Poaching and Terrorism: The Race to Protect Wildlife and National Security

Poaching and Terrorism: The Race to Protect Wildlife and National Security

The illicit wildlife trade is now worth up to 20 billion dollars a year. That's double what it was just a few years ago — worth far more than the weapons trade and approaching the rate of human smuggling. This has attracted the attention of Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Lord's Resistance Army, and other terrorist groups, African militias, and Asian criminal syndicates — all looking to capitalize on this high-value, low-risk venture. And it flies in the face of US officials and law enforcement who, since 9/11, have been doing everything in their power to cut off revenue to the world's terrorists. In this hour-long program, we look at poaching — once a conservation issue, but now a full-blown threat to national security.

We travel to Uganda, a key stop along the supply chain where high-level corruption is making it easier for terrorist groups to get illegal wildlife products to market. We'll visit China — the number one market for ivory — where new policies may help curb the people's demand. In the United States, we learn what lawmakers and law enforcement are doing to cut off terrorists' newest revenue stream and to crack down on the surprisingly large illegal wildlife market in the West. And we travel to Kenyawhere NGO's are helping train former poachers to protect wildlife, and to get community support to do the same.

Plus we learn how this issue has brought together an unlikely coalition: wildlife and conservation groups, anti-terrorist and law enforcement agencies, politicians on both sides of the aisle, sports stars, and Hollywood celebrities.

Featured guests include:

A Conversation with Juan Zarate on Poaching and Terrorism

Government and conservation groups agree that poaching is a threat not only to the animals in Africa’s national parks, but to the people who live near those parks. And as more terrorist and other criminal groups get into the poaching game, the more widespread the problem becomes.

Last year, Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow made a short animated film to illustrate the growing connection between poaching and terrorism. One of her key advisors was Juan Zarate. He was Deputy National Security Advisor for combating terrorism in the second Bush administration. And now he’s Chairman and Co-Founder of the Financial Integrity Network and Chairman and Senior Counselor of the Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He spoke to our host Madeleine Brand about the threat poaching poses to our national security.*

Madeleine Brand: Let's talk about the scope of this problem. How many animals are being killed? What are they being killed for exactly? How much is this trade worth?

Juan Zarate: What you have is an acceleration of the poaching crisis, which is not necessarily new, but has been accelerated because of raising demand, the industrialization of the poaching process, and the use of the poaching trade by all sorts of groups including organized crime, militant groups, and terrorist organizations for profit. So what you have is an industry that raises tens of millions of dollars, that also sees the desecration of our natural environment and obviously has accelerated the crisis for endangered species like the elephants and rhinos. This has been an accelerating problem in part because you have rising demand in places like China and Vietnam and [continued] demand in places like North America, but you also have the reality that groups have purposely entered this trade because it is so profitable.

MB: Give me a sense of what you mean by that. How profitable is it?

JZ: Well, you have very low barriers of entry in this market. You have simply to try to track down herds of elephants and saw off their tusks and to feed it into the business cycle of the poaching trade. The barriers to entry are very low, so much so that groups from a variety of regions and stripes have gotten into the trade. The reality then is that ivory, which is incredibly valuable, has increased in value over time and that rhino horn has increased in value because of its scarcity as well as its reported medicinal value.

All of that means that those selling the actual ivory or horns are given a premium on the price. The brokers who facilitate it are also given a premium, and the end users and the sellers are obviously then able to sell it at high market prices. I don't know the actual price value currently, so I can't tell you what the margins look like, but it's without a doubt a profit center for militant groups, terrorist groups, and organized crime in a way that is seeing the decimation of our natural resources at a rate that we haven't seen before and is industrializing the poaching trade in a way that is dramatic and a problem from the perspective of national security.

MB: Let's talk about that angle of it. You are saying that this is actually fueling security problems because it's encouraging militant groups or terrorist groups or organized crime groups to get involved in these nefarious activities because it is so profitable, and I suppose, as we can see by the result, because anti-poaching laws are not very well enforced.

JZ: That's right. I think what you have is the attractive nuisance of a trade that presents a real profit and low barriers to entry, which rewards those who are willing to flout the law and certainly rewards those who are willing to out-gun or out-spend government forces or security around these natural resources. Without a doubt what you've had is a collection of actors, from those who specialize in this kind of poaching, to those who've entered the market recently like organized crime groups who know how to engage in illicit trade, know how to use brokers and shippers, and know the entire market mechanism to move illicit goods from the point of origin to market and to profit from it.

