How is the carnage at an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi linked to a surge in the poaching of wild elephants in Africa? The connection goes back to the old Watergate adage that is critical to all anti-terrorism efforts: Follow the money.

Elephants are being slaughtered in record numbers in Africa. As reported in The Washington Post last summer, more than 30,000 elephants were killed by poachers last year, the largest number in decades. Over the last five years there has been a huge spike in poaching that threatens the extinction of one of the planet’s most intelligent and iconic species. Prominent global figures - former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her daughter Chelsea, Prince William and Kate Middleton, and many others - have all spoken out about elephant conservation. Just this week, Mrs. Clinton announced a new $80 million, three-year effort by the Clinton Global Initiative aimed at ending ivory trafficking.

But, as she pointed out, saving elephants is more than just a cause célèbre: it is critical in the fight against terrorism. Al Shabab is financing a significant portion of its military operations by poaching elephants. A 2011 report by the Elephant Action League, whose mission is to fight elephant exploitation and wildlife crime, dubs elephant ivory "the white gold of jihad.”

An 18-month investigation by the organization into the dramatic rise in elephant poaching by "Somalian gangs” concluded that almost half of all funding for Shabab’s terrorist activities was derived from elephant poaching in Kenya. Investigations have uncovered a sophisticated network of poachers and brokers tied to Shabab; the terrorist group leverages its military arm to build contacts with international crime syndicates and illegal wildlife brokers in Asia. In fact, while it is difficult to trace illegal ivory as a commodity, ivory has been found in former strongholds of Shabab, according to testimony last November before the House and Senate International Conservation Caucus.

Elephant ivory sold on the black market is highly profitable. In 2012, ivory fetched as much as $7,000 a kilogram in China, depending on its quality. At those prices, elephant slaughter is an easy way for terrorist groups like Shabab to rake in the cash: the ivory from just five elephants is probably enough to fund an attack of the sort we saw in Nairobi. The cycle of elephant slaughter and terrorist activity is unlikely to end without a more concerted effort by the U.S. military to stop the elephant poaching in the region.

Last November, when Hillary Clinton was preparing to announce a major State Department initiative to combat illegal wildlife trafficking, I moderated a panel sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund and National Geographic on what the military could do to help. We concluded that it boils down to leadership. The wildlife trade-monitoring network TRAFFIC believes that the most effective way to protect elephants, and thereby cut off a major funding source to Shabab and other terrorist groups, is to employ military and intelligence-led enforcement in African countries where elephants are being slaughtered.

The Obama administration has begun to make efforts in this regard. However, more robust action is needed right now. The president recently signed an executive order to increase the U.S. government’s involvement in efforts to combat illegal trafficking. But the emphasis in the current initiative is on support from civilian agencies, and the administration’s biggest guns - the defense and intelligence agencies - have been scarcely involved. After the tragedy in Nairobi, the Defense Department needs to step up and take a larger role in the fight to save elephants. The president’s national security team should engage the Pentagon and C.I.A. specifically on the issue of elephant poaching and direct them to vastly increase their involvement.

Elephant poaching is the latest example of how our "natural security” impacts our national security. Disruption caused by climate change, scarcity of water supplies, damage to the food chain caused by misuse of pesticides and other chemicals - all these things, and more, contribute to violence and conflict around the world, but especially in the developing world. In many respects, environmental issues are national security issues. The tragic connection between elephant poaching and terror in Africa reinforces this linkage.

As aptly put by the Elephant Action League, the "deadly path of conflict ivory starts with the slaughter of innocent animals and ends in the slaughter of innocent people.” The tragic events in Kenya should be a clarion call for the U.S. military to join the fight to save elephants in Africa. We will all be safer if they do.

1347 reads | 08.10.2013

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