Using Elephants to Pay for Our Wars

Candice Gaukel Andrews June 18, 2013 12

Wildlife crime is now the most urgent threat to three of the planet’s most charismatic species: rhinos, tigers and elephants. ©Dave Luck

On Monday, May 6, 2013, 17 heavily armed poachers entered Dzanga-Ndoki National Park in the Central African Republic. They then proceeded to a large clearing known as Dzanga Bai, or “village of elephants,” where between 50 and 200 of the animals congregate daily to drink in the mineral salts found in the sands. The poachers easily massacred at least 26 elephants, according to World Wildlife Fund. The animals were killed for their ivory.

Reports from several nature conservation groups indicate that ivory is the latest economic resource for terrorist groups in Africa, fueling conflicts across the continent. For example, it has been documented that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, rebels exchange tusks for weapons, and the government army kills elephants to raise needed monies.

Despite bans, antipoaching patrols and the destruction of ivory taken in seizures, elephants continue to be used as funding for human wars. Some hope that President Obama will discuss poaching with officials on his tour to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania later this month. But given the lack of success so far, will any measure yet devised keep the world’s largest land animal from going extinct at the hands of poachers?

Ivory for sale . . .

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that the global, illegal ivory trade has more than doubled since 2007. Raw ivory now brings in more than $1,300 per pound, due to a sharp rise in demand from Asia.

Will any of our antipoaching measures help save African elephants from extinction? ©Richard Field

In 2011, the seizure of large shipments of ivory hit an all-time high, indicating an increasingly active, profitable and well-organized illegal ivory trade between Africa and Asia. According to the CITES global organization Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants, an estimated 17,000 elephants were illegally killed that year. The Wildlife Conservation Society puts that figure even higher, saying that some 25,000 African elephants are killed every year—this despite a ban on ivory poaching that was instituted in Africa in 1989.

And the poaching is spreading. Once a mostly central African problem, previously secure populations in eastern and southern Africa are now under threat. The Tanzania Elephant Protection Society estimates that about 30 elephants are killed every day and 850 elephants are shot every month. But taking into account the big geographical size of Tanzania and poor access to wildlife areas, there is no telling the actual number of elephants being killed daily there.

In northern Uganda, members of the Lords Resistance Army are hunting down elephants and using their tusks to buy weapons and support their terrorist activities. In Somalia, the militant group Al-Shabaab is reported to have killed elephants in Kenya parks. Reports say Kenya loses about two elephants every week to poaching, with some of the proceeds used to finance Al-Shabaab and other criminal organizations.

Even the small east African nation of Burundi is said to be getting into the fray. This tiny and war-torn country is believed to have only one elephant. However, Burundi has now become notorious as a base for elephant and rhino poachers and ivory smugglers who kill animals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. It’s said that when you visit various towns and villages in Burundi, you’ll find elephant tusks being sold in open markets, alongside the carrots and other produce.

. . . But antipoaching not up for discussion

The total continental population estimate for African elephants is between 420,000 and 650,000, with just three countries accounting for well over half of these elephants: Botswana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. The good news is that the lower rates of poaching in these countries—where the majority of the elephant population exists—is keeping the total African elephant population stable. But for many of the range states in central and western Africa, the extent of the killings now far exceeds the natural population growth rates, forcing these elephants into widespread decline and putting them at risk of extinction.

The Dzanga-Ndoki National Park elephants were killed in their “village,” where they often congregate to drink. ©Richard Field

Many are hoping that President Obama will address Africa’s antipoaching challenges with political leaders when he visits later this month. However, U.S. Ambassador to Tanzania Alfonso Lenhardt has said that the president will focus discussions on investments, economic growth, strengthening of democratic institutions and nurturing young leadership. Antipoaching measures are not on the agenda.

But terrorism on any village should rate a space on any docket of international talks. Even if it is on an elephant village.

If current elephant antipoaching measures are failing to work, do you think that having President Obama put the issue on his discussion-topic list during his trip to Africa will have any impact? What measures do you think would?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,


Visit WWF’s wildlife crime prevention page if you’d like to help in the effort to stop elephant poaching.

Responsible tourism also helps in preventing wildlife poaching because it puts a higher value on wildlife that is kept alive rather than poached. Check out our African safari tours to countries such as Botswana, South Africa and Tanzania for more information on our responsible African safaris.


  1. Iklwa July 27, 2013 at 11:41 am - Reply

    Time and time again, it has been proven that the best way to maintain healthy elephant herds is to institute regulated, licensed elephant hunting. Most African countries do not have the budget to properly staff, equip, arm and place afield sufficient numbers of game management officials to stop poaching.

    It is only with the injection of Western capital through licenses and fees that these programs have ever worked. In every nation that has banned big game hunting, poachers have driven big game species to the brink of extinction.
    In every country that has embraced big game hunting, there are thriving herds of these same animals so much so that in many areas “culling” is required to keep their populations in check.
    Both Black and White Rhino rescue programs are mainly funded by big game hunters and efforts by organizations such as the Dallas Safari Club and Safari Club International.