The challenge from a security perspective is not only that you have the environmental costs of this kind of trade, but that you have these groups that are profiting from the trade corrupting local governments, out-spending them in many ways and certainly out-gunning them. They’re also overwhelming the ability of local authorities to protect the resources at hand and certainly overwhelming any ability to prosecute or to enforce the law in an effective or meaningful way. From the U.S. perspective, it's incredibly dangerous and damaging in that it not only foments regional instability, but it gives life and resources to groups that the U.S. knows to be problematic and dangerous.

The Janjaweed militia in the Sudan, for example, has taken advantage of the ivory trade. The Lord's Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony — wanted by Uganda, east African countries, and the U.S., and hunted for all of his human rights abuses — is now fully engaged in the ivory trade. Even groups like Al-Shabaab, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, has engaged in the ivory trade as part of its portfolio to add money to its coffers and to its budget. These are groups that are accelerating the trade and are taking full advantage to profit. That's precisely why this is an issue where our natural security is very much endangered when we're talking about the African elephants and the rhinos, because we're talking about regional stability and profits and financing that's going to some of the worst groups that we want to decimate and destroy.

MB: What is happening to combat this?

JZ: You've had the U.S. attempt to mobilize at least U.S. resources, if not elements of the international community with the Wildlife Tracking strategy put out by the Obama administration, which is an executive order that lays out certain penalties for actions taken by those involved in the wildlife trade. It’s certainly an attempt by the U.S. and other authorities, especially in Africa, to try to protect the natural resources that are at risk, but also then to try to go after the poachers and those who are part of this trade.

The challenge in all of this is the enforcement of the law. Enhancing the laws and penalties are certainly part of it, but the real challenge is how you enforce the laws to ensure that you're protecting the species that are at risk and holding responsible those who are trying to profit from this trade. Part of this as well is dealing with the demand that you see rising dramatically in Asia. Much of this [preventative work involves] awareness-building in places like China where ivory is still valued and still bought and where the demand is largely driving much of the threat of wildlife extinction in Africa. Part of what governments are trying to do is build up awareness among the consumer class to ensure that ivory is not as attractive a commodity as we've seen in the past.

The reality is we have to do more because the rate of acceleration is dramatic with respect to these species; the ability of militant and terrorist groups to take advantage of this trade is too high; and we have to do something about this nexus of our natural and national security, which demands more resources, more enforcement of the law, the use of other measures like financial isolation and sanctions against those who are part of this business cycle, and great accountability around the world for those who are, if not fueling, at a minimum profiting from this illicit trade. That takes resources. It takes coordination. It takes information sharing. It takes use of a variety of authorities, not just law enforcement but others as well. There's an all-out international strategy that has to be crafted to provide an opportunity for countries like the U.S. and China to work together and have a common goal in terms of saving these species and going after those who are profiting from illicit trade.

MB: It's hard to crack down at the source, as you were saying, because of weak governments and the power of some of these militant groups and terrorist groups. So is it more effective then to work on the demand side? How do you curtail demand in a place like China or a place like Vietnam, where rhino horns are seen as something that can confer some kind of mystical power?

JZ: The challenge of the poaching crisis is that you have to deal with all ends of the business. You have to deal with the protection of the animals and the species and the habitat at the source. You have to also deal with the middle-man and the business chain in between, and affect that and deter it. Then you have to deal with both the mythical and the real elements of the demand that happen in the market in places like China and Vietnam when it comes to ivory or rhino horn.

This is not just in the hands of the government. Awareness building and reducing demand for these kinds of items also sits with the private sector, as well as with celebrities. For example, in China, the famous basketball star Yao Ming has taken up the preservation of elephants as a key cause. If you go into the airport in Beijing you will see posters of Yao Ming standing next to elephants trying to raise awareness about the risks elephants face because of the ivory trade. In the United States, you've had celebrities like Kathryn Bigelow, the Oscar-winning Hollywood director, raising awareness with a short film that talks about the threat to elephants in the ivory trade.

Part of this is not just governments cracking down and enforcing export or import laws, but it's also a matter of society raising its own awareness and revulsion to actually trading in or even purchasing these kinds of items. That's a long-term endeavor in societies where some of these items are not only considered to be valuable, but potentially medicinal and mystical. I think that's a huge challenge, but it's one that the public authorities as well as private actors need to take on and it forms a part of a series of things that need to happen if we're going to intervene in what is ultimately a crisis not just of our natural security but also our national security.

