National Geographic: Al Shabaab and the Human Toll of the Illegal Ivory Trade



By Laurel Neme, Andrea Crosta, and Nir Kalron

As the bloody stain from Al Shabaab’s attack in Nairobi spreads, we grieve not only for those who died or were injured, and their families and friends, but also for the many innocents affected by its preparation and financing.

Tragically, that long list includes thousands of slaughtered elephants, because it is their ivory that, in part, helped finance the Westgate assault. Income from ivory smuggling helped pay the soldiers, buy the weapons, rent the shop used for scoping and staging, and likely even purchase the computer that tweeted updates as events unfolded.

The link between this attack and wildlife smuggling is clear. Andrea Crosta and Nir Kalron’s 18-month undercover investigation showed that the illicit trade in ivory and rhino horn supplies Al Shabaab with important financial resources.

Moreover, when Somalia’s Kismayo port was retaken from insurgents by the Kenya Defense Forces this summer, the illegal wildlife trade became a financial savior for Al Shabaab.

Al Shabaab as Middleman

The investigation detailed how Al Shabaab acts as a middleman, filling orders from agents in end-user countries in Asia or the Gulf states. It confirmed that the terrorist group pays better than average prices (U.S. $200 per kilogram in 2011-2012), making them desirable buyers of illicit ivory from small-time brokers.

It is then these small-time brokers, often related to the terrorists by clan, who engage the poachers, paying $50 per kilogram (although the price varies considerably) for what they know will make a hefty return.

Al Shabaab’s spot as a premier broker is attributable to its financial and organizational prowess but also to the lack of ready alternatives.

Recently, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has cracked down on ivory smuggling at its ports and airports, making Al Shabaab an even more attractive market, with a reputation for good prices, immediate payment, and ready access (prior to the Kenya invasion) to outlets at the ports of Marca and Kismayo as well as the airport in Mogadishu to conduct its smuggling.

Yet the real boon for Al Shabaab’s ivory business is soaring demand in consuming countries, which translates into high prices. Illicit raw ivory now fetches over $1,500 per kilogram in Asia; in China the “official” cost for raw ivory is supposedly more than $2,865 per kilogram. That means higher profits for Al Shabaab—and a treasury it can use to wreak chaos.

That cache of money allows Al Shabaab to pay their fighters well and regularly. Shabaab mercenaries get about $300 a month, while soldiers in Somalia’s regular army earn far less. It is these profits that help them recruit and sustain their fighters.

Ivory is their financial lifeline.

The Solution: Stop Buying Ivory

Consumers can help break that lifeline by not buying ivory.

Every illegal ivory carving purchased has an associated trail of blood that puts money in the pockets of terrorists who spend it on fighters and bullets and bombs to kill innocent people, most recently those in the Nairobi shopping mall.

While we welcome recent actions, such as President Obama’s Executive Order and the just announced three-year 80-million-dollar Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Commitment to Action, which brings together NGOs, governments, and concerned citizens to stop wildlife trafficking and the slaughter of Africa’s elephants, it is ivory consumers who have the real power.

It is consumers who must understand the human toll of their purchases—and act accordingly.

They must understand that their purchases exact a toll that is not limited to the victims of specific attacks funded by poaching. Or the rangers who lose their lives protecting elephants and rhinos.

The toll is wider and even more destructive. It includes farmers killed or injured by irate elephants reacting to their poaching-related traumas. It includes widows and orphans who lose husbands, fathers, and family breadwinners from death, injury, or incarceration. It includes villagers and disadvantaged communities who are exploited or forced into criminal activities. It is the consequent insecurity and lawlessness and corruption that shuts down tourism and weakens economies.

It cost roughly $200,000—the equivalent of 24 elephant tusks or one rhino horn—for Al Shabaab to plan, prepare, and execute the Westgate mall attack.

Consumers can kill the ivory market. They can end the deadly path of conflict ivory. It’s time for ivory consumers, traders, and everybody in between to take responsibility not just for the death of thousands of elephants but also for its very high human toll.

Laurel Neme, PhD, is the author of Animal Investigators, Andrea Crosta is the founder of the Elephant Action League, and Nir Kalron is the founder and CEO of Maisha Consulting

Elephant musings and articles

Elephants are getting more and more attention. From Obama's call for action to Hillary Clinton today announcing her focus on them.

The more I learn about these fascinating creatures, the more I want to know. But I admit that the more I know, the more disheartened I am by the poaching crisis currently going on.

I've been especially taken with Dame Daphne Sheldrick's book (just out in paperback), Love, Life and Elephants. It has so many wonderful stories of her life, I literally couldn't put it down. I'm also lucky enough to be interviewing her, and just yesterday received the answers to my questions. I'll be posting the interview soon.

In the meantime, there have been several interesting articles. One by Caitrin Nicol explores the question, Do elephants have souls?, published in the New Atlantis. The Atlantic, too, had a major article on Inside the Global Industry that's Slaughtering Elephants.

And there was a recent disheartening one in the South China Morning Post, which noted that Celia Ho, the 14-year old elephant activist that I interviewed for National Geographic, just had a death threat.

Poaching incident and rapid response in Botswana

You know it's bad when....I find it extremely hard to believe that poaching has extended to Botswana, where I spent almost a couple years doing my dissertation research.

During the week of May 17th, 5 elephants were found killed with trunks and tusks cut off (likely with a power saw). They were ambushed on a track that leads to remote luxury lodges near the Boro gate in the buffalo fence close to Maun.

In response, this week the Botswana government launched a massive operation to flush out would-be poachers in the Okavango delta with helicopters and fixed wing aircraft assisting security personnel on the ground as they tracked the poachers. Six poachers were arrested in NG32 near Xhuruxharaga, close to Maun. The six suspects, all local people, were taken into custody for possession of two elephant tusks. They are likely to face charges of unlawful hunting which carries a P100 000 fine or 5 years imprisonment.

For more information, see:

National Geographic: A Powerful Weapon Against Ivory Smugglers: DNA Testing



With illegal ivory trade at its highest level in almost two decades, and large-scale ivory seizures more than doubling since 2009, a new commitment to submit ivory shipments for DNA testing is a welcome development.

At the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Conference of Parties meeting in March, countries agreed to submit samples from all future ivory seizures of more than 500 kilos (about 1,340 pounds), as well as those of that size from the past 24 months, to determine the origin of the smuggled ivory.

The goal is to establish where the organized criminal networks responsible for these massive shipments are targeting elephants and then to focus law enforcement efforts on those poaching hot spots.

The latest report of the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) noted that almost none of the 34 large-scale seizures made from 2009 through 2011 resulted in successful investigations of the criminals behind the transactions. Thus far, DNA from less than 5 percent of ivory seizures has been provided for analysis.

“The single most important thing we can do is figure out where the killings are taking place,” says Samuel Wasser, Director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington.

Wasser and his team innovated techniques for extracting and analyzing DNA from ivory. The team also developed a DNA map for African elephants that allows the geographic origin of a tusk to be ascertained within a 160-mile radius.

DNA analysis focused on origin has already produced interesting results. Testing of 6.5 tons of illegal elephant ivory seized in Singapore in 2002, 3.9 tons confiscated in Hong Kong in 2006, and another 11 tons confiscated in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan (also in 2006) determined that the massive consignments came from closely related elephants in specific localities: eastern Zambia for the Singapore seizure, a small section of eastern Gabon and neighboring Congo for the single Hong Kong seizure, and southern Tanzania/northern Mozambique for all samples in the 11-ton seizure.

Those findings proved that organized gangs were filling purchase orders by targeting whole herds in certain areas rather than by collecting ivory from disparate sources, as was previously thought.

Many agents involved in wildlife law enforcement suspect that there are a finite number of poaching hot spots, which makes targeting those areas more feasible. Anti-poaching units could patrol specific locations, and wildlife law enforcement agents could monitor well-worn smuggling routes—ensuring the biggest bang for the limited bucks.

Forensic analysis also has the power to link suspects to specific crimes. In addition to providing information on where a tusk came from, DNA analysis can be used to identify individual elephants killed in a particular incident.

When a mass killing occurs, tissue samples from carcasses can be analyzed, so that when and if the tusks enter the illegal market, they can be matched to that same incident.

Or a different one. Such was the case recently when 22 elephants (18 adults and 4 calves) were killed in Garamba, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). A short time later 36 tusks were confiscated. DNA analysis showed that the tusks did not come from those 22 elephants but from other elephants in the same overall population.

DNA analysis could also be used to show domestic ivory markets are operating legally. Recently, Chinese officials have disputed allegations of large-scale importation of illegal ivory and insisted that there is no linkage between their legal imports and the massive elephant poaching presently taking place.

One way they could prove their point would be to provide random samples of ivory from China’s legal markets for DNA analysis. If that analysis showed that it is all from Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Namibia, where one-off sales were allowed, such allegations could be rejected. But if the DNA analyses pointed to origins elsewhere, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Tanzania, or Kenya, there would be clear grounds for rejecting the Chinese claims.


Ivory Samples as a Proxy for Government Commitment


In the coming months, compliance with the CITES agreement to submit ivory samples should be closely watched. While some countries might assert that financial constraints prevent them from sending in DNA samples, the truth of that claim is suspect because the analysis itself will be funded by outside sources.

