The Militarization of Africa's Animal Poachers

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Criminals have long hunted African wildlife, but now they may be linking up with warlords or worse.

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Police investigate the site of a rhino poaching in South Africa's Pilanesberg National Park. (Reuters)

Despite some progress on improving security in Central Africa, the continuing smuggling of weapons and the movement of refugees and internally displaced persons continue to threaten the integrity of countries across the region. Less noted, but no less important, is the role that wildlife poaching plays in this perilous circumstance.

Driven by growing demand from China and Asia, the illegal trade in ivory, rhino horn, tiger bone and other endangered species is skyrocketing. In Asia, seizures of tiger parts have quadrupled over the past decade - a figure that reflects increasing trade as much or more than it does improved law enforcement. Richard Carroll, vice president of Africa programs at World Wildlife Federation in the United States (WWF-US) notes "last year was the worst year for rhino poaching in more than a quarter of a century. And this year looks like it may shatter that dismal record."

With an estimated global value of at least $8 billion annually, the trade in endangered species has long been linked to organized, transnational crime. However, as demand escalates and prices rise, the poaching that supplies the trade has become militarized in ways that pose a serious security threat to weak governments, particularly in Central Africa. This was dramatically illustrated earlier this year when one hundred Sudanese raiders stormed across the border from neighboring Chad and methodically slaughtered as many as three hundred elephants for their ivory in Cameroon's Bouda N'Djida national park. The Sudanese raiders were believed to be Janjaweed militiamen who, armed with automatic weapons and grenade launchers, were more than a match for unarmed park guards.

Increasingly, militias, insurgents and even terrorist groups are using the easy money from wildlife crime to buy arms and fund insurgencies that claim lives, hurt economies, and sow instability in states that lack the military capacity to respond. According to a CRS report to Congress in 2008, elephant and rhino poachers in Somalia have been indirectly linked to terrorism through a local warlord who is believed to have given sanctuary to the al-Qaeda operatives responsible for the bombing of a Kenya hotel in 2002 and an earlier attack on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998.

Richard Carroll cogently points out that "poaching is not just a conservation crisis any more. Long linked to drugs and arms smuggling around the world, it now also now poses a growing threat to the stability of governments in Africa--one that requires a both regional and international response."

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Owen Cylke is a development professional and a retired senior foreign service officer with USAID.

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