by Keith Somerville, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies*

One of the major announcements by President Obama during his brief but highly symbolic visit to Kenya this weekend was that he would implement “urgently needed steps” to restrict the sale of ivory from African elephants. He used his high-profile trip to jump once more on the ivory ban bandwagon with a measure that will get headlines, the keen approbation of Western animal welfare and conservation NGOs, but have little real effect and, like many of the well-intention but ill-conceived and patronising policies pushed on African elephant range state by the West and its NGOs, have practically no effect on the conservation of elephants and combating of the scourge of poaching.

Confiscated ivory carvings. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Confiscated ivory carvings. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Obama’s lofty aim of eliminating the illegal market for ivory in America is based on restricting the domestic commercial trade, still legal in many states and legal for antique or pre-ban ivory or trophy ivory brought back by American hunters, and stopping inter-state trade in most forms of ivory.  But this is a very small proportion of the global trade and where it involves illegal, smuggled ivory it just targets what is already illegal and so is nothing startlingly new. It is also worth noting that the extra restrictions on the legal trade may well be struck down by a Republican congress viscerally opposed to almost anything Obama proposes – but it is the effect of the headline announcement rather than the final effect that often really matters in the  ivory PR struggle.

But whatever the chances of becoming law or the localised effects on the ivory trade, this represents another example of Western paternalism towards the issues of ivory trading, poaching and conservation in Africa. This paternalism developed under colonialism when British game department officials declared all Africans to be potential poachers and hunting by Kenyan communities was banned, but trophy and commercial hunting by whites was encouraged. The conservation movement developed a new form of environmental colonialism with communities moved from land to make way for national parks and reserves. The very game wardens who launched militarised anti-poaching campaigns against African communities banned from traditional hunting for subsistence themselves benefited materially from the system as they could buy elephant hunting licences and then sell the ivory at a profit. Some, like the venerable George Adamson, David Sheldrick and Bill Woodley, were avid elephant hunters when it suited their pockets – yet they fiercely pursued hunters among traditional hunting communities like the Waliangulu and Dorobo.

The ivory trade in East Africa, 1880s/90s. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The ivory trade in East Africa, 1880s/90s. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Conservation, paternalism, and Western hegemony over the global conservation debate continued through the dominance of NGOs like the African Wildlife Foundation, WWF, Born Free, Environmental Investigation Agency and others in the debates and, crucially, the decisions over the ivory trade and elephant conservation in Africa, pushing for bans and damaging the prospects of self-funding, community-based, sustainable-use projects that aided conservation, cut poaching and provided income for local people.

Governments like those in Kenya and Tanzania, dependent on NGO and other Western funding for their ill-equipped, poorly-paid and frequently corrupt wildlife departments, have danced keenly to the NGO tune of a total ban on the ivory trade and hunting bans, despite strong evidence that this has achieved little in the long-term  and may have prevented more efficacious, community-based conservation schemes from developing. That 100,000 elephants were killed in Africa between 2011-14 despite the total ivory trade ban and an emphasis on militarised anti-poaching shows just how successful the Western NGO-inspired approach has been. Southern African governments – notably those in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and, despite continuing corruption and evidence of some poaching, Zimbabwe – have been more successful in conserving elephants and, through schemes like the Zimbabwean Campfire community-based conservation programme, have found ways of developing community benefit from wildlife and so a community role in preventing poaching as opposed to sustainable use. Only in southern African has there been consistent growth in elephant numbers and evidence of successful management. Even though poaching, linked to corruption, persists in parts of Zimbabwe, its elephant numbers have continued to grow.

But a new discourse has developed and is of huge relevance to Obama’s announcement – the much-vaunted and rightly vilified link between insurgency and ivory. This is a very real link in some areas of Central Africa, where the Lord’s Resistance Army (expelled from Uganda and living a brutal, nomadic existence in territory where the DR Congo, Central African Republic and South Sudan meet), South Sudanese rebels and the Sudanese Janjaweed militia/raiding group killed elephants across the DRC, CAR, Chad, Cameroon and South Sudan. The LRA uses the income to buy food and weapons while the Janjaweed role is more complicated, as the militias have their origins in centuries-old ivory, cattle and slave raiding and trading by Sudanese Arabic communities across the Central African region. They poach and trade in ivory to accumulate wealth for the communities from which they are drawn and so Sudanese traders in Khartoum.

Elephant poached by Sudanese Janjaweed militia in Boub-Njida National Park, Cameroon. Image coutresy of Wikimedia Commons.

