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War by Conservation

Ivory does not fund Al Shabaab, so why was that message so readily promoted?

Since 2013 several wildlife conservation organisations have promoted the message that ivory is used to fund terrorism, that it is the ‘white gold of jihad’. While allegations about poaching by Janjaweed and Lord’s Resistance Army have circulated for some time, it was the claim that ivory provided up to 40% of Al Shabaab’s funding that caught international attention. This claim is hotly disputed, and even Elephant Action League, who spread the message in the first place, have started to accept it might have been an over estimation (at best). So why was it so readily taken up and repeated in the media, social media, by world leaders, by conservation NGOs and by international organisations? The answer lies in a potent mix of strategic interests and the need to grab international attention to raise funds for conservation.

‘Money from wildlife poaching and trafficking is directly linked to the funding of dangerous rebel organizations and terrorist networks. These include the Janjaweed militia in Darfur, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and Al Shabaab in Somalia — which is now linked to al Qaeda’.[1] 

This quote from Conservation International is indicative of a rising narrative in conservation circles: that poaching and trafficking fund terrorism.

For several months I have been one of a number of individuals and organisations who have questioned the claims that trafficking ivory was a substantial source of funding for Al Shabaab – and on 22 September the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) launched their report on the issue. The report by Tom Mcguire and Cathy Haenlein ‘An Illusion of Complicity: Terrorism and the Illegal Ivory Trade in East Africa’[2] thoroughly and effectively deconstructs and challenges the claim.

For the past 18 months I have been trying to understand the rise of the claim that ivory provided up to 40% of the funding for Al Shabaab. I began to search through press reports, expert witness depositions to the International Conservation Caucus of the US Congress and official documents by international organisations such as UNEP. It quickly became clear that the commonly cited source was a 2012 Elephant Action League report which called ivory the white gold of jihad. So I contacted EAL to ask about the evidence base, but Andrea Crosta could not provide much detail. I fully understand that the recordings need to be kept confidential to protect informants, but there is a need to be detailed, clear and (crucially) accurate when making such a high profile claim. The RUSI report comprehensively shows that the main sources of funding for Al Shabaab remain charcoal trading (to Saudi Arabia and Yemen), expat finance and ‘taxing’ the movement of goods such as concrete from the areas they control. The report also correctly points out how the claim that ‘ivory funds Al Shabaab’ has distracted from more pressing issues such as tackling the role of corruption, of organised crime networks, and the importance of demand reduction in key markets for ivory. The findings are supported by an earlier report for UNEP/INTERPOL by Christian Nelleman et al (2014) – which states that claims Al Shabaab was trafficking 30.6 tonnes of ivory per annum (representing 3600 elephants per year) through southern Somalia are ‘highly unreliable’  [3]

So if the claim was not credible, why was it taken up so enthusiastically? There are three answers: attention, money and strategic interests.

The EAL report was ignored when it was initially posted on their website in 2012, but seems to have been seized upon in the wake of the Westgate Mall killings in Nairobi in September 2013. After the attacks some conservation NGOs started to spread the message that ivory was funding terrorist networks, notably Al Shabaab. It was an effective strategy to gain attention from policy makers and from the public. As criticisms grew many conservation NGOs have started to soften their phrasing, and some have even distanced themselves from the claims. And, of course, there were people on the inside of those organisations who were trying to voice their concerns all along. Even EAL have started to rephrase their statements – see the recent arguments with Stephen Corry (Survival International)[4]- clarifying that ivory is not as significant for Al Shabaab now as it was in 2012, and agreeing that charcoal is the main source of ‘threat finance’.

But the ‘terrorism’ genie is out of the bottle now and it still features strongly in campaigning – President Obama has even referred to it and issued Executive Order 13648 on Combating Wildlife Trafficking. Some conservation organisations are now more careful not to refer directly to Al Shabaab, and instead refer to Boko Haram, Janjaweed and Lord’s Resistance Army, or they refer to a vague notion of ‘ivory funded terrorism’. For example, a central pillar of the current 96 Elephants campaign of Wildlife Conservation Society is ‘Terror and Ivory’ and directly refers to ivory as the white gold of jihad [5] (the phrase in the EAL report). Save the Elephants has also repeated the message that ivory funds terrorism.[6] Ian Saunders of Tsavo Trust has repeated the claim, and it is a centrepiece of their Stabilcon initiative in Kenya.[7] John Scanlon, Head of CITES has also drawn attention to the idea that ivory is used to fund terrorism.[8] It has even been the subject of a short animated film ‘Last Days of Ivory’ by Hollywood director Katherine Bigelow – the accompanying slogan is ‘End Ivory Funded Terrorism’.[9] At the initial screening at the New York Film Festival, Peter Knight of WildAid said ‘it’s not about the facts it’s about the emotion’.[10] As late as August 2015 National Geographic carried a major story by Brian Christy entitled ‘How Killing Elephants Finances Terror in Africa.’[11] Put simply, arguing that there is a link between ivory poaching and terrorism is a sure way to make people sit up and take notice, especially those in powerful positions in Governments, international organisations and philanthropic foundations.