MB: What happens when rhino horn or ivory is seized?

JZ: Different authorities handle the seizure of these good differently. What you've seen around the world in recent months has been an attempt to use the seizure and destruction of these stockpiles as a clear public messaging campaign to indicate that A: this is not going to be allowed; B: that those who are engaged in these activities will be held accountable; and C: that these goods are not going to reach market in any way — they're going to be destroyed. You've had the symbolic and very dramatic burning and destruction of ivory tusks and other wildlife goods that have been seized at border points. Different authorities do different things with what they seize, but in the last couple of years authorities have decided to destroy publicly some of these stockpiles to make very clear that they are very serious about interdiction and holding those involved to account.

MB: They just grind them up and burn them?

JZ: In some cases they're ground up. In some cases they're burned in piles. In other cases they're kept as evidence in evidence lockers. It depends on the jurisdiction and how the particular country or authority handles those goods. I think part of the challenge is how you ensure that these goods aren't making it to market, aren't re-injected in some way, and certainly aren't raising the value of doing business in these kinds of goods, which of course has raised some controversial debates about whether or not to treat historical ivory goods in the same way that you would newly interdicted ivory trade. That has been a debate in the West and certainly continues to be an issue of some contention and debate.

MB: How much time do we have before some of these animals are extinct?

JZ: The last estimate that I saw in terms of the elephants, at least in certain parts of Africa, is that we're talking about a 10- to 15-year range before they become extinct. With rhinos, it depends on the species you're talking about and which population, but in South Africa and in southern Africa we're looking at maybe just a handful of years. What're you're talking about is a very short timeframe of environmental pressure and potential extinction for some incredibly important and great species that will no longer be with us within a generation.

In terms of what we can do, there's no question we need to protect these species at the source much better. There are more resources going into that  more training of park rangers, and more attempts to provide safe haven and habitat for these animals — but we also have to go after those who are part of the business chain, who are in essence fueling much of this industry. It’s in that vein that we have the most amount of work to do. How do we go after those in the middle part of this business chain who actually facilitate the activity, who buy it from those who are poaching, who make the payments to the militant groups and to the terrorist organizations, who actually broker the deals, who provide for the shipping, and who then actually get it to market?

That middle section of the business chain is something that we haven't focused much attention on. We have to find ways of going after the financing of those who are profiting in the middle, and often those are organized criminal groups who have figured out ways of running the logistics of the poaching trade. I think ensuring those individuals and groups are actually harmed and not profiting from this trade is part of the next stage of the strategy and has to be amplified rather quickly if it's going to have impact.

*This article has been lightly edited for clarity.

Corruption Worsens Illegal Wildlife Trade in Uganda

In November 2014, five officials of the Uganda Wildlife Authority were suspended after almost 1.5 tons of ivory worth more than $1 million vanished from a government store room.

In response, the minister for tourism suspended the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s executive director, Andrew Seguya. But he returned to office just a few months later.

Interpol’s international relations director, Asan Kasingye, who headed the investigation into the theft, blames the incident on widespread corruption. He believes these kinds of incidents wouldn’t be possible without collaboration along many points of the supply chain.

But Kasingye says the people helping the traffickers may not be aware of the true damage they’ve done. “The proceeds of ivory can go into arms trade, can go into terrorism activities,” he says. “[It] can go into making sure that the conflicts within our regions don’t end.”

Uganda has long been plagued by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a group known for its vicious attacks on the Ugandan people. LRA leader Joseph Kony was indicted for war crimes in 2005 but has evaded capture despite US special forces and others looking for him. He’s now reportedly living in hiding in the Central African Republic, but there's strong evidence that he and his army are supporting themselves in large part via the illegal wildlife trade.

Enough Project field researcher Kasper Agger says the LRA has been cashing in on ivory for a while now. By some estimates, the LRA is earning $40,000 for every elephant it kills. And LRA soldiers are killing a lot. Last spring, nearly 70 elephants were slaughtered in Garamba National Park in just two months.

Agger says the LRA transports the ivory from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, through Uganda, to South Sudan, where they sell or trade it for bullets, arms, medical supplies, batteries and satellite phones. Without their own transnational network to get the ivory out of Central Africa, the LRA sells it to other ivory traders. “These include wealthy businessmen. Some of them might be connected to local government officials, [or] the army,” Agger says.

