Basu: A solution to the alarmingly dangerous ivory trade

Pia Basu, Columnist

Here in frigid Evanston, we’re seemingly worlds away from the African savanna where an elephant is killed every 15 minutes.

Yet, because there is a connection between illegal ivory and terrorism, the illegal ivory trade might not be as removed from American interests as one would expect.

According to National Geographic, over the past three years, poachers have killed more than 100,000 elephants for their ivory tusks. The tusks are carved into trinkets abroad, mostly in China but also in other Asian nations including Vietnam and Laos and in African countries including Angola, Kenya and Mozambique, according to an October article in The Guardian.

Elephants, like most large mammals, are vital to their ecosystem. These majestic animals are culturally very significant as well.

But beside the obvious and immediate conservation issue of the possible extinction of the elephant, significant portions of the money from ivory sales go straight into the pockets of some of the most notorious terrorist organizations.

On September 21, 2013, fighters affiliated with al-Shabab, a Somalian terrorist group, entered the luxurious Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, throwing grenades and firing shots, ultimately killing almost 70 people and injuring even more.

Up to 40 percent of al-Shabab’s funding for the weapons and execution of such attacks is believed to come from the illegal trafficking of ivory from Africa to a growing Asian middle class that places a high value on elephant tusks. Al-Shabab is in allegiance with al-Qaeda, and though it focuses its attention on targets within Somalia, it has carried out larger attacks in Uganda and Kenya. The U.S. government recognizes and targets them as a legitimate threat to American interests as well as to general peace in the region.

Since illegal wildlife trade generates more revenue than arms, diamond, gold or oil trafficking, poaching elephants is an easy and lucrative option for terrorist groups. There is general consensus that military and political leaders should work together with environmental groups to combat this issue, especially after the Clinton Global Initiative, led by Bill and Hillary Clinton, pledged $80 million along with a three-year program aimed to end ivory trafficking, making the issue one of the initiative’s key priorities.

“This is not just about elephants,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at an event for the initiative in 2013. “It is about human beings, governments, trying to control their own territory, trying to keep their people safe, as well as protect their cultural and environmental heritage.”

However, since Clinton’s 2013 statement, attempts to constrain this illicit trade by focusing on supply have not been too successful. Poachers overpower park rangers, soldiers and rangers assigned to protect elephants are often corrupt, judges in many countries are not overly concerned with wildlife issues and customs officials lack incentive to enforce the ban because they profit from bribes.

Efforts to reduce supply and demand should be continued, but to make a real difference the ivory trade should be legalized. Though this idea may initially seem counter-intuitive, it is the bold policy step needed to both protect elephants and debilitate terrorists in the long term. There will always be a continuous supply of legal ivory from animals that die of natural causes as long as elephants do not go extinct, and a lot of ivory is already stockpiled. Furthermore, where there is significant demand for an illegal substance, someone will always find a way to supply it.

A global system of certification of legal ivory needs to be implemented through the use of DNA sampling or even microchips. An ivory trading organization under the oversight of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species should manage all transactions. At the same time, the Chinese government should implement stronger public campaigns against ivory to raise awareness about the repercussions of killing elephants in an attempt to curb demand. Stronger international legislation must be implemented to penalize the illegal trade of ivory, especially within China. Once governments and environmental organizations ramp up efforts to raise awareness, increasing numbers of Chinese people will be persuaded that they do not need “blood ivory,” and legal ivory will meet global demand. African countries can profit from their own natural resources, and the terrorists who once profited from this trade and used that money to pursue their own extremist agendas will no longer be able to do so.

Pia Basu is a Medill freshman. She can be reached at [email protected].  If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].