Making a Killing: The Nexus of Terrorism and Wildlife Trafficking

Photo: Leon Neal/Getty

The role of wildlife trafficking in funding militancy and terrorism has received intense attention from conservationists globally as well as from members of the U.S. Congress. Yet the fact that some terrorist and militant groups have been involved in poaching of iconic species such as elephants for the illegal global wildlife trade has narrowed the policy focus so much that it threatens to overshadow the more pervasive causes of poaching and skew decision-making about solutions.

This focus on the link between wildlife trafficking and terrorism also has spurred the involvement of the U.S., British and other militaries in anti-poaching efforts and the transfer of ever-heavier weapons to rangers in Africa. National governments in wildlife-supply countries have cheered such approaches since they often prefer not to deal with the real elephant in the room: corruption among official environmental agencies, rangers, law enforcement institutions and prominent politicians, in addition to the involvement of local communities in poaching. Yet without rooting out this persistent corruption and addressing the economic incentives of local communities to participate in or tolerate poaching, the bush wars will be lost, no matter how heavy the rangers’ equipment.

Militants and Wildlife Trafficking

Some 80 percent of major armed conflicts have occurred within biodiversity hotspots.[1] Forests, being particularly dense, provide good hiding places. Nor is it surprising that militant and terrorist groups have exploited the illegal wildlife trade to feed their soldiers and generate funding. In Africa, these include the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) poaching elephants in Uganda, South Sudan, and the Congo,[2] and perhaps the Janjaweed Arab militia of Sudan, who have been accused of butchering thousands of elephants in Cameroon, Chad and the Central African Republic.[3] (Oftentimes, West Africans refer to any Muslim outsiders as “Janjaweed”.)[4] RENAMO (Resistência Nacional Moçambicana) also traded in rhino horn and ivory during Mozambique’s civil war.[5]

During the 1970s and 1980s, militant groups such as UNITA (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola) in Angola as well as the militaries of African governments killed thousands of elephants for bushmeat and to generate revenues from ivory. Even today, both the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), linked to the Rwandan genocide, and the Coalition of Patriotic Resistance (PARECO), as well as the Congolese national army, fight each other in the national parks of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where they also poach.[6]

In India, the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland in the country’s northeast and militant Islamist groups in Bangladesh have traded in many poached species and genera, such as birds. In Myanmar (Burma), the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and other militant groups traffic wildlife into Yunnan and northern Thailand, along with methamphetamines and other contraband.[7]

In Afghanistan, the Taliban (as well as powerbrokers associated with the Afghan government) facilitate the hunting of houbara bustards, snow leopards and saker falcons for wealthy Saudis and Emiratis.[8]

One of the most bizarre instances of militancy being funded by wildlife trafficking occurred in Nepal’s civil war between 1996 and 2006. The collection and international trade in yarchagumba—a form of caterpillar fungus scientifically known as Ophiocordyceps sinensis and valued in traditional Chinese medicine and traditional Tibetan medicine for its ying-yang balance and purported health-enhancing powers—was a significant element of the Maoist insurgency’s fundraising.[9]

Thus, pushing militants out of sensitive ecosystems can reduce poaching, a most desirable policy outcome. It might also, temporarily, reduce and complicate their fundraising. But just as in the far more profitable drug trade, militants will adapt in a matter of time.

Crucially, however, most poachers are not terrorists, and most militants and terrorists are not poachers. As I show in The Extinction Market: Wildlife Trafficking and How to Counter It, the intersection of militancy with wildlife trafficking is only a sliver of the global wildlife trade. Moreover, the role of militants in the conflict is easily replaceable by other poachers and smugglers. They don’t have a competitive advantage in poaching. To the extent that militants are involved in poaching and wildlife trafficking at all, their role comprises only a fraction of the illegal trade that goes on.

