The Ugly Truth: How African Elephants Are Funding Al-Qaeda

by John Haltiwanger

Terrorists are poaching African elephants in record numbers and selling their tusks for enormous profits.

In 2012 alone, poachers killed more than 30,000 elephants, the largest number in two decades. Likewise, it's estimated that close to 36,000 elephants will be killed by the end of 2014.

Due to the demand for ivory, elephants have become a vital source of funding for various terrorist organizations.

Simply put, African terrorists are killing animals in order to kill people. Thus, the fight against elephant poaching is intrinsically linked with the fight against terrorism.

At present, ivory-funded terrorism is pushing African elephants to the brink of extinction.

Last night on "The Daily Show," Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow appeared to discuss this issue with host Jon Stewart. She recently launched a short film (below) and website,, to help breed awareness surrounding the link between elephant poaching and terrorism.

As the video highlights, trafficking in endangered species is the fourth largest illegal industry in the world, with profits between $7 to $10 billion per year. It falls right behind the trafficking of drugs, weapons and humans.

What's more, one of the primary culprits in this illicit trade has direct ties with al-Qaeda.

Al-Shabaab: al-Qaeda's Somalian Affiliate Is The Elephant's Worst Enemy

Al-Shabaab is a terrorist group fighting for the establishment of an Islamic state in Somalia. In February 2012, it formally declared its allegiance to al-Qaeda. Thus, it obviously views the United States as an enemy.

Although Al-Shabaab operates primarily within Somalia, it has staged successful attacks in countries across the region.

In 2013, Al-Shabaab captured the world's attention when it stormed a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, killing 67 people and wounding 175 more.

As Jonathan Masters notes for the Council on Foreign Relations:

Washington fears the group, which has successfully recruited members of the Somali-American diaspora, may orchestrate strikes on US soil.

In other words, Al-Shabaab has proven that it poses a very real threat.

A significant portion of Al-Shabaab's funding is derived from elephant poaching. In 2011, a report from the Elephant Action League dubbed ivory "Africa's White Gold of Jihad," due to Al-Shabaab's huge involvement in the illicit trade.

The border between Kenya and Somalia is long and poorly monitored in places, thus it's not very difficult for Al-Shabaab to smuggle ivory between the two countries. Furthermore, Somalia is an extremely unstable country, so it's an ideal place for illicit trading.

Not to mention, terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab have the muscle and resources to successfully engage in such activities. They outgun and outspend local governments in many ways, which is why they are able to continue poaching elephants.

As Monica Medina states for the New York Times:

How is the carnage at an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi linked to a surge in the poaching of wild elephants in Africa? The connection goes back to the old Watergate adage that is critical to all anti-terrorism efforts: Follow the money.

Indeed, money is often the driving factor behind most of the worst crimes across the world.

This is precisely why other militant groups, in addition to Al-Shabaab, are also actively engaged in the illegal trade of ivory. These groups include Boko Haram, the Lord's Resistance Army and the Janjaweed Militia.

White Gold: Demand For Ivory Means Big Profits For Terrorists

Al-Shabaab makes close to $600,000 per month from the ivory trade.

There have been efforts around the world to ban the illegal trade of ivory due to its impact on elephant and rhino populations.

Last year, President Obama established a task force on wildlife trafficking and committed $10 million to anti-poaching efforts. This signaled that the US recognizes the threat that poaching poses toward international security.

Yet, in many ways these efforts have only caused the price of ivory to rise, meaning more profits for terrorists.

Correspondingly, Rob Portman contends for CNN:

The illicit trade in ivory -- "white gold" -- is a billion dollar industry, and because it is illegal, it tends to attract some very bad actors. ... The ivory trade prospers because there is a demand for luxury goods fashioned from it. As consumers, we should never buy products made with ivory and should encourage others to be mindful that their purchases are not illegally sourced through trafficking.

In other words, the common citizen can have an impact on this issue by refusing to buy ivory. As Kathryn Bigelow put it on "The Daily Show" last night, committing to this means that "[y]ou're not just saving elephants, you're saving people."

This is a situation where national security meets natural security.

Imminent Extinction: One Elephant Is Killed Every 15 Minutes

Elephants are 11 years away from extinction, as one elephant is killed every 15 minutes. That's roughly 96 elephants a day, and 33, 792 per year.

Last year, the UN noted that elephant poaching was occurring at the highest rate in a decade. This increase is largely due to the influx of terrorists in the ivory trade.

When elephants are killed for their ivory, poachers often cut their faces off while they are still alive to access the tusks. This is an inhumane practice that has to end.

Much of the demand for ivory comes from Asia, particularly China. Yet, Bigelow also noted on "The Daily Show" that "New York is the second biggest market in the world outside of Asia" for ivory.

We can all do our part in ending this abhorrent practice. In the process, we will make both ourselves and elephants safer.

The next time you think about buying something made of ivory, even if it's a small trinket, consider the consequences.