Elephant Campaign: How Africa’s ‘white gold’ funds the al-Shabaab militants

Ivory smuggling has become an attractive and profitable enterprise for terrorist groups


Transporting “jihad’s white gold” from the African bush to Asian cities is no small feat, but under the watchful eyes of the Somali Islamist militant group al-Shabaab, but the process runs like clockwork.

That is the claim of Andrea Crosta, executive director of the Elephant Action League (EAL), who has spent years investigating al-Shabaab, which made international headlines last year after it claimed responsibility for the attacks on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping centre, in which 67 people lost their lives.

He claimed that up to three tons of ivory was bought and sold every month through a co-ordinated supply chain.

Activists and conservationists have claimed that al-Shabaab derives a significant portion of its funding from the ivory trade. Information on exactly how this is achieved is being pieced together by conservationists and security experts. 

Mr Crosta said he had built up a network of undercover spies and informants inside al-Shabaab, some of whom were still actively reporting back about the organisation’s lucrative ivory deals.

“We know that there is one man, of Somali origin, who is trusted in the ranks of al-Shabaab,” he said. “Whenever someone is looking to buy ivory through al-Shabaab, they contact this guy and ask for a specific amount.”

According to a UN report, 22,000 elephants were killed by poachers in 2012. It is little wonder that poaching and ivory smuggling is an attractive form of enterprise for militant groups.

When poachers are caught, they tend to escape with trivial fines or short custodial sentences. And the financial incentives for such risk are huge. The poachers, who run the biggest risks, earn $50-$100 (£60) per kilogram of ivory, and the price increases as the ivory moves up the chain.

Kenya’s long and porous border with Somalia makes it relatively easy for militants to hurry the ivory, poached in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa, across the frontier into a largely lawless state that has fostered militants, pirates and gunrunners. From there, it reaches ports on the Somali coast, many of which are controlled, or at least heavily influenced, by al-Shabaab.

Though estimates vary, Mr Crosta said al-Shabaab makes up to £365,000 per month from ivory alone, enough to support around 40 per cent of the salaries paid to militants. Other sources of the group’s revenue include exporting charcoal and collecting zakat, an informal Islamic tithe.

In testimony to US Congress in 2012, Ian Saunders, director of the Tsavo Trust, noted that a 2010 report found that the killing of one elephant was enough to fund an attack on the scale of the 1998 embassy bombings, estimated to have cost $50,000.

The poaching trade is not a new venture for terror groups. The militant Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which has killed more than 3,000 and displaced thousands more in Central Africa, are more opportunistic, and are more involved in the poaching itself. The group’s fugitive leader, Joseph Kony, is known to have ordered his men to kill elephants. Janjaweed of Sudan is also heavily involved in poaching.

According to Mr Crosta, however, al-Shabaab’s ivory operation is far more sophisticated.

The money usually changes hands in the no-man’s land between Kenya and Somalia. Al-Shabaab has small boats in ports such as Merka and Barawe, that transport the ivory shipments.

Mr Costa said the ivory boats do not just come from China, where demand for ivory is known to be high. They also come from “South Korea, Iran, Turkey, and of course the Gulf, Dubai”.

Al-Shabaab’s emissaries even bring their own scales to weigh the ivory accurately.

After 2012, when al-Shabaab lost control of the city of Mogadishu, and the vital port of Kismayo, commentators said the group had lost its main source of revenue. However, the organisation restructured itself and simply moved its operations to smaller ports, where they still have control, said Mr Crosta.

And although al-Shabaab may have lost full control of the Kismayo port, a leaked UN report last year said corrupt officials from the Kenyan peacekeeping forces in the area remained complicit in al-Shabaab’s charcoal smuggling operations.

Mr Crosta said he began his investigation not only because of the toll poaching has taken on elephant populations, but also because of the humans who get caught up in the violence of the poaching trade.

“I know families, 10 or 12 people, who are terrorised in their villages, simply because the breadwinner is a ranger,” said Mr Crosta. “People who still buy ivory, despite knowing all this, are an accessory to manslaughter.”

To take your own step, please support our appeal, and sign the petition.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows, Network Security)

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows...

Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Directory, ITIL, Reuter)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Dire...

PHP Web Developer (HTML5, CSS3, Jenkins, Vagrant, MySQL)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: PHP Web Develo...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: The final instalment of our WW1 series

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff

Simon Usborne: The more you watch pro cycling, the more you understand its social complexity

Simon Usborne
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice