It’s corruption, stupid: Terrorism, wildlife trafficking, and Obama’s Africa trip


Vanda Felbab-Brown, Brookings Institution

Date Published

This blog is based on the fieldwork on terrorism, poaching, illegal logging, and charcoal production that Vanda Felbab-Brown conducted in eastern Africa in 2013 and 2015.

As President Barack Obama heads to Kenya and Ethiopia, he is right to emphasize economic entrepreneurship and inequality issues. Along with a strong focus on good governance and fighting corruption, this prism also needs to be brought to the important issue of wildlife trafficking. Appropriately, the Obama administration has embraced combatting wildlife trafficking to prevent irretrievable species loss, ecosystems collapse, and dangerous disease spread as an important priority. He should emphasize the fight against wildlife trafficking during his high-profile trip. But the thrust of his engagement should not be principally on the misdirected over-securitization of wildlife conservation, which has involved a skewed and narrow focus on the role of militant groups in wildlife trafficking and the transfer of ever-heavier weapons to rangers in Africa. Instead, he should focus on issues of corruption among rangers, ecolodges, and often high-government officials and the participation of local communities in poaching. Without routing out this pervasive corruption and breaking the economic incentives of local communities to participate in or tolerate poaching, the bush wars will be lost, no matter how heavy the rangers’ equipment.

Emphasizing the links between terrorist groups and poaching gets the attention of the U.S. Congress and politicians around the world. And yes, militant groups have for decades profited from poaching, be they Myanmar’s United Wa State Army that traffics wildlife into Yunnan and northern Thailand; the Taliban who facilitate the hunting of houbara bustards, snow leopards, and saker falcons in Afghanistan for wealthy Saudis; The Lord’s Resistance Army in the Congo or UNITA in Angola; the janjaweed in Darfur and Chad who have butchered thousands of elephants; RENAMO in Mozambique, who have traded in rhino horn and ivory; or the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland in Northeast India and militant Islamist groups in Bangladesh.

The broad picture of wildlife smuggling networks

But although fighters from such groups might be the ones who pull the trigger, they are merely cogs in much larger wildlife smuggling networks who supply the demand, primarily in China and East Asia and among Asian diaspora communities around the world. A preoccupation with the militants without dismantling the larger smuggling networks and most importantly, without reducing demand for wildlife products—very difficult as that is, no doubt—guarantees failure. Nor is demand merely an out-of-Africa matter; large domestic consumption of wild meat also fuels poaching of a wide variety of animals from to Zambia to West Africa.

Moreover, the participation of militant groups in poaching reflects only a sliver of the illegal trade that goes on. Often, as in the case of al-Shabab in Somalia, they merely tax transportation of ivory or allow access to smugglers through their territories. A key enabler of poaching is the widespread and increasing corruption among rangers. How else does that explain how rhinos are repeatedly killed in Kenya’s national parks within a mere few hundred yards of the rangers’ station—not just within earshot, but within eyesight?! The great progress in reducing corruption among Kenya’s rangers in the 1990s is all but lost. South Africa and Tanzania, too, are experiencing ever growing corruption.

Corruption goes much higher, often reaching the most prominent politicians and government officials in Africa. In multiple ways, it is also pervasive among the ecolodges. Although ecotourism is supposed to provide economic incentives to local populations, often 95 percent of profits are captured by the owners of the lodges—these entrepreneurs, too, being among established political dynasties in Africa. As tribal and patronage favoritism skews the hiring of staff for the lodges, very little of the economic proceeds trickle down to local communities.

The role of local communities

Even though organized crime groups may form a part of the smuggling chain, local communities, like rangers, are often complicit in the poaching, serving as spotters and trackers, and providing access routes. This is even the case in community reserves, such as in the Masai areas in Kenya. In fact, although community ownership has become the mantra of conservation, it is mostly only as good as the quality and strength of the community leadership structures and the long-term vs. short-term economic horizons of the community. In Kenya, illegal grazing, logging, charcoal production, and poaching are all widespread in community reserves, which are often managed far worse than the national parks or private reserves, including those where legal hunting is permitted. As a Masai ranger in one such community reserve told me during my fieldwork on poaching in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia in 2013: “During the day, the tourists can have the reserve; at night, it is ours to do what we want.”

In Ethiopia, villages allowed to remain in the national parks at the time of their establishment so as to protect native rights and prevent forced relocation, similarly pose unsustainable problems today. Due to high birth rates, the population of those villages has significantly increased and they are now grazing and logging to the ground and cultivating some of the most sensitive parks with endemic iconic species, such as Bale Mountains and Simien. Many of these people are often excruciatingly poor and marginalized. Working as guides or staff in lodges—ecotourism—provides nowhere near sufficient employment. If moving villages out of the parks to areas of new employment opportunities continues to be unviable, it is time to consider conditional money transfers for villagers not to graze, log, or engage in cultivation in the parks.

Paying locals not to poach or provide information to poachers might equally be explored in the rest of eastern and southern Africa. But such conditional money transfers can only work if effective monitoring systems and penalties are set up—which once again means routing out corruption among rangers and their high-level political patrons, and among police and judiciary officials.

When President Obama engages African businesses at the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Kenya, he should challenge them to think creatively about developing new effective economic incentives for wildlife conservation, beyond the placebo of ecotourism. And when he speaks with Kenyan and Ethiopian leaders, a conversation that will inevitably focus on counterterrorism and al-Shabab, he should not shy away from strongly raising the issues of corruption and good governance. Routing out corruption in the security, law enforcement, and justice sectors is critical for both counterterrorism effectiveness and wildlife protection.