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Are the Treacherous Links and Claims an Illusion?

Are the Treacherous Links and Claims an Illusion?

Treacherous Links, Sanctuary Asia’s October 2016 cover story, linked the rhino horn trade to the global threat of terrorism. Trishant Simlai and Raza Kazmi question some of these claims and have penned a rebuttal. Sanctuary invites readers to weigh in on the issue.

A baby rhino ane her mother in the Mothanguri range of the Manas National Park in Assam. Between 1990 and 1993, the Bodo insurgency escalated causing Manas to be redefined as a 'World Heritage Site in Danger'. Photo: Bhanu Singh 
If there is anything more complex than the discipline and practice of conservation, it is issues related to terrorism and security. Even after a number of decades, the conservation movement has failed to adequately understand or address the complex social, economic or political dimensions that drive conservation issues let alone understanding issues related to terrorism or security. This fractured understanding appears to have led to a new shift in global conservation discourse where poachers are being redefined not just as a national or regional security threat, but also as a critical global security threat. An alliance of powerful actors that involves states, militaries, large conservation NGOs and private military companies are regularly framing concerns about poaching and biodiversity loss through the lens of linking poaching with terrorism. However, these claims and the debates around it do not consider the complex range of different kinds of poachers including differentiating between subsistence poachers, retaliatory poaching and commercial poachers (Duffy and Humphreys 2014, Simlai 2015). Furthermore, invoking concerns about global security threat via the reference to poachers as terrorists diverts and conceals the well documented involvement of standing armies and states in large scale poaching for ivory and rhino horn; the best documented example for this is the involvement of the South African Defence Force trading in ivory, rhino horn, hardwoods and drugs to fund its campaigns in South West Africa (now Namibia, Angola and Mozambique) in the 1980s (Duffy 2015).

In what follows, we demonstrate with examples some of the fallacies in Ms. Fink’s article and attempt to refute claims made by the author by providing arguments backed by academic references and personal investigations in field. We should clarify that our rebuttal does not question or underplay the seriousness of the problem of poaching of rhinos (or any other protected species), or wildlife trafficking per se. We do, however, question conflating rhino poaching with global terrorism.

We begin with analysing the overarching analogy that terrorist groups benefit from rhino horn trade. This analogy borrows heavily from the ‘ivory funded terrorism’ assertion in global conservation discourse so much so that throughout the article it seems to be have replaced ivory with rhino horn. Before attempting to refute some of the claims made by the author point wise we would like to give a small background to where the narrative of poachers as (or dealing with) terrorists originates. 
The 105 tonnes of ivory burnt by Kenya on April 30, 2016, was the largest quantity ever destroyed anywhere in the world.   Photo: Vivek Menon 
The Myth of Ivory Funded Terrorism

The narrative of terrorist groups being funded by the illegal ivory trade has circulated since 2012 gaining increased traction since 2013. It is deeply rooted in wider debates around the growing national and global security implications of the International Wildlife Trade. Many armed non-state groups are referred frequently in this context, the most common being Al-Shabaab, a US designated terrorist group; the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group in central Africa, commanded by Joseph Kony, and the Sudanese Janjaweed militia. The links between illegal ivory trade and Al Shabaab has particularly attracted widespread attention, especially in the aftermath of the horrifying Westgate shopping mall attack in Kenya. Proponents of this view – which has gained widespread mainstream political (including high profile individuals such as Hilary Clinton), conservation and media acceptance almost as an uncontested ‘fact’ and has become central to policy formation — advocate that a major source of funding for Al-Shabaab comes from illegal ivory in East Africa. However, this entire claim is based on a single poorly evidenced (see analysis of EAL reports by Duffy et.al. and Mcguire’s RUSI study) report provided by the Elephant Action League (EAL). This reportclaimed that Al-Shabaab earns upto 40 per cent of its money from ivory, which is equivalent to a monthly income of $200,000-$600,000. This single report is now cited as the source of reference by several organisations that make this claim. However, a recent report by UNEP and INTERPOL on environmental crime rejects these claims stating that the Al-Shabaab link to ivory is highly unreliable and that charcoal trading and ex-pat finance remains the major source of funding for Al-Shabaab (Nellemann et al 2014). The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) has published a deeply researched paper called ““An Illusion of Complicity: Terrorism and the Illegal Ivory Trade in East Africa” that completely dismisses the terrorism link to illegal ivory trade. Post this criticism, even EAL was forced to put out statements such as “Although media focused heavily on the nexus between ivory trafficking and terrorism, albeit most times through somewhat inaccurate reporting, it can be argued that the publicity helped to wake up the international community to the extent of the current elephant poaching crisis.”; that Al-Shabaab operatives did not participate in poaching of elephants; that EAL only argued over the outfit’s role as a trafficker and facilitator; and that the stress on ivory trade accounting for 40 per cent of the terrorist group’s total-revenue was a media misrepresentation (Crosta & Sutherland 2016). Nonetheless, in all these reports (both by EAL and that of their critics) the various arguments for and against the link between terrorism and wildlife trade have a scope limited to ivory, there is no mention of rhino horn in these discussions, which then begs the question- on what basis does the author make the link between these groups and the rhino horn trade in her article?