And the cost of shipping samples is minimal. Each sample is about the size of a one-inch coin, and only one tusk per pair needs to be tested. So a six-ton seizure would require shipping samples weighing less than a pound in all.

If a country opts not to submit samples, one might wonder whether it is doing everything it can to stop elephant poaching and ivory trafficking. And it might cause one to wonder if the government was allowing seized ivory to find its way into the illegal trade.

In contrast, a willingness to supply samples from seized ivory will help demonstrate a country’s commitment to stopping the illegal ivory trade.


Ones to Watch Now


Following are some recent large-scale ivory seizures that should be subject to the agreement:

In January 2013:

  • Hong Kong officials intercepted a container from Kenya holding 779 pieces of ivory tusk weighing 1.3 metric tons.
  • Singapore officials uncovered a shipment of 1.8 metric tons of ivory (a total of 1,099 pieces of raw tusks in 65 sacks) that had been labeled “waste paper.”
  • Kenyan officials confiscated 2 metric tons of ivory (600 pieces) labeled “decorating stones” and bound for Indonesia from Tanzania.

In December 2012:

  • Malaysian officials confiscated two cargo containers from Togo headed to China and labeled as “wooden floor tiles.” Instead they held 2,341 pieces of tusks weighing 6,034 kilograms.

In November 2012:

  • Hong Kong officials intercepted 569 pieces of tusks weighing 1.3 metric tons that were hidden in a shipping container from Tanzania marked “sunflower seed.”
  • Dubai officials uncovered a shipment of 215 pieces of ivory hidden in 40 boxes containing beans.

In October 2012:

  • Hong Kong officials intercepted a container from Tanzania with 972 pieces of raw ivory tusks (1.9 metric tons), along with ivory ornaments inside 91 bags of plastics scraps.
  • Hong Kong officials also seized a container from Kenya with 237 pieces of raw ivory tusks (about 1.9 metric tons) that were hidden inside 50 bags of “roscoco beans.”
  • Tanzania authorities arrested three men with 214 elephant tusks, secreted in several fertilizer bags.

National Geographic: Chaos and Confusion Following Elephant Poaching in a Central African World Heritage Site




As poachers fired on forest elephants inside the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, a World Heritage Site in the Central African Republic (CAR), the impotence of foreign governments and non-governmental organizations in preventing the slaughter of wildlife amid political chaos was, once again, revealed.

Earlier this week, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reported that on May 6 a group of 17 heavily armed poachers, who presented themselves as part of the transitional Séléka government but were of Sudanese origin, entered the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park.

They then headed to Dzanga Bai, a large clearing where between 50 and 200 elephants gather at any given time during the day and night for the mineral salts. Ecoguards later reported that they saw these poachers fire at elephants from the observation platform used by scientists and tourists.

Located in southwestern CAR, the Dzanga-Sangha reserve (which includes the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park) is part of the Sangha River Tri-National Protected Area (TNS), which includes Nouabalé Ndoki National Park (NNNP) in the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) and Lobéké National Park in Cameroon. Dzanga-Sangha is home to rare western lowland gorillas and more than 1,000 forest elephants. (This population is part of several thousand that share habitat with NNNP.)

While most World Heritage sites in elephant range states are seriously affected by poaching, the remoteness of the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, combined with on-the-ground support by WWF and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), have helped protect it from major poaching incidents. Until now.

For the past 30 years WWF, WCS, and the CAR government have collaborated on programs within the Dzanga–Sangha protected areas that both protect wildlife and support livelihoods for hundreds of local people.

For nearly 25 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) also has supported efforts in the park, including funding research on the forest elephants that use Dzanga Bai.

Dozens of Elephants Dead

Following the retreat of poachers on the evening of May 8, ecoguards explored Dzanga Bai the next day and found more than 26 elephant carcasses: 20 adults and four youngsters in the clearing itself and two in the river nearby. All their tusks had been hacked off.

An assessment of additional damage, possibly including other elephant carcasses in the surrounding forest and smaller clearings, is ongoing. It is reported that at least one of the camps in the park has been ransacked.


Elephant slaughter at Dzanga Bai, CAR. Photograph courtesy of WWF.

Elephant slaughter at Dzanga Bai, CAR. Photograph courtesy of WWF.


A Surprise

The violent incursion took conservationists by surprise. Months earlier, groups of poachers originating from Sudan, who were killing elephants in the Ngotto forest (some 60 miles from Dzanga Sangha), had been successfully blocked from advancing toward Dzanga-Sangha by government troops supported by WWF.

WWF staff in the area thought the poachers had left the region and started their trek back to Sudan in order to beat river levels rising in the rains; their donkeys and camels would be unable to cross the swollen rivers.