The ivory is then hidden with other types of trade — legal items like rice, millet, or timber — which is then shipped to Asia where 90 percent of all the world’s ivory ends up.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority employs about 1,300 rangers and other staff to help control this trade. Its newly-reinstated executive director, Andrew Seguya, admits there may be some former LRA fighters in their ranks. But he denies they are helping the ivory trade thrive within Uganda. “When we recruit people we do background checks. I am only aware [of] about two or three officers that used to be in the LRA,” he says. “It is also a logistical nightmare for anybody to transport one or two tusks all that way when you could get tusks in the Central African Republic itself. It doesn’t sound to be a credible story.”

However, there is little doubt that the LRA is managing to profit off the ivory trade despite the work of the Uganda Wildlife Authority.

The Enough Project’s Agger says other groups are getting in on the action too, including armed groups like al-Shabaab, the Janjaweed from Sudan, the Seleka rebels in Central African Republic and Boko Haram from Nigeria.

This is a huge expansion of an already devastating trade — all running through Uganda’s fractious borders. To end this practice, Ugandan authorities will have to deal with not only these external forces, but also their own officials — who may be taking advantage of widespread, high-level corruption to make a killing from the ivory trade.

Reporter Halima Athumani is a radio journalist based in Uganda. She works as a freelance journalist corresponding for Anadolu Agency, Turkey. 

Anti-poaching efforts in Kenya focus on saving animals — and people too

One way to catch a poacher is by smell.

Winding up a hill in southern Kenya, a tracker dog is guided by a scent — past thorned bushes and through brush.

On the other end of the leash is ranger Mutinda Ndivo. He keeps his eyes on the red earth, looking for footprints.

Today this is a training exercise, but the pair have caught many poachers — or attempted poachers — this way.

Ndivo knows the way poachers work, because he was one. A notorious one at that. My translator, Joseph, said Ndivo’s name and photo were in the news back in the day.

Ndivo’s father taught him how to poach, using poisoned arrows. By 1989 he’d made a name for himself, killing up to seven elephants a day.

But even if he was notorious, Ndivo was still at the bottom of the wildlife crime chain. He had no idea where the ivory went or who it funded. He just took his money, and didn’t ask too many questions.

It was the law that ultimately stopped Ndivo. He was caught, imprisoned, and had to sell off most of what he owned to pay a $100,000 fine. And ultimately that was it — it was too expensive, too risky for him to poach. He got a job with wildlife NGO Big Life for $200 a month.

The Kenyan government is hoping these same economic forces will prevent others from poaching. Last year they put into effect a strict wildlife act. It imposes life sentences or fines up to $200,000 for poaching elephants or other wildlife.

The law’s just one of the tools being used to combat poaching. The Kenyan government has increased funding to the wildlife service. It built a new forensic lab to test wildlife products to aid in prosecution.

Also key has been the government’s openness to work with NGOs, like Big Life.

Bernard Kiptoo works with Big Life to monitor wildlife crime and makes sure incidents are prosecuted. “We have to be there,” he says, “because we doubt that these people will actually be brought before the courts.”

When cases do go through the system, however, the results are striking. He points to a white board with past cases of elephant poaching.

“On July 27, 2011, somebody was arrested for spearing an elephant at Olpakai. And when he was taken to the courts he was fined 30,000 and released,” Kiptoo says.

That’s about $300 US, not even worth the cost of one cow.

In a similar case last year, after the bill was passed, a man was charged with seven years in prison.

Now, that may help deter smaller poachers, but not the sophisticated poachers who are more likely to be connected to large criminal groups. Stopping them will take an even bigger effort.

“Their insurances, their connections, their income is so large that it should probably take some time to really try to squeeze these guys to make this law a deterrent,” says Johan Bergenas, who studies transnational security with the Stimson Center and works extensively with Kenyan anti-poaching initiatives. He says that while it may still be too early to know the real effect of the wildlife bill, it’s a big step in African conservation.

“The way I would look at this bill ... [is] that this is no longer a western-led, big NGOs in Washington, Brussels, [and] Stockholm ... making money off of elephants looking cute,” he says. “I would look at it as a way where Africans are taking ownership of their economic assets. Africans are seeing the impact of wildlife crime and what it does to their economies, what it does to their security, what it does to their development.”