Note: There is some evidence of Sudanese Janjaweed and the LRA dealing in illegal ivory but unlike the Al-Shabaab they do not have an expansionist ideology with international aspirations and are limited to regional conflict with focused goals. There is however very little information to what extent illegal ivory contributes to their functioning. It is important to note again that the evidence here is for illegal ivory and not rhino horn.

Given this background, we now go over certain statements made by the author and respond to each one of them.

1. “The business of terrorism is straightforward”: Anybody with a remote academic interest in issues related to terrorism will refute this, terrorism is extremely complex with a wide range of drivers – which include historical injustices, freedom struggles, socio-political scenario, control of resources, ethnic insecurity, immigration and religion – on local, regional and even national levels. Besides, the semantics of the word terrorism are vaguely defined - all forms of resistance struggles may not be terrorism per say. Terrorism has a wide spectrum of definitions,which are largely debated; some states and media classify insurgent groups, regional militia and rebels as terrorists too, others don’t. All terrorist and armed groups have different motivations and goals that arise out of complex geopolitics, economics, and social conditions. The complexity is even more relevant when linking terrorism with poaching or illegal wildlife trade. Making statements like this paints a very black and white stereotypical picture that is far from reality.

2. “Terrorism utilises endangered animals as trade commodities for promoting violence and fear with the ultimate goal of eliminating entire cultures”: There is extremely poor evidence of how terrorists use endangered animals and how much that contributes to their functioning. We have provided a description of the discourse around the ivory link but besides this, there is very little evidence how, if at all it does, the trade in endangered animals plays a role in terrorist threat finance.  The author moreover does not specify the expression “eliminating entire cultures”? On the contrary, there are many armed groups around the world, especially in tribal majority regions, that infact pin their motivations around ‘protecting’ and ‘safeguarding’, what they perceive is their local, regional or national ‘culture’ against what they think are ‘external influences’. The ultimate goal of eliminating entire cultures is a stereotypical and erroneous analogy.

3. “Sudanese militia poaches in the Central African Republic, and tribal warriors from Assam’s neighbouring states (for example Nagaland) poach in Kaziranga to generate revenue for terrorists”: Here, we would like to believe, the Sudanese militia the author is referring to is Janjaweed (operating in Darfur, western Sudan and eastern Chad) that is linked to the illegal ivory trade and not to rhinos. We also assume that the expression “tribal warriors from Assam’s neighbouring states” is referring to various insurgent groups operating in northeast India.  We were particularly struck by the use of the expression ‘tribal warriors’ to describe these groups as it portrays a deep seated colonial stereotype denoting values that are primitive and savage as seen through the use of language. Although there is very little evidence and supporting information, insurgent groups like the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers (KPLT) have allegedly carried out rhino poaching in Assam during a period of prolonged civil unrest (Menon 1999, Lopes 2014). Similarly, while there is no concrete evidence to link the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) insurgents with direct poaching of rhinos in Manas, it is an undisputed fact that the tiger reserve’s entire rhino population was extirpated during the strife of the 1990s as the park area remained out of government control till the Bodo Peace Accord in 2003 with BLT and the ceasefire with NDFB in 2005 cooled off the insurgency (though a few factions, mainly the Songbijit faction of the NDFB continues with its insurgency operations). However, what is unclear is whether NDFB and BLT rebelskilled and trafficked the rhinos (whom their leadership venerates, at least publicly, as a proud heritage of the Bodo people; post peace accord this former rebel leadership, now as part of government created Bodoland Territoral Council, played a pivotal role in re-introducing rhinos in Manas) themselves to finance their insurgency or did the usual rhino horn poachers and smugglers of Assam use the chaos and lawlessness ushered during the insurgency period to target Manas’ rhinos. Moreover, there are no formal reports/studies to establish to what extent rhino poaching supports the various insurgent groups in north-east or even in the armed struggles in Assam itself. Nonetheless, with all the different and exhausting names of the various armed groups mentioned in the article from all over the world, we wonder how these specific insurgent groups of northeast India (rather than casually classifying them as “tribal warriors”) were not included when these groups not only form the most important link that could directly affect rhinos in India but perhaps also offer the strongest argument in favour of her stated position linking rhinos and terrorism.

