The Pentagon should join the battle against the increasingly lucrative and deadly illegal wildlife trade amid evidence that terrorist groups have seized on the poaching industry as a means to finance their operations, says retired Gen. Carter Ham, the former head of US Africa Command.
General Ham, who served in the Africa post until 2013 and was head of US forces in Europe before that, said in a Capitol Hill briefing that there is “at least some indication” that “industrial-scale” illegal wildlife trafficking in Africa is helping to finance terrorist groups that pose a threat to the United States.
Not only is the poaching of elephants for ivory and rhinos for their horns causing a heartbreaking drop in the wildlife populations, it is also a threat to regional stability, warned Sen. Mark Udall (D) of Colorado, who hosted the briefing.
Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and the Janjaweed in Sudan – four major terrorist groups in the region – “have tapped into these networks,” he added in a panel with Ham.
Some 100,000 African elephants have been killed in the last three years, from a total population of roughly half-a-million. And at least 1,000 park rangers have died while on duty in 35 different countries over the last decade alone, with 80 percent of them killed by poachers and militias, according to data from a coalition of organizations including the World Wildlife Fund and the Human Society of the United States.
The business brings in $8 to $10 billion per year, ranking as the fourth most lucrative criminal activity internationally, coming in just behind narcotics, counterfeiting, and human trafficking. The United States represents the second-largest market, just after China, for these goods, according to wildlife groups.
Instead of decreasing, international demand for ivory and other goods has been rising, driving up prices and making the trade ever more lucrative.
This in turn has caught the attention of terrorist groups, Ham said in little-noticed remarks Wednesday, which were overshadowed by the president’s speech outlining the US military’s new initiatives against the Islamic State.
The problem is that “we don’t have a terrific intelligence picture of wildlife trafficking,” says Brooke Darby, deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. That said, she added, “We have seen some involvement of the LRA, Al Shabaab, and the Janjaweed.”
So, is such a pursuit as taking on the illegal wildlife trade worth the time of the US military, which is facing increasing pressure to bring down defense spending and growing threats across the globe? Ham argues that it is.
The networks that these terrorist groups use to traffic illegal wildlife could offer clues as to the transit points and money launderers that these groups use for arms and kidnappings, he points out.
What’s more, helping to train African security forces could foster much-needed cooperation in intelligence sharing and border control, added Ham, citing lingering “mistrust” in these areas among many African nations.
The Defense Department could potentially provide intelligence sharing, as well as “useful” equipment, including night vision capabilities, long-range communications, and drones, he said.
“I would hope Congress and others would encourage the US Department of Defense to take this on – not as a top mission,” Ham added, “but as a mission.”