Here around Amboseli National Park, local communities are active in this fight.

Big Life rangers have received a call — an elephant has trampled a garden.

These rangers are all locals, and they know it’s not easy living alongside wildlife. The landowner stands with arms crossed, tears in her eyes. She says this garden is the only way she can afford to pay for her three kids’ education.

Here’s where an NGO like Big Life makes the difference. Rangers provide her with flares to scare away wildlife, and will compensate her if any of her own animals are killed.

Where before there may have been a retaliatory poaching of the elephant, now these rangers have won over a community member. This woman will likely become part of Big Life’s informer network — people who notify rangers of any suspicious activity.

And a community that values wildlife is key. Tourism — mostly from wildlife — is huge here, making up about 12 percent of Kenya’s economy. Security expert Johan Bergenas says for the economic security of the country, Kenya needs to keep these animals alive.

“Over the next 15 to 20 years, as they are transitioning their economy into a more industrial economy, they cannot afford to have sectors of their society squashed by transnational criminals and not being able to make that transition into a more developed country,” he says.

After a day’s work, the rangers go back to their base and make a meal of maize flour mash and greens. They spend about 23 days out of the month deployed here.

For Muimo Yiambat, who has five kids and a wife at home, wildlife, more than anything, means money.

“We get a sponsorship because of wildlife,” he says. “We get a profit because of wildlife. So I am happy. I am happy to work even a very hard job because we benefit through the wildlife.”

Here, along Kenya’s other front line, it comes down to economic incentives.

And for the wildlife to thrive, their protectors have to believe they're more beneficial alive than they are dead.

Reporter Briana Duggan is a journalist based in East Africa. Her work has been featured on America Abroad, NPR and its affiliates, and CNN, among others. Originally from North Carolina, Briana holds a degree in international development from UNC-Chapel Hill and a master’s from CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Despite big efforts, the US is still a major consumer of illegal elephant ivory

The air in New York’s Times Square is thick with gritty, white dust — all that remains of hundreds of pieces of elephant ivory.

The piles waiting to be crushed include carved tusks, decorations and jewelry, ranging in size from little trinkets to large ornate statues. All of it was previously seized by federal agents, and much of it is tagged as evidence.

Piece by piece, these objects ride up a long conveyor belt at Broadway and 46th Street and topple into a giant crusher.

Antique ivory is legal in the United States, but these pieces are made from recently poached ivory, disguised to look old. Few penalties and skyrocketing prices make this crime increasingly attractive to terror groups and organized crime.

For this reason, the US government considers wildlife trafficking a national security issue. Last year, President Barack Obama’s administration created a strategy to deal with it. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who leads a government taskforce on illegal ivory, spoke at the Times Square crush.

“We have transnational organized crime networks that see this as a low-risk and high-profit market. We are part of the problem. We must also be part of the solution,” she said.

That solution includes a unique coalition of players — conservation groups, USAID, the Department of Justice, and Homeland Security — all working to better enforce the law and reduce the demand for these products by raising public awareness.

But for now, the United States remains a major player in the global market for elephant ivory.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that the U.S. is actually one of the top ivory markets in the world,” says Elly Pepper, an expert on the U.S. ivory market at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Pepper says part of the problem is US ivory laws are confusing and hard to enforce.

“The US has permitted a limited legal market for years, but since it is so hard to date ivory — it requires DNA testing or bomb carbon dating, which are expensive and not widely-available processes — people sneak new ivory onto the shelves under the guise of old ivory,” she says. “That’s why while the US has banned most ivory for so long, it hasn’t really mattered. It just created this parallel illegal market."

New York City has long been at the heart of this, but new, strict state bans in the region mean there’s little ivory to see here.That’s not the case in California.

In San Francisco’s Chinatown, there are blocks of stores that sell at least some ivory. The Man Hing Ivory Imports store even has a Yelp page, despite the fact that importing ivory here has largely been illegal for decades.

California may soon pass a ban like New York’s, and word seems to be getting out. The windows of shops specializing in ivory are filled with posters advertising half-off and going out of business sales.

But for now, it’s still the wild west.

Attorney Zak Smith joins me for some browsing. He’s Pepper’s colleague at the NRDC.

“Some of the people working at these stores were absolutely up front about the fact that they were selling elephant ivory that was illegal, and that they would help you obtain documents to facilitate you being able to sell that ivory in New York, which right now has quite strict laws against the sale of ivory,” he says. “I was amazed. I did not expect that.”

