Ian J. Saunders, Director, the African Environmental Film Foundation & Co-Founder, The Tsavo Trust


The elephant poaching crisis threatens both Kenya’s security and economy. Poaching gangs not only kill wildlife but also terrorize local communities and threaten the tourist trade. The implications of extremist organizations using ivory and rhino horn to fund their operations raise the stakes still further. Wildlife, stability and prosperity are closely linked, and the value of Kenya’s wildlife to the country cannot be overemphasized.

Ivory consumer states of the Far East, primarily China and Vietnam, have refused to ban the sale of ivory domestically, and the unprecedented market value (known as ‘white gold’, its black market price in Beijing increased 1,500% in just 4 years) is fueling corruption along the entire international ivory trail from source to consumer. In the African countries that still sustain elephant populations, law enforcement is critical to protecting the remaining wildlife on the ground. The important questions should therefore be: what is required operationally to secure the remaining populations of elephants in Africa, and do the host nations have that capacity?

Since 2011, Kenya has suffered from unsustainable increases in elephant poaching in all its major elephant habitats. The rapid escalation of the threat to elephants is due to heightened levels of participation from the heavily armed poaching gangs, often hailing from Somalia, operating either for organized crime syndicates or for fundamentalist organizations. Ivory has the potential to provide an easily accessible and untraceable source of revenue to terrorist and extremist organizations in both Kenya and Somalia, providing a direct threat to the U.S. and its African allies.

Wildlife managers with security experience who are operating on the ground have seen an evolution of activity that, combined with specific indicators, represents a credible and increasing threat that Al Shabaab in East Africa is gaining financial support through trading in illegal ivory.

This source of finance will always be available to Al Shabaab and other Islamic terrorist organizations in East Africa as long as the security/anti-poaching deterrent on the ground is not sufficient to deny them access to it. Ivory is a source of revenue too convenient for Al Shabaab to ignore, and it would be naïve to think otherwise. Many members of Al Shabaab have poached elephants for ivory and claimed “ivory taxes” from commercial poaching gangs involved in the illegal trade for many years.

Since Al Shabaab was forced out of strategic centers - Mogadishu in August 2011 and Kismayo in September 2012 – which held the key to their cash flows from port taxes and charcoal trade with the Middle East, the group has been desperately seeking new funding avenues. Ivory represents a more lucrative source of revenue, whose value on the streets of Beijing has increased 1,500% since 2008.

As an Al Qaeda franchise, Al Shabaab has reportedly stated in the public forum that they are working with their Islamic brothers in Afghanistan, Mali and Nigeria and that they will infiltrate Kenya, which is the gateway to many landlocked countries in Africa’s interior.

In the last few years, the increase in ivory prices fuelled by demand mainly from China has created a security situation over and above what was previously faced by wildlife authorities. In essence, anti-poaching has moved from a simple policing operation to a low-level form of counterinsurgency, increasingly involving some of the world’s most notorious and professional crime syndicates and international terrorist organizations.

This has resulted in the overstretching of existing resources and a lack of sufficient deterrents on the ground. No wildlife agency in the world is set up to fight terrorism, insurgents and rebel armies, but that is what is expected of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) in the Congo and the wildlife authorities in Chad, to name but a few.

The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) in Tsavo is facing increasing threats from insurgents from Somalia using not only automatic weapons but also rifle-launched grenades. Many of these insurgents are trained Islamic fundamentalists, working in cells. They are attempting to influence and recruit rural Kenyan communities with a long-term strategy, and they are using ivory to fund much of their operations. This is not mission creep - it is an escalation of the threat.

Case Study: Tsavo, Kenya

The Tsavo East and West National Parks create a protected area of 8,000 square miles, one of the largest protected areas in Africa and the home to some of the last great herds of elephant on the African continent. Despite their magnitude (wildlife dispersal areas surrounding the National Parks expand the ecosystem to 16,000 square miles), the Tsavo National Parks are fragile and at risk of increasing ecological degradation and human destabilization.

It is interesting to note that the Tsavo National Parks are not only approximately the same size but also the same age as the State of Israel, also situated in an arid region, although that is where the comparison ends. Israel has a defense force of over 176,000 men and women to secure its borders with a budget of approximately $16 billion. The Tsavo Parks have approximately 300 KWS personnel and a budget that is constantly straining to support them.

In Kenya today, approximately 60 percent of wildlife lives outside of government-managed National Parks. Giving credence to this figure, recent poaching incidents in the greater Tsavo area have shown that KWS has to deploy seven times the number of anti-poaching resources outside of the National Parks than within.

The support of Tsavo’s surrounding human communities is therefore vital to its long-term survival. It is for this reason that Mr. Saunders, co-founder of the Tsavo Trust, recommends the Community Wildlife Conservancy approach to securing the future for elephants, creating a protective buffer for government-managed National Parks and stabilizing the human populations of rural areas of Kenya currently under threat from fundamentalist groups. (Community Wildlife Conservancies are community-owned, community-managed multi-land-use areas, usually under the stewardship of organizations like Tsavo Trust, which benefit local people using wildlife conservation as the catalyst for security, stability and human development.)

Anti-poaching / wildlife law enforcement operations in areas like Tsavo closely resemble counterinsurgency operations and therefore need to be dynamic, disciplined, structured, coordinated and intelligence led. One of the main elements of any counterinsurgency operation is winning the support of the local people. In the Tsavo area, this has already been achieved, as it is local people leading the conservancies, managing the wildlife, and channeling the financial benefits from the development of their natural wealth directly into their communities.

Community Wildlife Conservancies lack the budgetary and recruitment constraints that can sometimes hinder national wildlife services and law enforcement authorities, giving them a much wider scope to achieve their goals. In doing so, they help protect the borders of the government-managed National Parks, releasing government wildlife management and security assets to be deployed more strategically and efficiently. This is a major contribution to the wider protection of wildlife and humans, which can be challenging for a small, underfunded government department expected to operate effectively over vast geographical areas.

When managed correctly and given the right support, these conservancies can not only provide infrastructure and personnel for anti-poaching operations but also perform a community law enforcement role and a wider community stabilization function.

dditional Resources:

» Tsavo Trust: Orma Conservancy Leaflet

» Tsavo Trust: The Crisis Affecting the African Elephant

» Tsavo Trust: Mr. Saunders's PowerPoint

» The Guardian: Gold and poaching bring murder and misery to Congolese wildlife reserve

» Wired UK: £12 billion illegal wildlife trade poses national security threat, says WWF

ICCF Resources:

» U.S. Congressional International Conservation Caucus Hearing: The Global Poaching Crisis

» ICCF Briefing: Rhinos Under Fire: How the Horn Trade is Threatening Regional Stability in Africa

» ICCF Briefing: Kenyan Poaching Crisis: An Insider's Perspective