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Once the domain of organised crime syndicates, the illicit wildlife trade is increasingly becoming a major source of income for non-state armed groups. Will the fusion of armed groups and criminal enterprise fuel conflicts indefinitely?
The illicit wildlife trade is a major concern for governments, international organisations and NGOs globally. As well as the irreversible damage to the targeted species, wildlife trafficking is acknowledged as a threat to security, governance and development. Poaching alone has an estimated value of $10 billion per year, ranking the illicit wildlife trade as one of the five most valuable illicit commodities.
Recent reports have linked the trade with terrorist and armed groups. The Janjaweed in Sudan, a wide range of state and non-state armed groups in the DRC, Al-Shabaab, and other armed groups have been implicated in the ivory trade. An undercover investigation of Al-Shabaab’s involvement calculated that the monthly income from ivory covered a large part of the bill to sustain its standing army.
The linkages between wildlife trafficking and armed groups suggest that the illicit wildlife trade is entrenched in the crime, conflict and terror nexus. Poaching and trafficking relies on the instability provided by conflict, with the revenue contributing to prolonged violence and terrorist activity.
Other forms of illicit activity have also been connected to terrorist and armed groups. For example, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are known to tax coca producers and traffickers to fund their activities, with some FARC members becoming directly involved in the drugs trade. In Mali, the political and military power granted to drug traffickers in the north of the country contributed to the rise of Al-Qa’ida in the Maghreb.
These are isolated cases though. Generally, the drugs trade is operated by organised crime networks that seek to profit from the sale of illicit commodities, or in the case of tobacco, avoiding taxes and other government duties. In contrast, the illicit wildlife trade is fuelled by the presence of arms and the impunity found in conflict-affected states, which provides the means for poaching. The revenue from the illicit trade in products such as ivory has also been directly linked to the funding of non-state armed groups.
Links with Conflict Zones
While all forms of organised crime are profit-seeking, the links between wildlife trafficking and non-state armed groups ensure that the trade is driven by the need for profit to sustain other activities – whether terrorist or conflict related. Profits from the illicit wildlife trade are a means rather than the end goal resembling more of a war economy than a criminal one.
Consequently, wildlife trafficking has different dynamics to other forms of illicit trade. All forms of organised crime contribute to violence, whether through extortion, state capture or the intimidation and killing of network members and competitors. By funding terrorist and armed groups, the violence perpetuated by the illicit wildlife trade extends much further. As well as the violence employed to facilitate the trade, such as the killing of park rangers, the proceeds ultimately lead to further attacks and ongoing struggles.
The UN Environment Programme estimates that 90 per cent of killed elephants within striking range of conflict zones are killed by non-state armed groups. The potential value is estimated to be between $3.9 and $12.3 million depending on the sale price. This revenue can prolong civil wars and generate capacity for terrorist attacks further afield. For instance, attacks by Al-Shabaab have extended well beyond Somalia’s boundaries. The extent of illicit revenue also makes terrorist and armed groups more unpredictable as profit may become more important than military objectives.
As armed groups come to rely on this revenue source, efforts to eliminate the illicit wildlife trade will be met with serious resistance. There is also a risk that armed groups will simply move to the trade of other commodities if wildlife trafficking becomes too difficult. With trading networks already in place, armed groups are well-positioned to traffic other commodities. While this would be a positive shift in relation to the extinction of particular species, it does little to curb the illicit revenue that is funding armed groups.
In order to address the involvement of armed groups in the illicit wildlife trade, a better understanding of the dynamics is needed. In particular, we need to examine how the trade differs from other forms of trafficking and what the implications are for the strategies being used to address it. The potential for non-state armed groups to move into other areas of illicit trade also needs to be accounted for and incorporated into future approaches.