This brings me to the second reason: money, and terrorism certainly sells. If NGOs are expected to exist in a competitive environment in which they have to bid for funding, arguing the terrorism link had the potential to be very lucrative indeed. I think we can understand this in the context of disappointing revenues from the much celebrated win-win solutions of Payments for Ecosystem Services and REDD+. NGOs were looking for new ways to get funding, and much greater resources are available in the international system for security initiatives (especially tackling terrorism) when compared with those available for biodiversity conservation. A raft of new funding initiatives for tackling poaching and wildlife trafficking were announced in 2014-15.  Two illustrative examples: USAID committed US$40 million for tackling wildlife crime and the Clinton Foundation linked up with Wildlife Conservation Society, African Wildlife Foundation, Conservation International, International Fund for Animal Welfare, and World Wildlife Fund-US, vowing to raise US$80 million. [12]

And now to the third reason: strategic interests.  On the national level, the alleged link between terrorism and ivory can suit the interests of national governments seeking to gain greater levels of control in areas that are slipping from their grip. This is a key issue in national politics in Kenya. Talking up the terrorism link has the capacity to attract attention from very powerful global actors too, including The United States Africa Command (Africom).[13]   At a global level, the United States has been less inclined to engage in interventions that involve deployment of personnel on the ground in the wake of their experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet, tackling networks like Al Shabaab remain an important driving force of US foreign policy. Being able to hook any US support (training, finance etc) to saving elephants provides a more acceptable rationale to a US public.

Why does any of this really matter? Talking up the link between ivory and terrorism distracted from a focus on the possible drivers of increased poaching and from designing effective policies to tackle them. Some, though not all, conservation organisations have (either knowingly or unknowingly) been spreading a message about ivory and Al Shabaab that is not accurate, which has the capacity to undermine confidence in the sector as a whole. Those who did not try to make the link, or even argued against it, might also feel the effects of the ‘taint’ in the longer term. Promoting the link with terrorism also intersected with wider calls for a more forceful approach to conservation, including shoot to kill. Such approaches can (and do) implicate conservation NGOs in human rights abuses and can alienate the very communities that live with wildlife.[14] The greatest danger is that conservation organisations run the risk of producing war by conservation:  that they willingly implement counter terrorism strategies including greater surveillance, development of intelligence networks and use of deadly force against people they identify as both poachers and as terrorists on the basis of very flimsy evidence. 

Further information:

The possible links between wildlife trafficking, terrorism and militias are debated in a forthcoming themed issue of Geoforum on Security and Conservation, edited by Dr Alice Kelly (University of California, Berkeley) and Dr Megan Ybarra (University of Washington).

see Duffy, R., St John, F.A.V., Büscher, B. and Brockington, D. (2015) 'Towards a new understanding of the links between poverty and illegal wildlife hunting.' Conservation Biology .  DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12622 for discussion of the how they ways we understand poaching ultimately determine the policy response, for better or worse.


Prof Rosaleen Duffy, Professor of Political Ecology, SOAS University of London

[1] ‘Global Stability’ (accessed 14.08.14).


[3] Nellemann, C., Henriksen, R., Raxter, P., Ash, N., Mrema, E. (Eds). 2014. The Environmental Crime Crisis – Threats to Sustainable Development from Illegal Exploitation and Trade in Wildlife and Forest Resources. A UNEP Rapid Response Assessment. United NationsEnvironment Programme and GRID-Arendal, Nairobiand Arendal. Pp 78-81. 





[8] John Scanlon, expert witness testimonial to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing ‘Ivory and Insecurity: The Global Implications of Poaching in Africa, 22.05. 12,




[12]  ‘Clinton Global Initiative Commitment to Action: Partnership to Save Africa’s Elephants’, (accessed 30.04.14).