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On Point

The War Over Blood Ivory


by Austin Bay
June 18, 2013

For over three decades smuggling and selling illegally obtained blood diamonds and exotic minerals has made waging low-level warfare in Central Africa a lucrative criminal racket for rebel militias and corrupt military officers.

Add blood ivory to the list. Or, to give the history of Africa's ivory trade its violent due, put elephant tusks back near the top of the list of high-value commodities financing Central Africa's deadly chaos.

In mid-May, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon told the U.N. Security Council that armed groups in Central Africa are employing increasingly sophisticated weapons to kill African elephants. "Poaching and its potential linkages to other criminal, even terrorist, activities," Ban said, "constitute a grave menace to sustainable peace and security in central Africa."

"Armed groups" is a diplomatic catchall for the collection of corrupt military units, rebel militias and gangs operating in an area larger than Texas. These thugs kill elephants. They kill people, too.

Thanks to the 2012 hit film, "KONY 2012," the Lords Resistance Army is the most infamous Central African armed group. The movie focused on the LRA's noxious senior commander, Joseph Kony. The International Criminal Court has indicted Kony for mass murder and other crimes against humanity. The LRA poaches ivory. Last year park rangers in Congo's Garamba National Park reported that they had seized a stash of elephant ivory after a firefight with LRA rebels.

Other rebel groups and rogue military units also poach ivory. Last year the New York Times reported that in April 2012 soldiers from the Ugandan Army allegedly killed 22 elephants in Garamba National Park.

Demand for ivory is high, particularly in Asia. According to StrategyPage.com, ivory sells for $1,000 a kilogram on the international black market, though it can fetch as much as $2500 a kilogram in China. 21st-century China has money and its people, emulating 17th-century Ming dynasty aristocrats, crave carved ivory objects. Smuggling illegal animals and animal products probably generates $10 billion a year in black market sales. That figure includes everything from smuggled parrots to rhino horns to illegal meat, but trafficking in illegal ivory is a multi-million dollar component.

The poachers are using increasingly sophisticated weapons to slay elephants. Ban said Libyan arsenals ransacked during the Libyan civil war of 2011 are a probable source. Former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi's defeated mercenary soldiers are another. Gadhafi supplied his mercs with modern automatic weapons and grenade launchers as well as high-tech surveillance gear.

A poacher does not need a grenade launcher or night vision equipment to kill elephants. These weapons, however, are very effective against the park rangers, police and soldiers protecting the elephant herds.

Many African nations rely on tourism for hard currency and game parks are big tourist draws. Killing an elephant is an attack on national tourist industries.

The government of Kenya regards poaching as a serious economic and a security threat.

Kenya has organized anti-smuggling task forces that include Kenya Wildlife Service park rangers, national police and customs officers. Task force dog teams (typically deployed at customs inspection stations) have been very effective at finding ivory. In 2012, Kenyan security agents recovered 1,677 pieces of ivory weighing 4,644 kilograms.

Until 2012, Kenyan park rangers typically confronted poachers who used unsophisticated (but effective) weapons such as poisoned arrows and spears. In the last two years, however, they have encountered more modern infantry weapons. In 2012, KWS park rangers captured 80 rifles in anti-poaching operations.

The park rangers need more firepower, so the KWS recently hired 68 new community rangers. Community rangers were once park ranger auxiliaries, assisting in various capacities. Now the KWS says their most important jobs are stopping poachers and protecting tourists. The new community ranger course of instructions includes basic paramilitary training, instruction in infantry weapons and surveillance techniques.

If stopping the scourge of blood ivory means spilling poachers' blood, then Kenya's park rangers say, so be it.

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