Elly Pepper says the amount of illegal — or new — ivory that’s on store shelves recently doubled. It makes up roughly half of all ivory for sale here.

“What this means is that the amount of antique faking and the amount of pretending that ivory is old when it’s actually new is just becoming more common,” she says.

Bob Dreher, the associate director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, says they’ve reached the same conclusion.

“We think that the current market provides cover for illegal ivory coming into the United States and permits poachers to profit from their crimes, so we are looking for a way to take the United States out of that equation,” he says.

But progress has been slow and hard won.

“The United States still has a problem with illegal ivory, in no small part because of a wide range of communities — whether it’s gun owners or musicians or antique dealers — they’ve raised concerns about a proposed fish and wildlife service rule and they’ve pushed back fairly hard,” says Delaware Senator Chris Coons, who is one of several lawmakers addressing this issue on Capitol Hill.

Bipartisan bills before the House and Senate seek to increase the penalties for violating federal law. Right now people who are convicted face small fines or months in prison. If passed, the new measures would equate wildlife trafficking with other forms of the crime, such as drugs or weapons.

Senator Coons applauds the Wildlife Trafficking Enforcement Act, which was put before Congress earlier this year. If passed, it would establish penalties of up to 20 years in prison, or a half million dollars in fines.

“I think there’s a role for congressional action here, and I commend Senators Graham and Feinstein for starting on strengthening some of the rules and criminal penalties around trafficking in illegal wildlife products,” he says. “But I think there’s room for us to do more.”

Bob Dreher says the fish and wildlife service is also working on a variety of new restrictions.

“We have been considering and are very, very close to issuing a proposed regulation that would substantially eliminate interstate trade in ivory in the United States,” he says.

More than 20 states are also considering their own ivory bans. That’s important because federal rules don’t apply to trade within a state’s borders. Places to watch include California and Connecticut.

California: because it has a very large ivory trade. And Connecticut: because tight restrictions in neighboring states could push New York City’s illegal market across its border.

Reporter Jennifer Strong is an independent journalist. Her work has been heard on The Wall Street Journal This Morning, NPR Newscast, Marketplace, WCBS New York, XM Satellite Radio, KABC Los Angeles, PRI’s The World, Dow Jones Money Report, and WLS Chicago. She produced NPR’s Motley Fool Radio Show and spent five years on-air at NPR member station WAMU in Washington, DC. She is a member of the Broadcast Committee of the National Press Club and an anchor of its podcast, Update One. She has a graduate degree in public affairs journalism from American University and recently completed a Knight Science Journalism workshop at MIT.

China’s promised phase-out of ivory sales is good news for wildlife

When it comes to buying ivory, China is number one. And that's become a source of national shame.

To counter this, some of China's most admired celebrities have joined anti-ivory campaigns, including basketball giant Yao Ming, piano virtuoso Lang Lang, and billionaire internet entrepreneur Jack Ma. Organizing the groundswell is a host of international conservation groups, like WildAid and the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

IFAW's Grace Ge Gabriel says elephants are victims of China's breakneck economic growth, and some poorly thought-through policies. "Ivory has always been coveted as a status symbol. But in the past it was the purview of a privileged few,” she says.

That changed during China's flush go-go years in the 2000s, when the economy was growing by more than 10 percent a year. Then, in 2008, China was granted a one-time-only sale of 62 tons of stockpiled ivory. This legal ivory sale created a cover for the black market. Demand skyrocketed and smuggling soared. 

“The ivory price dramatically increased,” Gabriel says. “More people coveted it. They felt it not only brought status, it has also become an investment.” Ivory sellers told buyers the price could triple overnight.

Meanwhile, conspicuous consumption was en vogue in China. Gifting rare animal products was trendy — as was bribing with them.

When official delegations from China arrived in Africa, the price of ivory would spike. Back at home in China, ivory started appearing among loot when corrupt officials were busted. And some wealthy Chinese citizens literally surrounded themselves with it, lining the walls of their private clubs with ivory carvings.

But this year, things changing.

In February, the government announced a symbolic one-year ban on imported ivory.

Then, in the spring, government officials, foreign diplomats, and environmentalists gathered in Beijing for an ivory crush — the second to be held in China.