4. “Poachers slaughtered 108 rhinos while Maoist rebel activity diverted military forces away from anti-poaching camps”: The author mentions that Maoist rebel forces diverted military forces from anti-poaching camps making the analogy that Maoists are involved or benefit from poaching. This argument does not hold because Maoists could be held culpable for these rhino killings only if they were intentionally diverting the military to allow the poachers to have a free run in these areas. Logic suggests that these poaching incidents were infact incidental (military moving out to engage Maoists in Nepal, thus poachers using the opportunity to target rhinos) and not a deliberate ploy by Maoists to aid poachers. Moreover, a report in pachyderm (Martin and Martin 2006), which we believe is where the author is quoting this information from, mentions the following- “Maoists are rarely involved in rhino poaching or trade in horn. They claim they want to protect the natural environment and furthermore do not possess the expertise of the poachers and traders. If the author has indeed made this argument using this reference, why was this crucial piece of information left out?

5. “Currently, rebels in Kashmir trade rhino horns for weapons to support their political agenda”….“Simply put if the government of India does not take action against organised wildlife criminal networks rebels in Kashmir will continue to trade rhino horn for weapons to support their political agendas”: This claim is one of the main reasons that triggered this response. Who are the rebels in Kashmir? Is the author referring to the Hizbul Mujahideen? The Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) or the thousands of local residents who resort to stone pelting daily. It is widely known that armed militants in Kashmir are funded and supported largely by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and cross border social and political organisations like the Jamaat-e-Islami. But we have not found a single study or even a news report linking rhino horn trade to the militancy in Kashmir. The multiple references asserting linkage between Kashmir’s militancy and illegal rhino horn trade, especially in the current charged national and political atmosphere following the recent spate of unrest in the valley, without providing a single reference is appalling.

6. “Wildlife terrorism is a completely different phenomenon. In the case of rhinos, it refers to killing of individuals who have been dehorned…driven by anger over lost income”: The use of the term “wildlife terrorism” to describe what is known across the conservation field as retaliatory poaching is an apt demonstration of generalisation. By this definition, can the all too common phenomenon of cattle-poisoning of tigers and leopards or deliberate electrocution of elephants and other crop-raiding animals in India be termed as ‘wildlife terrorism’ too? Moreover, the article, also gives us another novel synonym to describe this phenomenon: “‘idealistic’ terrorism” of poachers!

7. “Rhinos are slaughtered in northern India...the age old societal caste system works in favour of criminal networks”: Rhinos in India are sourced from northeast India and not northern India, but even if we ignore that as an oversight, we have absolutely no idea what is the link between the caste-system and criminal networks. We hope the article is not trying to invoke the old colonial idea of “criminal tribes” through this expression.

8. “To further lift suspicion, these men [referring to traffickers smuggling rhino horn from India into Nepal]often travel with underage children kidnapped from proximate villages. Both man and child assume looks that are typical of a tribal or poor villager, thereby appearing inconspicuous to the authorities or the common traveller. Sadly, these children are often sold to handlers within the underground sex”: No source is quoted to back up this claim. However, even here the overbearing agenda to link rhino-horn trade to all the other great evils of modern world – first global terrorism, and now to the world of human trafficking and sex trade – is evident.

This photograph shows Law Enforcement Manager Jose Sitoe (center, holding a bottle of water) and other reserve scouts taking a rest while on patrol in Mozambique’s Niassa Reserve. The country’s diverse wildlife has been hard hit by poaching in recent years. Photo: John Guernier
Implications of coding poachers as terrorists

Global terrorism and the international ivory/rhino horn trade are distinct problems requiring different strategies. Conflating the two undermines efforts against both. The current discourse as is evident in the article pushes the theory that securing natural heritage will simultaneously achieve national security objectives and also address global security concerns. Such a theory is based on a false pretence and ignores the complex drivers of both terrorism and poaching. The discursive use of poachers as terrorists creates the context in which some conservation NGOs, states and the private sector call for more forceful approaches to conservation such as increased militarisation and draconian policies like shoot at sight and at the same time use the discourse to tap into public attention and larger sources of funding (Cooley and Ron 2002). This also raises complex questions about the impact changing narratives in conservation will have on local communities. Military style intervention within Protected Areas and beyond has the capacity to fundamentally change hard won relationships with local communities, alienating them and in turn reducing support for conservation in the long term (Simlai 2015).

