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Gabon, ivory and the fake Boko Haram narrative

Global Geneva

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Those interested in the real nature of ivory poaching (See Keith Somerville’s piece on rhinos in the April/May edition of Global Geneva) and smuggling should treat with extreme caution the recent stories in the British Mirror (http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/elite-british-troops-trail-elephant-10721620) and Independent newspapers, and repeated unchallenged by the Environmental Investigation Agency, of Boko Haram’s role in ivory poaching in Gabon.  There is no evidence to directly connect Boko Haram to elephant poaching in Gabon’s forest parks and reserves.

The MIKE (Monitoring of the Illegal Killing of Elephants) programme, which is backed by CITES and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), says there is nothing to suggest that Boko Haram is involved in poaching and certainly not in Gabon.  The information received from conservation organisations groups and experienced wildlife specialists in the region is that the networks buying ivory from poachers in Gabon and those who arrange for it to be smuggled out to Cameroon and onwards to Nigeria,  involve members of the Hausa community – the Hausa are spread across northern Gabon, Cameroon, Niger, Chad and Nigeria and being Hausa does not mean being part of or supporting Boko Haram.  These are criminal and smuggling syndicates and not insurgent groups.  They are networks of long-standing involved in a range of illegal cross-border trading activities, including ivory and artisanal gold from illegal mining inside or adjacent to Gabon’s national parks..

Tenuous connections with Boko Haram

Wildlife officials in the region and international conservation groups believe that some of the ivory traders may possibly have links with Boko Haram, but they are likely to be tenuous ones. This information and that from MIKE does not suggest anything clearly demonstrating Boko Haram’s involvement in poaching.  What has been established over years by those monitoring poaching and seeking to identify or apprehend the smugglers is that ivory is smuggled from Gabon (and the Central African Republic) into Cameroon and much of it then on to Nigeria, but through criminal networks and not Boko Haram.

I was told by senior regional wildlife officials, who did not want to be named, that Cameroon army vehicles are sometimes used to transport it through Cameroon and that the Cameroonian Rapid Intervention Battalion, which is fighting Boko Haram, is implicated in the smuggling. Crime and greed are at the heart of this, not the funding of insurgency.  Those involved in the ivory trade across Central, East and Southern Africa are criminal syndicates, often with protection from corrupt politicians or officials, and are also involved in trafficking drugs, gold, diamonds, guns and people.

Despite Boko Haram’s well-deserved reputation for brutality, killings, suicide bombings, abductions and people trafficking, there has never been verifiable proof of them being involved in any meaningful way in the ivory trade. They do not poach or trade in ivory to fund their insurgency, according to the evidence of monitoring groups and trade specialists. A senior source in Gabon suggested to me that the smuggling groups may involve people who have links with Boko Haram, who do obtain money from illegal cross-border trade and a variety of criminal activities, but no individual or organization to whom I spoke said there was evidence of poaching by the militant group.

Photo by International Fund for Animal Welfare. (IFAW)

Criminal syndicates and the Janjaweed

What is very likely is that the Sudanese Janjaweed – drawn from the Baggara and Rizegat communities of Darfur -could be involved in poaching and certainly in the smuggling of ivory. Over the last decade, they have been implicated in large-scale organised poaching and smuggling in northern Cameroon, Chad, the Central African Republic and the DR Congo.  They have a long history as a trans-Sahel trading community, and not just as the irregular militia which gained such notoriety in Darfur, and have been identified by the Enough project and ivory trade specialists like Daniel Styles, as being heavily involved in poaching and smuggling of ivory across Central Africa and the southern Sahel – buying ivory from the Lord’s Resistance Army, working with Seleka rebels in the CAR and poaching or buying ivory from those who poach in DR Congo’s Garamba National Park.

Gabon’s elephants are being killed in large numbers by local, poor poachers, who do it to survive. They and some more organised groups from outside the country are commissioned by criminal syndicates (also involved in the illegal bushmeat trade) who smuggle the ivory out via Cameroon and Nigeria or through to Dar e Salaam or Mombasa, often with official collusion and, as set out above, the role of the military. As with the evidence of the Ugandan Army poaching in the DR Congo under the guise of pursuing the Lord’s Resistance Army, which I describe in my book  –  Ivory. Power and Poaching in Africa  – the army in Cameroon appears to be involved in the ivory trade for gain with the cover story of fighting  Boko Haram. Ironically, the British soldiers training anti-poaching units in Gabon, may end up preparing those units to fight poaching assisted by the armies of the countries Britain would see as key to rotting out insurgency in the region.

Illegal ivory sold openly in China. Photo by TRAFFIC.

The China syndrome

There is also evidence of a Chinese role, as poaching and bushmeat hunting has worsened as Chinese-run or funded construction projects have carved roads into rainforests near parks. As in Tanzania and, more recently, Namibia, Chinese businessmen and workers on Chinese-funded projects, have been shown to be connected closely with the smuggling networks that get poached ivory to markets in their home country. Read my ivory book ( http://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/ivory/ and  the RUSI collection on the illegal wildlife trade – https://rusi.org/publication/whitehall-papers/  ) to get the accurate account of how strong demand in China, poverty in Africa, greed among criminal syndicates and inadequate funding of conservation and anti-poaching enable massive poaching.

These accounts have the full story, not the convenient fiction that suits corrupt governments which are failing to protect wildlife and habitats, their supporters in Western governments, who have a vested, strategic interest in backing these governments and animal rights or advocacy NGOs keen for publicity.

Gabon is a rich country with substantial oil income. That income has not been used to develop a balanced economy or alleviate poverty. The authoritarian, dynastic Bongo family oligarchy that runs the country puts little into conservation, covering this failing with vociferous calls for Ivory trade bans and other measures. It is left to Western NGOs and governments to support measures to stop poaching in the main repository for Africa’s declining population of forest elephants – of which there are only somewhere between 50,000 and just over 100,000 left across Gabon, CAR, Congo and the DR Congo, with a small population in the south-west of South Sudan.

The British army has a small training team in Gabon, trying to teach the under-staffed and under-paid rangers how to combat organised poaching, and no doubt it serves both the Gabonese and British governments well to present the role as one of protecting elephants and fighting terror. But Gabon is distant from northern Nigeria and no reputable international wildlife organisations or ivory trade researchers have found any link between Boko Haram and the ivory trade.

Like the fictitious  “Al Shabaab funding itself from ivory” story that was dominant a few years ago –  before being discredited by research carried out by Dan Stiles, Cathy Haenlein, Tom Maguire and me – it is convenient for African and some Western governments to promote this joining of two evils, but the real problems of poverty, corruption and greed are driving poach, not insurgency.  And blaming insurgency rather than crime and corruption does nothing to advance conservation. Rather it leads to over-militarisation of poaching, the harassment of local communities and the creation of local grievances against conservation programmes and the wildlife they seek to protect.

Professor Keith Somerville teaches journalism at the University of Kent and is a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent. His latest publications are Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa and Africa’s Long Road Since Independence: The Many Histories of a Continent.  He is also a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London and a research associate at the Marjan Centre for the Study of War and the Non-Human Sphere at King’s College, London.

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