Nairobi terrorist strike alerts the world to new threat to elephants

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  September 2013: (Actually published on October 8,  2013)

NAIROBI,  Kenya––Four days of shooting at the Westgate Mall in Westlands,  Nairobi,  Kenya introduced the world to yet another poaching threat to elephants.   Claiming credit for the September 21,  2013 mall invasion,  which brought the deaths of at least 61 civilians,  six Kenyan soldiers,  and five terrorists,  the Somali-based Islamist militia Al Shabaab was already well known from previous incidents that began with the 2006 murders of four western aid workers and the Somalis who worked with them. [pullquote]Al Qaeda has reputedly raised funds in part through elephant ivory and rhino horn poaching and trafficking for close to 25 years.[/pullquote] Outside of the intelligence community,  however,  that Al Shabaab had muscled into the elephant ivory and rhino horn traffic was little recognized.  Al Shabaab was previously more closely associated with extortion,  hijacking food aid,  and “taxing” transportation of agricultural commodities and the ransoms collected by coastal pirates. That changed in early 2011 after a coalition of Somali,  Kenyan,  Ethiopian,  and African Union forces began pushing Al Shabaab back from the Somali coast and overland trade routes.  In August 2011 Al Shabaab lost Mogadishu,  the Somali capital city. Seeking reinforcements,  Al Shabaab  allied itself with Al Qaeda,  the international Islamist militia.  Al Qaeda has reputedly raised funds in part through elephant ivory and rhino horn poaching and trafficking for close to 25 years.  The alliance with Al Qaeda brought U.S. drone strikes on Al Shabaab leadership in early 2012,   followed by a renewed coalition offensive that included the capture of Kismayo,  the Al Shabaab economic stronghold.  Suddenly Al Shabaab had to find new sources of support. “Following the fall of Kismayu,”  reported the Nairobi electronic newspaper Mwakilishi,  “Kenya has seen an exponential increase in ivory-related poaching.”  Poachers killed 283 elephants in Kenya in 2011;  385 elephants plus 29 rhinos in 2012;  and had killed 235 elephants plus 35 rhinos in 2013 when the Westgate Mall siege began.  Poachers have also killed six Kenya Wildlife Service rangers since December 2011,  including two on July 18,  2013 in separate firefights against suspected elephant poachers in the Kipini Conservancy.  In early August 2013 someone even poached a pregnant white rhino in Nairobi National Park,  almost within sight of the Kenyan national capital.

New tactics

The current situation is more complicated than past history with other Somalian poaching militias,  explained Maisha Consulting founder Nir Kalron and Elephant Action League cofounder Andrea Crosta,  both of South Africa. “Kenya is no stranger to the threat posed by Somalia to its herds of elephants and rhinos,  whose numbers are still recovering from the poaching onslaught suffered in the 1970s and 1980s,”  Kalron and Crosta said.  “The Kenya Wildlife Service is constantly on the alert for incursions of Somali gangs. “Surrounded by porous borders,  Kenya has long been a transit point for illegal ivory.  In an attempt to crack down on this trade,  the Kenya Wildlife Service recently stepped up pressure at the country’s ports and airports where ivory is smuggled out.  As a result, dealers looking for fast money and an easier market have turned to a new player in the game––Al Shabaab,”  Kalron and Crosta continued.  “Over the last 18 months we’ve been investigating the involvement of Al Shabaab in trafficking ivory through Kenya, a trade that could be supplying up to 40% of the funds needed to keep them in business.” The Al Shabaab approach to ivory trafficking differs from that of predecessors,  including the Lord’s Resistance Army,  believed to have killed more than 11,000 elephants in Gabon between 2004 and 2013,  more than 300 elephants in Cameroon during the last two months of 2012,  and 86 elephants in Chad in March 2013. “Other militias involved in poaching, like the Lord’s Resistance Army or the Sudanese Janjaweed,  usually kill elephants themselves, sometimes very far from home,”  Crosta explained to the Nairobi Standard.  “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.” Warning of both a conservation disaster and an Islamist global threat to human rights if Al Shabaab is not stopped,  the Elephant Action League pleaded for “more intelligence gathering on the ground in preparation for a frontal assault on Al Shabaab by a joint African Union force.” Meanwhile,  announced the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust,  which operates an elephant and rhino orphanage at Nairobi National Park, “Due to the recent events which took place in Nairobi,  we have decided to cancel the International March for Elephants in Nairobi,”  which had been scheduled for October 4,  2013.   Instead,  the Sheldrick Trust said,  “We will hold a vigil for those who so tragically lost their lives in the attacks and also for the elephants who continue to fall victim to the ivory trade.” The International March for Elephants was to be held in 14 other cities,  including Arusha,  Bangkok,  Buenos Aires,  Cape Town, Edinburgh,  London,  Los Angeles,  Melbourne,  Munich,  New York City,  Rome,  Toronto,  Washington D.C.,  and Wellington.