This is not merely the case in terms of market share; militant groups also play only a small role in global smuggling chains, particularly beyond their locus of operation. But as long as there is strong demand and limited enforcement capacity, someone else will take their place as poachers. With the rise of poachers’ firepower, militants do not have a comparative advantage in poaching. A lot of what law enforcement does is not to determine whether an illicit economy exists or not, but rather to uncover who runs it and has access to it.

The Counterinsurgents Aren’t Innocent

But official militaries and paramilitary forces, not just anti-state militants, have been involved in wildlife poaching and smuggling. The South African apartheid state and its military and intelligence units traded in ivory and rhino horn in the 1970s and 1980s.[10] The militaries of Uganda, a close U.S. defense and counterterrorism partner in Africa, and of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as Congolese militias, have been accused of poaching elephants.[11] Sudanese armed forces are believed to have massacred thousands of elephants in 2005 for ivory destined for China.[12] The Zimbabwe military likely poached more elephants in Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou National Park than Mozambican RENAMO units.[13] Myanmar’s military is as much an actor in illegal logging as ethnic insurgents.[14] Militaries deployed in the name of conservation have engaged in land theft from local populations, such as in Honduras.[15] Conversely, members of anti-poaching units, prized for their military skills taught by private security companies and foreign technical advisors, have at least on one occasion joined an armed anti-state rebellion and insurgency, notably in the Central African Republic.[16]

Sadly and paradoxically, peace can produce even more detrimental results for protected species and natural ecosystems than war if it enables greater access to valuable natural resources and leads to habitat destruction. Ceasefires involving ethnic insurgents in Myanmar have been bought by allowing them and other actors to engage in poaching and free-for-all resource extraction.

This “peace detriment” is only one example of the complexities of the linkages between militancy/terrorism and poaching. Combating terrorism gets much better funding than preserving biodiversity. Exaggerated and one-sided portrayals of the nexus skew policy responses in the direction of tough law-enforcement approaches, often at the expense of protecting the rights of local communities and compensating them for displacement and food loss. Other times, local poachers and local communities are unjustly labeled as militant sympathizers to allow for their expulsion from national parks and other protected areas and for the dispossession of their land.[17]

The Vices of Militarized Law Enforcement

Conservation scholars critical of such conflations label this “green militarization.”[18] They criticize the violence exacted on local communities in the name of suppressing the alleged link between terrorism and poaching. Some question outright whether any linkages between militancy and poaching exist. They are also wary of the use of private security companies and the deployment of drones and modern technologies to combat poaching.

Violent conflict not only overlaps with poaching, but often also permeates conservation efforts, even today. Sometimes forced displacement is masked by counterinsurgency and counterterrorism narratives. In Colombia’s Tayrona National Park between roughly 2005 and 2010, counterinsurgency efforts also enabled one ecotourism company to displace people in order to generate revenue. Elites and powerful businesses profiting from ecotourism have similarly sponsored the forced displacement of local communities in the name of conservation in Honduras.[19] There are many valid and important national security reasons to pursue militants into protected areas, but in the Tayrona case in Colombia, the counterinsurgency effort also enabled and served as cover for land grabs from marginalized local communities.[20]

Distracting from Corruption

Yet it is the terrorism–poaching nexus that is frequently exaggerated by many countries that feed the supply chain of illegal wildlife trafficking. In Kenya, for example, al-Shabab and Somalis more broadly are blamed repeatedly by government officials and the public for poaching and all kinds of criminality. The narrative that Somalia’s terrorist group al-Shabab is behind elephant poaching in Kenya received wide coverage in the press.[21] Yet the claim turned out to be flimsy at best, with some reports casting strong doubt on much of the supposed evidence.[22]

It is possible that al-Shabab does tax ivory smuggled from Kenya into the Somali port of Kismayo. Al-Shabab controls important parts of the surrounding Juba region, including key corridors to Kenya. Many terrorist, militant and criminal groups tax legal goods, illegal contraband and all kinds of economic activity within their sphere of influence. So does al-Shabab.[23]

