When delving into the complex economic evolution taking place across Africa, one would be remiss to omit a discussion of the blatant thievery of the continent’s natural resources, including wildlife.

Wildlife poaching and illegal natural resource exploitation not only decimate species and ecosystems, but also drains billions of dollars from legitimate economies across the African continent.  (see below).

Figure 1: The extent of environmental crime compared to the total envelope of official development assistance, and the total value of ecosystems


Estimated environmental crime may exceed the total envelope of Official Development Assistance (the aid of advanced economies to developing countries).

Source: UNEP, Dead Planet, Living Planet (2010) and The Environmental Crime Crisis (2014). [1]

From gold in Darfur to mineral mining and deforestation in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Africa’s natural resources are being pillaged at unparalleled rates to fund terrorist groups across the globe. Elephants, rhinos, and other wildlife are dying at the hands of The People’s Liberation Army, in the DRC; Boko Haram, in Nigeria; and al-Shabaab, the Somali Islamist group behind the West Gate Mall attack in Nairobi that killed 68 people. Each of these groups has been designated a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” by the US State Department. Each is funded, in large part, by selling resources stolen from the people of Africa. Al-Shabaab’s income from illegal ivory sales alone is estimated at $600,000 per month.

These groups are stealing from the world as well. The illegal wildlife trade is one of the most lucrative of the black markets in the world today, after drugs, arms and human trafficking. Despite its size, it is only a fraction of the natural resource larceny taking place in Africa and across our planet. The United Nations Environment Program estimates the global trade in illicit flora and fauna to be as much as 23 billion dollars annually.[2] The price of ivory has risen to an estimated $2,000 per kilogram while the same amount of rhino horn can sell for up to $90,000, making it more expensive than cocaine or platinum.[3] This lucrative market drives the murder of one elephant every 15 minutes; 96 elephants are poached each day. At this rate, the iconic species will be extinct by 2026.

It is an established fact that elephants, rhinos and other charismatic mega fauna are worth more alive than dead (see Figure 2).  All citizens share this communal communal wealth, and many African nations rely heavily on eco-tourism, which is driven by the existence and protection of these animals and their environments. Examples include Rwanda’s mountain gorilla tourism, as well as safaris in Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa and Tanzania, to name a few. Angola, a country devastated by a civil war notable for the vast acreage left covered in land mines, is struggling to build infrastructure to create its own tourist economy. As the mines are cleared, elephants are returning to their traditional territories.

Figure 2: Is an elephant worth more dead than alive?


Source: “Dead or Alive? Valuing an elephant.” (iworry.org, 2013)

We in the West like to point to China as the culprit in the decimation of elephants and rhinos in Africa, and while Asia has a seemingly insatiable appetite for these items; the US plays a large role in this global trade. From sales on Craigslist to the dark underbelly of organized crime (see the US vs. Michael Slattery, EDNY) the US is a source country, a distribution point and an important transit hub for illegally trafficked wildlife and wildlife parts. The Endangered Species Act, its numerous amendments, as well as the US Department of the Interior’s Director’s Order number 210 has loopholes that are easily exploited.[4]

The African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), an organization established by big game hunters, which has traditionally supported the sustainable harvest of wildlife as part of their conservation strategy, has changed their position regarding endangered species. As expressed by Patrick Bergen, CEO of AWF, “I think the message we need to send during this time of crisis is that we have to completely stop all human induced mortality on endangered species and you can’t send a mixed message about that. This needs to be a universal message.”[5]

It is time to close the trophy hunting loophole in the Endangered Species Act. The NRA’s position that gun handles have traditionally been made of ivory & that big game hunting is a gun rights issue is not a defensible position when these animals face extinction and their decimation is funding terrorism.

There is hope, however. Besides AWF, there are many organizations working with governments internationally to stop the poachers, seize contraband, and stem the demand. WildAid, a US-based NGO, is working in China and Vietnam to curb demand for exotic flora and fauna with great success. Their campaign to stop the consumption of shark fin soup has resulted in Chinese national legislation that prohibits government officials from consuming or purchasing shark fin soup. Demand for shark fin has dropped up to 70% since the ban in 2013, and up to 82% in certain cities (see Figure 3). Building on their work in Asia, WildAid is rolling out campaigns in the US and in Africa about ivory and rhino horn this year. Stopping (or reducing) the demand for a product, will reduce the supply.

When we buy ivory, even when it’s sold as “legal,” “antique,” “fossilized,” “faux,” or “oxbone” (a popular way around the bots crawling eBay and Etsy to enforce the bans both companies have implemented on ivory), we are funding the very terrorists that threaten the US. That’s a very serious piece of hypocrisy and we can do better. Capitalism must land on the side of profit, and the long-term profit in this dangerous situation will be the survival of these iconic species, the stabilization of governments and the elimination of this primary source of revenue for terrorists.

Why regulation enforcement matters: the contrast between the shark fin ban in China and current loopholes in ivory trade restrictions worldwide


Source: WildAid, “Evidence of declines in shark fin demand” (2014) and “Elephant Action League” (2012).[6]

Buffy Redsecker is the President and Co-Founder of the SunLight Time Foundation. In addition, she is the director of the SunLight Fund, sits on the board of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) and is an advisory council member for the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF).


[1] http://www.unep.org/pdf/RRAecosystems_screen.pdf and http://www.unep.org/unea/docs/RRAcrimecrisis.pdf

[2] http://www.unep.org/unea/docs/RRAcrimecrisis.pdf

[3] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-stop-the-illegal-wildlife-trade-from-funding-terrorist-groups/ and http://www.washingtonpost.com/apps/g/page/national/the-horn-and-ivory-trade/1163/

[4] http://www.fws.gov/international/travel-and-trade/ivory-ban-questions-and-answers.html

[5] The author notes that while the African Elephant is not currently listed as endangered on the IUCN’s Red List, there is great fear that this will change fast if the poaching is not stopped. http://www.cites.org/eng/prog/etis/index.php

[6] http://www.wildaid.org/news/shark-fin-demand-china-down-report-finds and http://elephantleague.org/project/africas-white-gold-of-jihad-al-shabaab-and-conflict-ivory/

[Photo credit: Alan Chung]