Editorial, New Scientist
15 May 2014
The funding of Boko Haram’s atrocities by the illegal ivory trade show that poaching is not just a problem for conservationists, but for all of us
MORE than 200 girls abducted by terror group Boko Haram in Nigeria; 23,000 African elephants killed for their tusks last year. On the surface all these crimes have in common is that they happened on the same continent. But there is an intimate connection: like many terrorist organisations in Africa, Boko Haram is funded by sales of illegal ivory (see “Ivory poaching funds most war and terrorism in Africa”).
Elephant poaching is usually framed as a conservation issue. But increasingly it is a national security and humanitarian one, too. According to a recent report from Born Free USA and data analyst C4ADS, ivory has become the “bush currency” militants, terrorists and rebels use to buy weapons and fund operations. Government corruption is thought to play its part too.
Most of this ivory ends up in east Asia, where demand is high and rising. According to the report, a single tusk can fetch $15,000.
The link between ivory and violence adds even more urgency to the need to quash this deadly trade. Previous campaigns to cut demand for ivory by reducing its acceptability have had an impact. As they have been replicated with other products such as shark-fin soup, this suggests that wildlife crimecan be tackled in this way. Such campaigns always include a strong element of awareness-raising. The fact that ivory is used to bankroll conflicts provides yet more ammunition that conservationists should exploit.
Of course, the ivory trade is only one part of a web of wildlife crime that is itself part of a global criminal network dealing in drugs, weapons and people. Cutting demand for ivory won’t on its own defuse Africa’s conflicts. Militants will simply plunder other resources such as hardwood or the mineral coltan, which may end up as furniture in your house or electrical components in your cellphone.
When it comes to wildlife crime, it is easy to point the finger at Chinese demand for ivory, rhino horn and tiger penis while forgetting that all consumers contribute to some extent.
The illegal wildlife trade is worth an estimated $20 billion a year; some of that money ends up funding groups like Boko Haram and their violent ideology. It is time for a global awareness campaign to alert us all to the ways we encourage the slaughter of endangered animals, the dubious trade in scarce natural resources and the terrorisation of vulnerable people.