But the anti-poaching endeavors are being measured against the grinding poverty that drives Africans to risk their lives to kill elephants and rhinos for their ivory and horns, some wildlife conservationists say.
An international panel that governs wildlife trading said that illegal trafficking has at least doubled since 2007, even though it banned the sale of ivory and horns years ago. That panel, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), has made little headway in lowering the demand for the artifacts on the black market, which thrives in Asia, where ornately carved tusks are coveted and some believe that a sprinkle of rhino horn helps fight cancer.
Although conservationists view the new U.S. action as not going far enough, they welcomed it as a step forward.
“We are getting to the point of no return,” said Richard G. Ruggiero, a former nongovernment conservationist who is now the Africa branch chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of International Conservation.
“We lacked political will in the U.S., overseas and in consumer nations such as China,” he said. “Without political will, there’s nothing.”
Adding to the pressure to act is growing evidence that terrorist groups have entered the black market, paying poachers to kill the animals and selling their horns and ivory at a premium to middlemen in the United States and Asia to fund operations such as the deadly Sept. 21 attack on a Kenyan shopping mall by the Somali group al-Shabab, a wing of al-Qaeda.
The nonprofit Elephant Action League (EAL) “found very concrete connections . . . [between] al-Shabab” and poaching in a two-year investigation that ended this year, Executive Director Andrea Crosta said.
Between one and three tons of ivory, worth $200,000 to $600,000, entered Somalia each month through al-Shabab, according to the EAL. It disappeared in the dark hulls of ships and airplanes bound for points worldwide.
“We managed to interview dozens of people, and all implicated them,” Crosta said. “We met poachers, traffickers, big traders, businessmen, ex-Somali warlords. Slowly we began a puzzle, piece by piece. We feel quite comfortable regarding our specific investigation.”
Although the EAL claims to have funded excursions to extract information and relied on Somalis with close contacts in the terrorist network, the report containing anonymous sources is not fully trusted, even among fellow conservationists.
But it says there’s enough evidence to show that the connection between poaching and terror groups is real. Last year, ivory was found by Congolese police who raided a camp of the insurgent Lord’s Resistance Army, which uses children as soldiers.