Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Wildlife Warriors: Elephants, Evangelical Conservationists, Al Shabaab, and the War of Terror

In the beginning of August, Johan Bergenas, Rachel Stohl, and Ochieng Adala published an op-ed in the New York Times titled “Killing Lions, Buying Bombs”.
The article (with its rather bizarre title, given that it had nothing to do with lions) cited an escalation in wildlife poaching across Africa and made a startling claim.  Namely, that “a portion of the profits from poaching is funnelled to terrorist groups, including Al-Shabaab, based in Somalia”.
And last month, even before Kenyan police and military forces had secured control of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, which came under an attack allegedly directed by Al-Shabaab which claimed over sixty lives, Philip Mansbridge wrote a story in the Huffington Post reiterating the alleged link between terrorism and poaching.  
Mansbridge blithely admitted that he wouldn’t “claim to know much about Al Shaabab”, but added, “I do know about Kenya”, ticking off his familiarity with the shopping centre and the violence of Kenya’s capital.  Mansbridge claimed that ivory and mass murder in Nairobi are “absolutely intrinsically linked”.  He referenced “recent reports” which supposedly “suggest” to conservationists “that Al Shaabab is funding a massive 40% of its operations through the illegal trade”. 
This claim appears to rely on a report by the Elephant Action League (when I posted below the article asking about the reports it mentions, “WildlifeWarrior” referred me to EAL’s report) said to date from three years ago.  Notably, in the NYT article of less than two months ago, the authors admit that it “is impossible to know for sure how much money flows to terrorists from poaching”.  Nonetheless, the authors quote a monthly profit of $200-600,000 to Al Shabaab alone, referring to “some reports” without bothering to cite them or mention how well regarded these numbers might be.  In fact, this appears to refer to EAL’s numbers noted below, and only uses the $600,000 figure rather than its smaller lower limit, failing to acknowledge the flimsy basis for the range and claim. 
Times authors cite tentative links dating from 1998 (the year of the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam) and claim that in recent years, “the nexus” between poaching and terror “has tightened”.  The State Department has a report commissioned by former Secretary Clinton, which might conceivably provide more serious data, but it has not been public, and as we know from recent history, serious questions need to be asked about such reports: who initiated them, which parties were asked to give input, if evidence from organisations like EAL was provided was it subjected to scrutiny, etc? 
The same day that the Huffington Post story emerged, Hillary Clinton was sounding a warning on the “growing evidence that the terrorist groups stalking Africa, including Al-Shabaab with its horrific attack on the mall in Nairobi, fund their terrorist activities to a great extent from ivory trafficking”.  Other commentators have been joining the chorus, repeating the claim that “a few tusks hacked from elephants shot by poachers can finance a raid like the attack on the Westgate mall”. 
A report written by Ian Saunders for the Tsavo Trust makes equally-unsubstantiated claims, and even stoops so low as to seek to stoke anti-Somali xenophobia in Kenya and the U.S. xenophobia by identifying Kenyan and American Somalis as a potential threat to the their countries, discussing the threat of “settlers” who “establish their own cultural and religious bases from which they expand”.   
Since the State Department report was completed, in July and September of this year the President issued an executive order establishing an advisory council on Wildlife Trafficking, and a second statement naming its members.  The former refers to the trade’s “fueling instability and undermining security”, and though it makes no explicit reference to terrorism, “the Task force shall include designated senior-level representatives” from agencies including the Departments of Defence, Homeland Security, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and National Security staff.  The Task Force is to be co-chaired by the Secretaries of State and Interior, and the Attorney General, and is required to report to the National Security Advisor.  It is unusual that international wildlife matters would receive this level of attention, and suggests that the administration must be taking the national security angle seriously. 
Much of this rhetoric and actions seems to be driven by the Elephant Action League, which published a report setting out the connection between poaching and terrorism.  The EAL report is titled “Africa’s White Gold of Jihad: al-Shabaab and Conflict Ivory”, making no bones about its goal by tying poaching to jihad and throwing out the “conflict” label that has been applied to diamonds and other minerals.  The article leads with the 40% claim, and paints a vivid picture of the slaughter of an elephant herd.  It follows up with an equally compelling exercise in portraiture: demarcating the flow of information, commodities, and profits, which appear to rush seamlessly from the killing of elephants in Kenya’s national parks to the pockets of terrorists. 
The problem with the report is that it is unclear what is real and what is imagined.  With real literary flair but an indeterminate basis in fact, the report describes how “on the other end” of an imagined phone call, “a man sitting in an office in Kismayo, Somalia picks up the call—is [sic] office is heavily guarded by Shabaab militiamen—their signature black flag waving on a pole above their heads”.  Is this a real individual we’re talking about, or an idealised enemy—the man the wildlife-warfare complex needs to make its case—who has been made concrete on the basis of rumours?  Are the black flag and the guards real, or simply useful props to ensure that the appropriate chill runs down Western spines? 