Halting the illegal ivory and rhino horn trade demands much more than stopping poachers with guns, which are actually a symptom not a cause. It requires targeting deeply entrenched transnational criminal gangs and state corruption through which they thrive. It also requires suppressing global consumer demand. Moreover, while armed measures against armed poachers might be a short term necessity, the long term future of wildlife can only be secured by active support of the local communities. And while the need for a certain minimal level of policing will always remain in the field of conservation, the current popular discourse of increased militarization of our forests and Protected Areas (PAs) as being the panacea to ensure survival of wildlife is unwise. What is needed is a balance between policing and community participation in conservation. Moreover, this ‘balance’ cannot and should not be based on a one-size-fits-all blueprint, rather it needs to be on a case-by-case/region-by-region basis with the local communities at the forefront in deciding the nature and degree of this ‘balance’ in consultation with a body of experts – that could include conservationists, biologists, social scientists, civil and forest bureaucracy and other relevant stakeholders – taking into account the local history, socio-political attitudes, culture and traditions of the said region.

Until that happens, asserting global terrorism links with the ivory and rhino horn business not only creates ‘treacherous links’ to shield the real criminal drivers of the wildlife trade and create an illusion that leaves intact the true sources of global terrorism, but it also fails to address the real challenges facing the conservation of global floral and faunal wealth.

As we were going to press, a couple of investigations, one by The Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime and the other by Al Jazeera, exposed a deep nexus between the rhino poaching mafia and various government agencies, ranging from corrupt local police officers letting local dealers off the hook and even selling the seized contraband, to the highest echelons of State power with the involvement of David Mahlobo, South Africa's Minister of State Security whose ministry controls South Africa's intelligence services, in this trade. These investigations also allege Zimbabwe's Central Intelligence Organisation sells arms to rhino poachers, state corruption in Mozambique facilitates trade, the involvement of private game reserves owners, and even diplomats from China, Vietnam and North Korea using their diplomatic immunity to traffic illegal rhino horn and other wildlife contraband. Not only do these reports make no link between rhino poaching and terrorist organisations, they lend further credence to our assertion that linking rhino horn trade to terrorism is deceptive and shields the real culprits which in a lot of cases are corrupt and rogue elements within the State and its various agencies.

Trishant Simlai is a conservation scientist from Pune. He is interested in the links between armed conflict, militarisation and conservation in India. He is currently doing research on the social implications of conservation surveillance technology such as camera traps and drones. Raza Kazmi is a Jharkhand-based conservationist and a keen student of India's wildlife history. He is interested in conservation in the conflict ridden 'Red Corridor' landscape of India as well as other lesser-known PAs and obscure forests of India.

References and Further Reading:

Crosta, A. and Sutherland, K. 2016. Africa’s White Gold of Jihad: Al-Shabaab and conflict Ivory. Elephant Action League, Updated 2016. (https://elephantleague.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Report-Ivory-al-Shabaab-Oct2016.pdf)

Note: Original report was first published in January 2013, citation: Kalron, N. and Crosta, A. 2013. ‘Africa’s White Gold of Jihad: Al-Shabaab and Conflict Ivory’.

Duffy, R. and Humphreys, J., 2014. Mapping Donors: Key Areas for Tackling Illegal Wildlife Trade (Africa and Asia). Evidence on Demand Report HD151

Duffy,R., 2015. War, by Conservation. Geoforum 68, 238-248.

Lopes, A., 2014: “Civil Unrest and the Poaching of Rhinos in the Kaziranga National Park, India,” Ecological Economics, 103: 20–28

Martin, E and Martin, C., 2006. Insurgency and Poverty: Recipe for rhino poaching in Nepal. Pachyderm 41.

Mcguire, T./RUSI, 2015. An Illusion of Complicity: Terrorism and the Illegal Ivory Trade in East Africa. RUSI Occasional Paper. RUSI, London
. Weblink: https://rusi.org/publication/occasional-papers/illusion-complicity-terrorism-and-illegal-ivory-trade-east-africa

McConnell,T., 2015. The ivory funded terrorism myth. OP ED, The New York Times. Date Accessed 24.10.216 (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/30/opinion/the-ivory-funded-terrorism-myth.html?_r=0)

Menon, V (1996): “Under Siege: Poaching and Protection of Greater One-Horned Rhinoceroses in India,” Traffic International, Cambridge, UK

Realuyo, Celina B. "The Terror-Crime Nexus Hezbollah's Global Facilitators."Prism: a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations 5.1 (2014): 116.

Simlai, T. 2015 Conservation ‘Wars’: The global rise of green militarization and trends in India. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol L No 50.

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