As 1,500 pounds of precious but illicit ivory was tossed onto a conveyer belt and pulverized, Minister of the State Forestry Administration Zhao Shucong made the pledge environmentalists have long been pushing for. He said China would eventually end all ivory sales — though he didn't say when.

Market watchers say there was no immediate impact on ivory prices. But the hope is this will send a message to speculators: It’s time to give up on what they call “white gold” — it will soon become worthless white dust.

Award-winning radio correspondent and filmmaker Jocelyn Ford has been a journalist in Asia for over 30 years. For over a decade, Jocelyn was bureau chief for US public radio's premier national business show, Marketplace — first in Tokyo, later in Beijing. Her work has been heard on Radiolab, The World, Studio 360, and other shows.

The highway through which Africa's poached animal products pass

Tourists visiting Kenya’s steamy coastal city of Mombasa will likely pose in front of what is perhaps the city’s most iconic symbol, two giant arches made of aluminum and designed to look like elephant tusks. Given to the city by Britain’s Princess Margaret in 1956, the structure was meant to celebrate Kenya’s abundance of wildlife. But today it has become something of an ironic emblem of the city.

Last year, activists defaced the sculptures, smearing them with dripping red paint and the phrase, “Mombasa Not 4 Ivory Export.”

Relative to its neighbors, Kenya has been lauded internationally for its anti-poaching initiatives. The country imposed a strict new wildlife act that imposes life sentences or heavy fines for poaching. With the help of international donors, the Kenya Wildlife Service recently opened a wildlife forensic and genetics laboratory to aid in wildlife crime prosecution. However, even with these advancements, Kenya has one serious weakness.

The port of Mombasa, the country’s largest coastal city, is the single most active ivory trafficking hub in Africa, funneling ivory from East and Central Africa on its way, overwhelmingly, to Asian markets. This trade through Mombasa has increased in recent years, leading to a grim statistic: Since 2009, studies estimate the port of Mombasa has funneled the ivory of 25,000 elephants.

Approximately 188 metric tons of ivory is believed to have passed through the port of Mombasa between 2009-2014. Credit: Briana Duggan

The ivory passing through Mombasa has been labeled as decorating stones, declared aspeanuts, and stashed with tea leaves. It has been intercepted in Singapore, Thailand and at the Kenyan port, sometimes in quantities of 1,000 pounds or more.

Experts say the level of sophistication required to move such large quantities over such long distances indicates the involvement of organized crime.

“It’s a heightened degree of professionalization that is required to actually move this contraband across this very long and very diverse supply chain,” says Jackson Miller, lead analyst for wildlife and environmental crimes at C4ADS, a security analysis NGO. “You need contacts within thousands of miles of bush, access to transport routes, then as you get out of Africa, access to outside transport and retail. It’s a big mission.”

Reports have linked the illegal wildlife trade with the funding of armed groups. While it’s unclear exactly how much it may be funding Kenya’s central security threat, the Somali-based group al-Shabaab, non-profits, government officials, and researchers have found real links between the wildlife trade and conflict in Africa.

Compounding the problem is Mombasa’s reputation for mismanagement, lax security and corruption. It’s been called a “liability for Africa,” where wildlife products and drugs can be moved with impunity.

“This is one of the ports of convenience in the world,” says longtime Kenyan maritime consultant Andrew Mwangura. “You can do anything,” he says. He calls the port’s rule of thumb: see no evil, hear no evil.

Experts estimate the amount of ivory passed through the port of Mombasa between 2009-2014 equates to the ivory of approximately 25,000 elephants. Credit: Briana Duggan

In a 2010 interview with the International Peace Institute, Njuguna Mutonya, the former bureau chief for Kenya’s Nation Media group, says the Mombasa port is like a tunnel: “All illicit business happens here and it is controlled by traders supported by customs personnel and powerful people in government. Whoever controls the port controls the illicit business in Kenya.”

The port has employed new controls in an effort to improve security, including CCTV monitoring, perimeter surveillance, and ID-required access doors. Port authorities say they use one stationary scanner and two mobile scanners managed by the Kenya Revenue Authority to scan all exports, but there’s little proof that they’re being used as promised. On this reporter’s visit, communications staff were surprised to find that the stationary scanner hadn’t been working for a month.

Briana Duggan is a journalist based in East Africa. Her work has been featured on America Abroad, NPR and its affiliates, and CNN, among others. Originally from North Carolina, Briana holds a degree in international development from UNC-Chapel Hill and a master’s from CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism.