Written by Amelia Kisling
UA Student - African Elephant Project
The concept of a class dedicated entirely to elephants made my heart sing, so of course I signed up immediately. I told everyone I could about it, and most people were jealous that I was getting class credit for simply talking about my favorite animal. I had no idea what to expect from my small honors seminar, and on the first day I realized this class would not be rainbows and butterflies – we were talking about reality, and that reality is that elephants are being killed. They are being killed for their beautiful ivory tusks at a rate of 96 elephants every day.
When I met my classmates, I discovered that we all had different majors. Some were pre-med, some public relations, some psychology, some engineering. And then there was me – an accounting and criminal justice dual degree who felt a little lost on what I could possibly do to make a difference. I want to go into the FBI not open my own elephant conservatory. Then I learned something that changed my entire perspective on these elephant killings: Ivory poaching has been linked to funding terrorist groups in Africa. This was one of the most shocking things I had heard in the class. Not only were these gentle giants being poisoned and shot, butchered and beheaded for their tusks, but the ivory itself was used to help finance terrorist groups, one of the most universally feared things, enabling them to get all the weapons they need to continue killing across Africa. Learning this was my turning point; I knew I wanted my career to revolve around terrorism, so why shouldn’t it involve saving my favorite animal from being killed as well?
So I did research.
I read several articles about terrorist groups in Africa that use ivory trade as their main source of income. There were three terrorist groups that seemed to come up often: Somalia’s Al-Shabaab, the Lord’s Resistance Army, or L.R.A., and Darfur’s Janjaweed. The most prominent, however, was Al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab is a Somali, al-Qaeda-backed terror group responsible for the Kenyan Westgate shopping mall massacre, which killed at least 68 people and left at least 150 people injured, back in September of 2013. Three years ago, the Elephant Action League, or EAL, conducted an 18-month undercover investigation into the link between Al-Shabaab and the illegal trafficking of ivory through Kenya. The organization’s findings suggested that Al-Shabaab has been actively buying and selling ivory to fund its militant operations and that ivory trafficking “could be supplying up to 40% of the funds needed to keep them in business’’ (AEL: Africa’s White Gold of Jihad).
With anti-poaching tactics so poorly funded, terrorist groups find poaching an easy option to fund their organizations. Even rangers have been gunned down trying to protect elephants, but when groups like Al-Shabaab come in from the sky on helicopters and shoot elephants before they even know what happened, a handful of rangers really don’t stand a chance. Wildlife agencies aren’t prepared to fight terrorist groups and rebel armies, it’s not how they operate. And with increased ivory prices, poaching has increased as a result. Luckily, the United States has begun to view wildlife trafficking as a national security threat. This publicity on such a serious matter is incredible progress, but it will not make this problem go away. It is, however, a great start.
Nothing about ivory poaching is beneficial. Elephants are being killed, altering entire ecosystems in their absence, watering holes are being poisoned, killing more than just those elephants they are taking ivory from, and at the end of the day, another terrorist group gets to put guns in their hands. This means that its not just the elephants that are dying – people are dying, too. The African Elephant Project taught me that I don’t need to be experienced with biology or non-profit or even large animal care to take a stand against such heinous crimes. With just a little more knowledge than I had before my first day, I now see where my place is in this fight. It may not be in Tanzania at an elephant orphanage. I may not do research on protective tactics for these amazing creatures. I may never even go to Africa. This does not mean I won’t do everything in my power to make a difference in this fight. And all it took was one fact to make me realize that.