In May 2007, three Kenya Wildlife Service rangers died at the hands of Somali bandits in a pre-dawn shoot-out. The gang of poachers was crossing the Tana River on their way to Tsavo East National Park. The incursion was halted, but the eventual cost in human life from this emerging deadly trend was to be massive.
Six years later, an 18-month investigation by South African environmental groups Maisha Consulting and Elephant Action League in the involvement of Al Shabaab on trafficking ivory through Kenya established that this trade could be supplying up to 40 per cent of the funds needed to keep the merchants of terror in business.
“The deadly path of conflict ivory starts with the slaughter of innocent animals and ends in the slaughter of innocent people. It is a source of funding for terrorist organisations that transcends cruelty. It is the ‘white gold’ for African jihad; white for its colour and gold for its value,” Andrea Crosta the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the South African independent conservation organisation Elephant Action League (EAL) told The Standard on Sunday.
A parallel can be drawn between Kenya’s incursion into Somalia and increased poaching incidents within the country. With every inch of ground gained by the Kenya Defence Forces, a mile is lost back home in the never-ending war of protecting the country’s wildlife.
“Surrounded by porous borders, Kenya has long been a transit point for illegal ivory. The KWS is doing a commendable job but in an attempt to crack down on this trade, dealers looking for fast money and an easier market have turned to a new player in the game – Al Shabaab,” Crosta said.
“This reality is too close to home to pass as a mere coincidence,” Crosta said. Although poaching has been ongoing for decades, the cutting off of Al Shabaab’s income streams has forced them to look elsewhere for funding.
Kismayu had long stood as an economic bastion for the militia group. A UN Monitoring Group says outside Mogadishu, the port city was the second most important operational base for the Al Qaeda-linked militants.
In 2008, Al Shabaab took over Kismayu, the third-largest city in Somalia, after fighting a fierce three-day battle against pro-government militias. The group quickly imposed harsh administrative rules grounded in Sharia law on the port’s business community. To raise revenue, Al Shabaab increased the fees for importing and exporting goods through the port by 30 per cent.
The most important economic activities in Kismayu are fishing, the import of industrial goods and the export of primary goods such as livestock, charcoal, and khat to the Gulf States. Just from tax impositions, it is estimated that the group collected upwards of over Sh2.1 million every month. “Through trade with the gulf states it is estimated that they earned more than Sh42 million every month from charcoal trade,” a Kenyan army official not authorised to speak on Kenya’s operations in Somalia told The Standard on Sunday.
In total, a UN report states that “Al Shabaab collected an estimated between Sh2.9 and Sh4.2 billion annually in custom tolls and taxes on businesses in Kismayu and two secondary ports higher up the coast.”
Almost all this money was used to further their bloody insurgencies in Somalia and neighbouring countries. The port’s fall posed serious challenges to the militants.
Quick, alternative sources of income had to be identified for the survival of the Mujahedeen.
“The network is sophisticated and is composed of poachers, small and big-time brokers, and informants, all linked to the trade in ivory and rhino horn. Our enquiries reached across the border into neighbouring Somalia where we established a link between the traders and Al Shabaab… Shabaab has been actively buying and selling ivory as a means of funding their militant operations,” Crosta said.
The investigation by EAL shows that the role of Al Shabaab in ivory trafficking is of immense concern.
“The harsh environment in which they operate, deprived of natural resources makes ivory and rhino horn trade that much more important,” says the report.
However, Al Shabaab’s role is not limited to poaching and brokerage, but they provide a crucial link in the illegal trade chain.
“Shabaab’s strength and conviction to continue its fight will increase its need for fighters, arms, ammunition and other equipment, and increase its need for funds. As the West continues to fight radical terrorist organisations through seizing assets in offshore bank accounts, straw companies and ‘charities’, these organisations, including Al Shabaab, will rely increasingly on trafficking in contraband as a source of finance,” the investigation reveals.
The report indicates that between one to three tonnes of ivory; fetching a price of roughly Sh17,000 per kilogramme, pass through the hands of Al Shabaab every month. Meaning that ivory accounts for between Sh17 million and Sh51 million every month.
So far this year, more than 8.5 tonnes of ivory have been seized. With an estimated Asia black market value of almost Sh300,000 per kilogramme, this means a total of more than Sh2.5 billion worth of ivory has been seized.
Experts say the seized ivory only represent 20 per cent of the black market circulation.
“Most of the ivory we seize is on transit from other countries and to other destinations,” Paul Mbugua, KWS spokesperson said.
So far, none of these hauls has officially been attributed to the decimated Kenyan herds.
But it is a fact that following the fall of Kismayu, Kenya has seen an exponential increase in ivory-related poaching. From 283 in 2011, 385 deaths were recorded in 2012. This year may be worse.
Already 235 elephants have been killed with 35 rhinos murdered for their horns compared to 29 the whole of last year. The highlight being the brazen daytime attack and killing of a white rhino at the Nairobi National Park — Kenya’s most guarded animal sanctuary.
“This avenue provides enough income for running a large part of their activities,” Crosta said. “This is not only dangerous for our animal population, but most importantly for our survival.”
In Kenya’s arid north, an area bordering Somalia, an AK-47 costs downwards of Sh50,000. A bullet costs as little as Sh70. An Imigration official at a border crossing earns a basic salary of between Sh40,000 and Sh50,000. With an outwardly corrupt public service, a successful poacher-terrorist will find little difficulty in arming himself, killing wildlife and eventually smuggling out his loot to the outside buyers and rearming himself for a deadlier assault in “enemy territory”.
EAL says corruption is not just the deadliest enemy of conservation but also of any other effort to push Africa forward. In their investigations not only in Kenya, corruption comes up all the time and at all levels. “If we fail to act now, militant groups like Al Shabaab will lay down their roots deep in the African landscape, destroying its heritage for generations to come. Dangerous and unpredictable, Al Shabaab’s involvement in ivory trade brings with it an alarming dimension, a dimension the world cannot afford to ignore,” concludes the report.
However, ivory plays just one part in the bigger picture. Foreign funding through the Hawala system and disguised religious charities pursuing ulterior agenda, supplemented by criminal activities, enables Al Shabaab to hold on to its war. The criminal activities include taxation of businesses and NGOs, trafficking in drugs, arms and humans, and involvement in counterfeit currency.
“This is not the major one, but it plays a huge part in their financing,” Crosta said.
Al Shabaab is not alone in the plunder of wildlife to sustain their insurgencies.
“Other militias involved in poaching, like the Lord’s Resistance Army or the Sudanese Janjaweed, usually kill elephants themselves, sometimes very far from home. Al Shabaab does not kill elephants. They leave the dirty job to locals and buy the ivory from known traffickers. For them ivory is just a business, like charcoal and the group remains unique in its role as a very organised buyer,” said Crosta.
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