Moreover, to the extent that ivory is exported through the port of Kismayo, the odds are that the Kenyan Defense Forces present in southern Somalia, including Kismayo, and Ahmed Madobe, president of Juba State and a former al-Shabab commander who defected, get a substantial cut. Both allegedly tax smuggled sugar and charcoal, produced from acacia illegally logged throughout East Africa and transported to the Middle East.[24]

Yet for many countries that are the source of wildlife products, a preoccupation with terrorist poachers is a convenient distraction from addressing the issue of corruption among rangers and anti-poaching militias and military units, ecolodges, and high-level government officials. It is this kind of widespread corruption and the economic dependence of local communities on poaching that must be reduced, or many conservation efforts will fail, no matter how sophisticated the rangers’ equipment against poachers becomes.

Local Communities Poach Too

Conservation also will fail if the role of local communities in poaching and wildlife trafficking is ignored or handled merely through brute force of the state. Sometimes poachers are outsiders who invade local wildlife habits and threaten the livelihoods of local communities dependent on natural resources. Other times, however, local residents are willing participants and see conservation as a Western imposition of norms and regulations. For economic reasons, they may see the hunting and trading of local wildlife as perfectly legitimate.

Thus, in addition to the inescapable and crucial enforcement of protected areas and species, wildlife conservation efforts also must include socio-economic aid policies for the poor and marginalized, such as ecotourism assistance, financial transfers, or sustainable trophy hunting and other natural resource extraction and commercialization. Such measures could motivate local communities to comply with and internalize wildlife conservation.

Dr. Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, is the author of most recently The Extinction Market: Wildlife Trafficking and How to Counter It (Hurst-Oxford University Press, 2017) and Militants, Criminals, and Warlords: The Challenge of Local Governance in an Age of Disorder (The Brookings Institution Press, 2017), co-authored with Harold Trinkunas and Shadi Hamid.