    Regardless of you position on the hunting of animals, the best chance existing today for their safe existence lies in the hands of legal hunters and not in socialist or communist or theocratic based governments’ intervention.

    PS None of these are “my” wars.

  2. Linda Plate July 3, 2013 at 10:15 am - Reply

    This is a deplorable practice and to find out that it helps fund terrorism too? I don’t think Obama would give it a second thought he seems to be preoccupied with economics.

  3. Ingo Lange June 20, 2013 at 4:05 pm - Reply

    Not only elephants … increasingly rhinos in the southern regions! And YES, with money flowing from the US into GOV pockets here “Effective Nature Conservation!” should be on the agenda!

  4. Owen Prümm June 20, 2013 at 4:04 pm - Reply

    I never knew about the connection between elephant poaching and terrorism-surely this will get the President’s office to be more pro-active in the quest to halt the slaughter?

  5. Francois Smith June 20, 2013 at 5:48 am - Reply

    Killing wildlife to support civil wars is not a novel development in Africa. The former South African Defence Force and UNITA colluded to decimate the elephant and rhino populations for their ivory and horn respectively to fund their goal in winning, but eventually losing, the civil war in Angola during the 1970’s and 80’s. Once this resource ran out, UNITA turned to income from blood diamonds. Nothing gets better for wildlife in our times of war but instead gets worse. I suspect President Obama’s focus at this time is more on chemical warfare than on wildlife welfare.

  6. Michael wamithi June 20, 2013 at 2:07 am - Reply

    I fully agree with Chris!Any logic that trading in ivory and rhino horn will yield finances to pay for anti-poaching/protection is terribly faulty.The pink elephant in the room here is CITES!…decisions made at CITES to allow one-off sales of elephant ivory (2000 and 2007) to both Japan and China resulted in the Crissis we are in today.Though the world believes there is an existing ban on international trade in ivory,for all practical reasons the ban has been “lifted”.In 2004,CITES also allowed the re-introduction of rhino trophy hunting in South Africa.Now SA is faced with a most untenable position of discriminating against potential hunters based on nationality.They are apparently now saying persons from some countries cannot legally hunt rhino in SA!

    We must go back to CITES decision to find a solution to this problem because that is where the problem sits.

    Peer pressure should also be applied to China to stop trade in/processing of elephant ivory till the current poaching crissis stops,since actually the Chinese government is the largest trader (legal) in Ivory.

    • Iklwa July 27, 2013 at 11:48 am - Reply

      I think you need to make the distinction between “trophy” hunting wherein large quantities of cash are funneled directly into conservation programs including sustaining the indigenous people and maintaining game control/anti poaching officials in the field and organized poaching.

      If you fail to see the difference between the two, I believe your agenda is more about anti-capitalism than about saving endangered species.
      Equating the two is like justifying shooting a hole in your foot to relieve high blood pressure.
      At first blush it sounds like it might work.
      After a few minutes you just look foolish.

  7. Brack Barker June 19, 2013 at 9:32 am - Reply

    Yes, and all poaching of wildlife should be on the agenda. Poachers should be left in the field to feed the vultures.

  8. Henricus Peters June 19, 2013 at 9:30 am - Reply

    #African #elephants A crime and a deadly waste!! Chinese/Asian taste for luxury time items are responsible…. @LearnFromNature on twitter

  9. Chris du Plessis June 19, 2013 at 7:42 am - Reply

    Poaching is an extremely sorry state, and I’m afraid we (concerned people) will not win the war, maybe a few battles if we are lucky. As long as ivory carvings and tiger skins are status symbols, idiotes believe that Rhino horn and lion bones have medicinal and afrodisiac properties, and as long as there are corrupt politicians (of which there are far too many) and officials, we do not stand a chance. Homo sapiens is, sadly, nothing more than a form of parasite.
    The hope that the president of the USA will discuss poaching with African leaders is remote for the simply fact that there is no money or oil in it.
    Do I sound cinical? I don’t think so – just very realistic. But that does not mean that I will capitulate. Any animal saved somewhere in the world will not change the fate of wildlife, but it will mean a huge difference to that animal.

  10. Troy Leopardo June 18, 2013 at 12:22 pm - Reply

    Not sure as to which of “our wars” this article is referencing, but perhaps a better title would be “Using Elephants to Pay for Our War Against Poaching”.

  11. Joseph Mwanza June 18, 2013 at 12:21 pm - Reply

    As long as,we NGO’s & private sectors promoting conservation continue relaying on African Government’s security wings to Protect wildlife.We are fighting a loosing battle,& African Elephants will soon lead to Extinction.
    Since,we know now,that the major culprits are VIP’s(Diplomats) & Senior government officials.
    Whats the way forward?

    I suggest,we NGO’s & Private sectors must partner with African governments in all sectors of conservation,including enforcing the to the culprits (poachers & ivory traffikers).

    By achieving this partnership with the African governments would help to curb corruption acts in government Conservation wings.

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