U.S. to destroy ivory

On October 8,  2013,  four days after the marches,  the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service was to pulverize six tons of illegally trafficked elephant ivory,  confiscated in various law enforcement actions since the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species embargo on ivory trade took effect in 1989.  The ivory has been kept at National Wildlife Property Repository near Denver. U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced on September 9,  2013 that the ivory would be destroyed as part of a package of elephant protection measures also including the allocation of $8.6 million by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for 171 projects meant to benefit elephants,  rhinos,  tigers,  and great apes. “This funding will be matched by $14.3 million from foreign governments and nongovernmental organizations,”  said Jewell. The Jewell announcements followed U.S. President Barack Obama’s July 1,  2013 pledge during a visit to Dar Es Salaam,  Tanzania,  to commit $10 million to fight trafficking in elephant ivory,  rhino horn,  and other wildlife parts. “Al Shabaab’s recent merger with Al Qaeda makes the link between wildlife poaching and extremist ideology and terrorism more clear,”  deputy U.S. Interior Secretary David Hayes told Reuters environment correspondent Deborah Zabarenko. “The fact that both those groups have clearly been implicated in illegal poaching make it difficult to say this isn’t a meaningful national security issue.” Wrote Zabarenko,  “The Obama plan comes after more than a year of international efforts to bring this issue forward,  including a call for action by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  There have also been initiatives by the United Nations,  CITES,  the British royal family and the Group of Eight industrialized nations.”


Despite all that,  Al Shabaab was seldom mentioned amid a flurry of ivory seizures that mostly raised the older spectre of corruption, including the October 1,  2013 arrest of a Kenyan army officer caught with three pieces of ivory. Nearly four tons of ivory were seized in Mombasa,  Kenya,  in January 2013,  allegedly in transit from Tanzania to Indonesia.  In July 2012,  also in Mombasa,  two seizures netted eight  tons of ivory that had been hidden in cargos of dried fish.  The Kenya Wildlife Service determined that the July shipments probably originated in the Democratic Republic of Congo, reached Mombasa via Uganda,  and were apparently repackaged in Kenya for relay to Malaysia. Only three days later a trader named Selemani Isanzu Chasema was charged in Arusha,  Tanzania,  with smuggling 781 elephant tusks from Malawi in May 2013. Emile N’bouke,  58,  a trafficker believed to have been involved in the killing of more than 10,000 elephants since 1976,  was on August 7,  2013 arrested in alleged possession of 700 kilograms of ivory in Lome,  Togo.  N’bouke claimed to have a government permit to possess the ivory.  His arrest came nine months after 24 tons of ivory sent from Togo were intercepted in Malaysia. The same day,  Hong Kong customs officials acting on a tip received from police in mainland China seized 1,120 ivory tusks, 13 rhino horns,  and five leopard skins from a shipment originating in Nigeria. Ongoing Chinese involvement in elephant poaching was spotlighted on September 27,  2013 in Gabon,  after wildlife rangers alerted by a security guard arrested 14 Chinese sawmill workers in the act of eating an elephant’s trunk for breakfast.  Also found at the scene were elephant hides,  ivory,  and pangolin scales. On August 7,  2013 a Mozambiquan court awarded $3.5 million in damages to the container freight company Miti.  Miti had sued the Chinese company Mozambique Tienhe Trading Development Ltd. for defamation,  after the Chinese firm used containers rented from Miti to smuggle ivory.  Miti argued that the misuse of the containers harmed its corporate reputation.

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