Elephant poached by Sudanese Janjaweed militia in Boub-Njida National Park, Cameroon. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

But aspects of the ivory-insurgency narrative are questionable in the extreme. Much has been made of the link between the Somali Al Shabab Islamist movement and the ivory trade – with accusations, made by Western NGOs and taken up by president Kenyatta himself, that Al Shabab funded the notorious Westgate attack through poaching and selling ivory. Western governments as well as Kenyatta have seized on the alleged Al Shabab role and the even more questionable accusations that Nigeria’s Boko Haram have poached elephants to develop a new theme in the whole War on Terror policy of combating Islamist terrorism, that of wildlife crime funding terrorism. It is based on fact in many cases but is far from proven when it comes to ivory and Al Shabab, yet it is a useful accusation to gain public support for military campaigns, drone strikes, etc, and can be used by governments like those in Kenya to garner support and funding for its intervention in Somalia and brutal crackdown on suspected Somali or Islamist opponents at home. It also serves the interests of NGOs trying to influence the elephant conservation debate; they can use it to hammer home the message that donations are needed to fund the fight against poaching on the basis that it is also used to fund terror. A very effective fundraising tool, with plenty of emotive content.

But how accurate is this picture? To what extent is the illegal ivory trade a threat to global security and the security of states like Kenya? Does it fund terrorism to any substantial extent? The answer would seem to be no. Ivory trade researchers like Dan Stiles have pointed to the paucity of proof that Al Shabab has a major role in poaching or smuggling, rather than a small opportunist involvement through small-scale poaching and the taxing of illegal ivory moving through its areas along centuries-old trade routes from Kenya to the Somali coast or through northern Kenya to Ethiopia. The hugely experienced and influential elephant researcher and opponent of the ivory trade Iain Douglas-Hamilton is also sceptical of reports that Al Shabab is a major player in the illegal ivory trade, something with which the leading ivory trade specialist, Esmond Bradley Martin concurs. Yet the Al Shabab/ivory/insurgency narrative serves the interests of so many groups that it is being used to intensify the militarisation and securitisation of conservation and the elephant / ivory debate.

The evidence of the Al Shabab link comes from Nir Kalron (Founder & CEO of Maisha Consulting group which sells security services and training to wildlife departments and conservancies in Africa) and Andrea Crosta (Executive of the Elephant Action League).  They said their investigations show that between one to three tons of ivory, fetching a price of roughly US$200 per kilo for Al Shabab, pass through southern Somalia every month and estimated that Al Shabab may earn between $200,000 and $600,000 a month from ivory (the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Interpol put the market price for raw ivory in countries like China and Vietnam at $3,000 per kg – poachers as individuals or criminal/rebels groups may get $50-100 per kg, with middlemen taking perhaps four times that amount).

But specialists on the international ivory trade and the poaching monitoring organizations Traffic and MIKE (which work with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the and Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species) have questioned both the funding of the Westgate attack and the extent of Al Shabab involvement in poaching and the ivory trade, warning that the evidence is far from solid and care needs to be taking in assessing the movement’s earnings from ivory. This demonstrates the problems of identifying the involvement of insurgent movements in poaching and trading, and the tendency for the media and campaigning groups to seize on rumour, partial information or small-scale ivory finds to create a narrative that utilizes a link with the “War on Terror” framing of conflicts such as in Somalia to highlight the threat posed by poachers and to use a movement’s notoriety to publicise the threat to elephants. In fact, the major threat to elephants comes from corruption and the operation of politically-protected poaching syndicates and smuggling networks that persist in the elephant range states or trading entrepots in Africa, particularly Tanzania, Mozambique, DRC,  Sudan and even Kenya (Mombasa still being a major point of exit for smuggled African ivory). But it is not politic nor in the interests of the West’s War on Terror narrative to raise the issue of massive government corruption or risk destabilising regional allies by revealing that it is really the corruption of governments, armies, public officials and even wildlife services that enable poaching and provide protection or immunity from prosecution  for rich traders and those who smuggle the tusks out of Africa. Much better to have a stress on insurgents and sexy anti-poaching patrols than tackle endemic corruption and patronage, which are the real problems but are harder to tackle.

Anti-poaching patrol in South Africa. Image courtesy of Pascal Parent via Flickr

Anti-poaching patrol in South Africa. Image courtesy of Pascal Parent via Flickr

What is needed is not Western paternalism, preaching, cosmetic restrictions and the self-serving actions of politicians, fundraising NGOs and African governments keen to divert attention from corruption and mismanagement, but action on the ground in Africa to dovetail conservation, community development and the return of ownership, control of sustainable use and decision-making to the very communities who live side by side with elephants. They are not perfect and have suffered from the effects of the overall ivory trade ban in 1989, but community-based programme like Campfire in Zimbabwe, the Luangwa Integrated Resource Development Programme and other schemes that give local people a stake in conserving and sustainably utilising wildlife have shown that by getting local people onside, giving them ownership and benefiting them materially that poaching can be cut, wildlife numbers protected and habitats conserved. People are part of the picture and if you try to cut them out and alienate them you create the incentive to poach through the simple need to subsist or through grievance over exclusion and impoverishment. That is where Obama should be focusing his attention if he really wants to help.

*Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, teaches at the Centre of Journalism at the University of Kent and is writing a book on the political economy of ivory and elephants in Africa.