[1] Thor Hanson et al., “Warfare in Biodiversity Hostpots,” Conservation Biology, 23(3), 2009: 578–87.
[2] Brian Christy, “How Killing Elephants Finances Terror in Africa,” National Geographic, September 2015, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/tracking-ivory/article.html.
[3] Jeffrey Gettleman, “Africa’s Elephants Are Being Slaughtered in a Poaching Frenzy,” New York Times, September 3, 2012; and Michael Marshall, “Elephant Ivory Could Be Bankrolling Terrorist Groups,” New Scientist, October 2, 2013.[4] Natascha White, “The ‘White Gold of Jihad’: Violence, Legitimisation and Contestation in Anti-Poaching Strategies,” Journal of Political Ecology, 21, 2014: 452–74.
[5] Robin Thomas Naylor, Patriots and Profiteers: Economic Warfare, Sanctions, Embargo Busting, and Their Human Cost (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999): 178.
[6] Sophia Benz and Judith Benz-Schwarzburg, “Great Apes and New Wars,” Civil Wars, 12(4), 2011: 395–430; Jasper Humphreys and M.L.R. Smith, “War and Wildlife: The Clausewitz Connection,” International Affairs, 87(1), 2011: 121–42; and Linda Norgrove and David Hulme, “Confronting Conservation at Mount Elgon, Uganda,” Development and Change, 37(5), 2006: 1093–116.
[7] Vanda Felbab-Brown, The Extinction Market: Wildlife Trafficking and How to Counter It (Hurst-Oxford University Press, 2017).
[8] Ibid.
[9] Vanda Felbab-Brown, “The Impact of Organized Crime on Governance: The Case Study of Nepal,” in Camino Kavanagh (ed.), Impact of Organized Crime on Governance, Center for International Cooperation, New York University, 2013, http://cic.nyu.edu/sites/default/files/kavanagh_crime_developing_countries_nepal_study.pdf; and Nabin Baral and Joel Heinen, “The Maoists’ People’s War and Conservation in Nepal,” Politics and the Life Sciences, 24 (1/2), 2006: 2–11.
[10] Roz Reeve and Stephen Ellis, “An Insider’s Account of the South African Security Force’s Role in the Ivory Trade,” Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 13(2), 1995: 222–43.
[11] Kristof Titeca, “Central Africa: Ivory Beyond the LRA – Why a Broader Focus Is Needed in Studying Poaching,” All Africa, September 17, 2013, http://allafrica.com/stories/201309170982.html; and Taylor Toeka Kakala, “Soldiers Trade in Illegal Ivory,” Inter Press Service, July 25, 2013, www.ipsnews.net/2013/07/soldiers-trade-in-illegal-ivory/.
[12] “Sudan Army Accused of Ivory Trade,” Al Jazeera, March 14, 2005, www.aljazeera.com/archive/2005/03/200841092645497609.html.
[13] Environmental Investigative Agency (EIA), “Under Fire: Elephants in the Front Line,” January 31, 1992, https://eia-international.org/report/under-fire-elephants-in-the-front-line.
[14] Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Enabling War and Peace: Drugs, Logs, and Wildlife in Thailand and Burma,” Brookings Institution, December 2015, www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2015/12/thailand-burma-drugs-wildlife-felbabbrown/enabling_war_and_peace_final.pdf; and Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Myanmar Maneuvers: How to Break Political-Criminal Alliances in Contexts of Transition,” Tokyo: United Nations University, April 2017, Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Myanmar Maneuvers: How to Break Political-Criminal Alliances in Contexts of Transition,” Tokyo: United Nations University, April 2017, https://www.brookings.edu/research/myanmar-maneuvers/.
[15] Christopher Anthony Loperena, “Conservation by Radicalized Dispossession: The Making of an Eco-Destination on Honduras’s North Coast,” Geoforum, 69, 2016: 184–93.
[16] Louisa Lombard, “Threat Economies and Armed Conservation in Northeastern Central African Republic,” Geoforum, 69, 2016: 218–26.
[17] Rosaleen Duffy, “War, By Conservation,” Geoforum, 69, 2016: 238–48; Megan Ybarra, “‘Blind Passes’ and the Production of Green Security through Violence on the Guatemalan Border,” Geoforum, 69, 2016: 194–206.
[18] Elizabeth Lunstrum, “Green Militarization: Anti-Poaching Efforts and the Spatial Contours of Kruger National Park,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 104(4), 2014: 816–32; Rosaleen Duffy, “Waging A War to Save Biodiversity: The Rise of Militarized Conservation,” International Affairs, 90(4), 2014: 819–34; and Alice Kelly and Megan Ybarra, “Introduction to the Themed Issue: ‘Green Security in Protected Areas’,” Geoforum, 69, 2016: 171–75.
[19] Loperena, “Conservation by Radicalized Dispossession.”
[20] Diana Bocarejo and Diana Ojeda, “Violence and Conservation: Beyond Unintended Consequences and Unfortunate Coincidences,” Geoforum, 69, 2016: 176–83.
[21] Nir Kalron and Andrea Crosta, “Africa’s Wild Gold of Jihad: Al Shabab and Conflict Ivory,” Elephant Action League, www.elephantleague.org/project/africas-white-gold-of-jihad-al-Shabab-and-conflict-ivory/; and Johan Bergenas et al., “Killing Lions, Buying Bombs,” New York Times, August 9, 2013.
[22] Tom Maguire and Cathy Haenlein, “An Illusion of Complicity: Terrorism and the Illegal Ivory Trade in East Africa,” Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Occasional Papers No. 21, 2015, https://rusi.org/sites/default/files/201509_an_illusion_of_complicity_0.pdf.[23] Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Little to Gloat About,” Cipher Brief, 2016, www.thecipherbrief.com/article/africa/little-gloat-about-1089.
[24] Journalists for Justice, “Black and White: Kenya’s Criminal Racket in Somalia,” 2015, www.jfjustice.net/userfiles/file/Research/Black%20and%20White%20Kenya’s%20Criminal%20Racket%20in%20Somalia.pdf.

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