The report claims to be based on undercover investigations, and its central revelation is that, “According to our inside sources, Shabaab has been actively buying and selling ivory as a means of funding their militant operations”.  But the number and nature of those sources are extraordinarily vague in the report, and while it is understandable that investigators would want to protect their source, the lack of clarity about the information on which its authors are relying should be balanced a moderation in the certainty of its claims, a moderation which is totally absent.
We must also ask how significant this cash flow is to Al Shabaab?  What else does the organisation trade in?  Is ivory anomalous?  And how important is it?  The report recounts a hotel conversation over drinks with alleged poachers, who describe how brokers meet with “al-Shabaab counterparts from the other side and the deal is done.  According to our source”, the report claims, “their agents pay better than others, and bring their own balance to double-check the weight of the tusks.  This unexpected combination of organizational and financial skills helps understand the efficiency in which al-Shabaab now controls most of southern and central Somalia”. 
The report describes how “following the Shabaab ivory trail into Somalia required assistance from courageous local Somalis who want to rid their country of the oppression and killing that is Shabaab’s trademark”.  But wouldn’t people vested in ousting Al Shabaab also likely overstate the centrality of ivory to the organisation when meeting with credulous conservationists (just as they would likely tailor and massage their message to whichever stakeholder they were in talks with)?  At other times and in other places during the decade-plus war on “terror”, the U.S. and other actors have been taken for suckers by local agents who are playing their own game.  That is not to diminish the difficult situation in which Somalis find themselves, but to overhaul the character of wildlife policing and to create institutional links between conservation and the military-intelligence complex on such a flimsy basis requires more evidence and more thought.
EAL’s report states, “What becomes clear from the testimonies of poachers, brokers and Shabaab members, is the degree of interest and importance which the ivory trade has within the organization”.  The report goes on to assert that “Shabaab’s role is not limited to poaching and brokerage, but is a major link in the chain”.  In fact, this only vaguely substantiated report limits itself to a brief description of the brokerage and purchasing role, providing no actual evidence at all about Al Shabaab’s direct connection to poaching, or to any other “major link” it serves.  I could see nothing beyond the word of one or two informants tying tusks and terror together, and while I would certainly be prepared to believe that the organisation does receive funds from ivory sales, that is a far cry from the vast and well-integrated network the conservationists are alluding to.
The article ends with a clarion call to action, arguing that “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”.
In its closing paragraphs, EAL cites “recent estimates” that 38,000 elephants (presumably in Africa, although they don’t bother to tell us this) are killed each year.  What they fail to do in providing us with what sounds like a large number, is to put this in any context in relation to the number of elephants in Africa as a whole, or to discuss whether this figure marks a dramatic rise in recent years and—most critically for the sensational claims of their “report”—to tell us how many of these elephants they think al-Shabaab or its agents are responsible for killing.
Evidence of the large scale of poaching is certainly there.  Last week in Hwange, perhaps Zimbabwe’s preeminent park, around 100 elephants were killed when water sources were poisoned, and accusations of official involvement have been levelled at the Zimbabwean government (though they remain unsubstantiated).  A particularly bizarre episode occurred in Zambia earlier this year, when first the Defence minister, next a general, and finally Chinese diplomats allegedly attempted to take the same ivory from the country illicitly via Kenneth Kaunda International (the accusations were made via the Zambian Watchdog, a rabid anti-government website, the claims of which are not always well-substantiated).  In short, the brisk illicit ivory trade occurs continent-wide, and presumably the great majority of elephant kills have nothing to do with “terrorism”.
In any case, organisational profiteering from poaching is nothing new.  As recounted in Apartheid Terrorism: the Destabilisation Report, South Africa’s rogue government used its wars on the Frontline States to plunder those countries’ natural areas and extract massive funds through ivory.  It is telling that even if they tried, conservationists were unable to create a link between South Africa’s poaching and global security during those years.  The war on terror is an altogether different beast, and any invocation of “terror” can bring the might of state military and economic weaponry to bear on spheres actually quite removed from the front line of that war, inasmuch as the collection of bloody battlegrounds staked out by the Pentagon constitute a coherent war.
The authors of the NYT article follow this line of logic, and argue that the conservation world should embrace “non-traditional partners”, including “the Pentagon and United Nations counterterrorism units”, as well as “development and security organizations worldwide”, and call for an escalation of the fight, including the use of “unarmed surveillance drones”. 
Ian Saunders’ report notes that “the Al Qaeda/Al Shabaab approach to attacking democratic countries is based on the idea of fear and the control of that idea”.  In making such irresponsible and largely unsubstantiated claims about the link between terrorism and conservation, preservationist groups are showing that they have learned from others’ deployment of fear, and are seeking to do the same, albeit in a different fashion.  Conservationist have historically relied on “crises”—some real, others manufactured—to get through to an information-saturated public.  (For this reason, I remain somewhat sceptical of claims about the scale of poaching, or the imminence of elephant extinction, which have been uttered cyclically over the past half century, particularly when some national parks in Africa are being destroyed by the large numbers of elephants within them.)
The Tsavo National Park in Kenya—allegedly the site of Al Shabaab’s poaching bonanza—was home to two such formative crises in the mid-twentieth century.  During the 1950s, conservationists convinced the global public that the park’s elephants were on the brink of extinction thanks to a poaching epidemic.  In the 1960s, they organised culling operations to bring down elephant numbers as ballooning pachyderm populations destroyed the park’s ecosystems.  And the ‘70s saw a return to a poaching crisis, during which the World Bank funded the export of the highly-militarised anti-poaching techniques honed in Tsavo (which yielded short-term benefits even as they alienated local communities who were subjected to “Gestapo” tactics) to Kenya’s broader wildlife sector, a move which marked the escalation of the wildlife wars, to the detriment of the elephants, wildlife department personnel, and people living near the parks.
Historically, the militarisation of the wildlife sector has led to some dark places.  In Kenya during the 1990s, demi-dictator Daniel Arap Moi used Kenya Wildlife Service officers—the backbone of the vaunted paramilitary force created by the celebrated Richard Leakey—to create havoc at the polls and intimidate supporters of his opponents.  Uganda’s national parks were turned over to Idi Amin’s army in the 1970s, supposedly to stem a poaching epidemic conducted by malcontents.  In reality, the state used its highly-militarised domination of the parks to enrich itself.  The fact that army officers under the Kenyatta government in post-independent Kenya joined with the President in poaching the country’s elephants is not a cogent argument for the increased militarisation of the wildlife sector; rather, it demonstrates the pitfalls of arming the state and writing blank checks to institutions which cut themselves off from scrutiny and might be tempted to abuse the power and weaponry vested in them by evangelical conservationists and their financial backers.
To take one small example of how conservation militancy plays out today, at the same time that it is shutting down critical newspapers, the Tanzanian government is using the momentum associated with the elephant “crisis” to legitimate extrajudicial killings, its minister responsible for wildlife arguing that poachers should be executed on the spot if apprehended instead of being brought to justice.  That this transparent thuggery was articulated (and cheered) at the closing of an international, celebrity-studded, “March for Elephants”, demonstrates how easy it is for people to take leave of their senses when a cause they believe in suddenly receives an official endorsement, even when that endorsement is accompanied by the shredding of other people’s rights.
Today’s wildlife warriors are disturbingly eager to cynically tie their fight (which should focus on demand and police work rather than the militarisation of spaces analogous to Yosemite and Yellowstone) to that of our nation’s rogue intelligence agencies and military adventurism, institutions and cultures which have drawn the U.S. and other countries into unwinnable and bloody wars which generate rather than ameliorate conflict.  The wannabe warriors in the wildlife world already wildly mis-forecasted Al Shabaab’s approach to its fight in Kenya, arguing that it would not engage in any “spectaculars” like the Westgate attack (Saunders 16).
The War On, Of, and By Terror—waged by the U.S. and its allies against an amorphous group of militants across the world—has brought comfort and security to no one, and has made our world a more dangerous place.  It has also allowed cynical and manipulative governments to gain U.S. military backing for internal struggles which have nothing to do with the “terrorists” associated with 9/11 by manufacturing links between domestic disputes/liberation struggles/independence movements and Al Qaeda and its ilk (Jeremy Keenan’s work provides but one example of such a scenario). 
Such governments—often despotic and illegitimate—gain moral and material support, firepower, and near-unconditional backing from the military-intelligence complex in the U.S.  They also turn their countries into battlegrounds, and this has the effect of making once-fictitious links a reality.  In other words, the geographic and economic expansion of the war on terror by the U.S. and its allies actually creates links between “terror” organisations which would not otherwise exist.
I worry that conservationists, by throwing fuel on the fire on the basis of flimsy claims, will expand the scope of conflict in our world, and tighten links between illicit trades and transnational violence.  Before the tools and logic of the War of Terror—with all the abdication of rights, militarisation of our society, and creation of new conflicts—is applied to Africa’s national parks, we need to take a long, hard look at the claims being thrown so carelessly around about the “obvious” and substantial links between Al Shabaab and ivory, to say nothing of the necessity—if indeed such links are substantial—of unleashing the tried-and-failed methods of our rogue security states inside of national parks.
Invoking “terror” has become a cheap and easy way to get the attention of the public, the press, and the Pentagon, to say nothing of access to some pretty disturbing tools which can be wielded with near-impunity.  But I think that when it comes to conservation—just as with public welfare—the temptations and blowback associated with the use of those tools far outweigh any benefits.

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