While lawlessness in the area had increased over the last two months—rebels repeatedly pillaged park headquarters and WWF offices, and there had been some local elephant poaching—nobody was ready for the methodical attack.

Since 2010, poachers had sought the Dzanga Bai elephant clearing, but conservationists had managed to prevent them from reaching it.

“We didn’t expect to find our worst nightmare: the most experienced elephant killers of these parts of Central Africa,” said Bas Huijbregts, who leads the Illegal Wildlife Trade Campaign for WWF in Central Africa.

“With our staff evacuated after the pillaging,” Huijbregts said, “our main priority was maintaining a minimum protection presence to stop local poachers from going on a rampage in the park while continuing to try to mobilize reinforcements from central government troops in Bangui. We were not prepared for this.”


Elephant slaughter at Dzanga Bai. Photograph courtesy of WWF.

Elephant slaughter at Dzanga Bai. Photograph courtesy of WWF.


Who Are the Poachers?

Who are the poachers? The answer is unclear. The vehicle carrying the group into the park was branded as Séléka. The poachers did not speak the local language or French.

“We understand that these Sudanese poachers came with a mission order from Séléka powers in Bangui,” Huijbregts said.

In March, Séléka, which means “union” in the local Sango language and is an alliance of seven opposition groups, finally ousted former CAR President François Bozizé. Chaos has reigned since then.

There have been many reports of looting, rapes, killings, and other human rights abuses since the takeover. On April 29, the UN Security Council issued a statement expressing strong concern about the worsening humanitarian and security situation and the weakening of CAR institutions.

The Séléka-dominated government is having a very difficult time establishing control over the country. There are many fighters who report to no one, and many splinter groups, who refer to themselves as Séléka but who may or may not be part of the “official” alliance. It seems that each of the seven members of the alliance has its own chief of staff and armed fighters.

One such subsidiary of Séléka is currently stationed in Bayanga, a town near the park, where they’re in charge of protecting Chinese diamond prospectors. Unlike previous groups who sacked  the region, these men are reportedly well-disciplined. They have helped reestablish some rule of law and have had meetings with local authorities and ecoguards.

On Wednesday, this subsidiary delivered a message to the poachers in the park from the Séléka leadership in Bangui asking them to leave the park immediately and report to the Bayanga-based Séléka.

It appears that the poachers obeyed. According to WWF, by the evening of May 8, they had left the park with their truck fully loaded with ivory.

Since the shooting, WWF reports that no elephants have been seen in the area.

What Is Happening Now?

The CAR ministry of environment in Bangui was expected imminently to announce a mission to secure the area in and around the Dzanga-Sangha protected areas. But when that announcement will be made, what such a mission would be, and who would be involved is unclear.

It would likely be made up of agents from the ministry of environment, plus some compilation of other forces. These could include members from one or more of the seven groups that make up Séléka and perhaps some of the official armed forces, who reportedly have little or no weapons or equipment.

As of May 10, most of the park’s 42 ecoguards are back at their posts—watching and waiting.

“We’re at war right now, and it’s foggy,” explains Richard Ruggiero, Chief, Branch of Asia and Africa at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Ruggiero has worked on the ground in Central Africa for over 20 years. “The possibility exists that we can turn this around in the very near future.”

Indeed, it’s not the first time conservationists have faced this situation. In 1997, rebels threatened to wipe out elephant herds in the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), and a group of dedicated conservationists and government rangers successfully prevented it.

“We are considering all options,” Huijbregts said. “We urge the government in Bangui to send the support troops to the area that were promised almost two weeks ago. In the meantime, we continue to support the local rangers, who, against all odds, are still doing their job.”

The Greater Malady

Whatever actions are taken to resolve this crisis, the larger issue is the underlying incentive for the elephant poaching: high demand and high ivory prices.

“What we’re seeing in Dzanga-Sangha is a symptom of a greater malady,” Ruggiero said. “The malady is human selfishness and ignorance that produces the market that causes all of this demand. We’re seeing the symptoms being played out in CAR. The disease is greater and comes from elsewhere.”

“At the end of the day, one of two things will end poaching,” Huijbregts added. “Either there is no more demand, or there are no more elephants. The choice is up to us.”


Baby forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) amidst other elephants in Dzanga Bai, a forest clearing in Dzanga Sangha Protected Area, CAR. Copyright WWF-Canon/Carlos Drews

Baby forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) amidst other elephants in Dzanga Bai, a forest clearing in Dzanga Sangha Protected Area, CAR. Copyright WWF-Canon/Carlos Drews


A captivating tale based on the true story of an orangutan who loves outsmarting his zookeeper friend.


Animal Investigators by Laurel Neme


Readers go behind the scenes at the world’s only forensics lab dedicated to solving animal crimes in this gripping “CSI for wildlife.”

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