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

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Read Next
Former N-Dubz singer Tulisa Contostavlos gives a statement outside Southwark Crown Court after her trial  

It would be wrong to compare brave Tulisa’s ordeal with phone hacking. It’s much worse than that

Matthew Norman
The Big Society Network was assessed as  

What became of Cameron's Big Society Network?

Oliver Wright
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary