negative consequences for economic development in poorer parts of the world.

In any case, a lot of time was wasted confronting that 40 percent number instead of recognizing that the links exists, and that they are likely to grow. A lot of time has also been wasted questioning whether one can wage a war on poaching. The simple answer is no, one cannot, but military and security assets – financial, technological and human – should play a part in an expansive effort that includes broader poverty alleviation, demand side work, and supply chain capacity building. Fortunately, that is exactly what forthcoming U.S. legislation and programming from other governments are suggesting. For example, in early November, the House of Representatives passed the Global Anti-Poaching Act, and legislative work is also underway in several offices in the Senate.

Some organizations and individuals also became overexcited about the role of advanced technology and how it can be used to combat poaching. One of the mistakes made early on was to go too big, too soon, pinning hopes on drones. Unmanned aerial vehicles can be part of the solution, but they are rarely a first step, or a second, or maybe not even a third. Many NGOs learned this reality the hard way, as most park rangers today use flip phones, electrical fences, and manually checking for footprints and the like to fend off intruders. The next step in their technological evolution is not a drone system; that comes later. We need to build bottom-up solutions fully focused on the current capabilities of the end-user. Millions of dollars have been wasted by organizations pushing drones into the field too soon.

Overall, there is some good news to report. The fight over the link between poaching as a national and international security issue is largely over. There is widespread momentum behind the notion to bring security organizations into the broader strategy to combat poaching. And more and more smart technological projects are emerging.

Whether a holistic response to the poaching challenge can be construed remains to be seen. During a recent wildlife event at CSIS, a U.S. government official dismissively said, “I was working on this issue before it was cool.” There is nothing cool with poaching financing terrorism, and clearly the conservation and the broader wildlife community needs to continue to lead. But what would be really cool are hybrid efforts, bottom-up technological solutions, combining the knowledge and skills from the conservation community with the illicit networks and security competencies of the United States and other militaries. There is an African proverb that embodies this spirit: “If you want to walk fast, walk alone, if you want to walk far, walk together.” With that model, we may actually stand a chance to fight back against those who want to hurt us and our allies, while working to save the world’s most magnificent animals from going extinct.

The Author is Johan Bergenas

Johan Bergenas is a Senior Associate at the Stimson Center. At Stimson he directs the Economic Security program focused on the interconnections between defense, security and development, as well as environmental security.

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