If you buy ivory, you kill people.
This is the new reality in an illicit trade responsible for large-scale human exploitation, government corruption, and the funding of rebel movements, terrorists, and criminal syndicates around the world. The imagery and narrative of the global ivory trade is now well known – replete with rotting elephant carcasses littering African national parks, well-tailored ministers and heads of state burning ivory stocks for the camera, and law enforcement officials smiling in front of ship containers of seized ivory.
While, there is no doubt of the many faces of the global ivory trade, there is one element that is too often overlooked – that of the human toll.
The human toll of the ivory trade is the negative impact on the individuals and communities exploited along the chain of custody from Africa, to Asia, and points beyond. It is not just about elephants.
This trade is historically and inexorably linked to the exploitation and enslavement of vulnerable communities in Africa and Asia. It includes governments and countries sucked deeper into the morass of corruption, mismanagement, and taxpayer abuse wrought from public officials supporting criminal interests.
Far reaching implications
It includes the lives affected by the introduction of other illegal activities that overlap with the groups and individuals engaged in the ivory trade – including the trafficking of weapons, drugs and humans.
Like diamonds, gold, coltan or timber; ivory is taking its own place as a conflict resource in sub-Saharan Africa.
International criminal syndicates, corrupt government officials, and some of the world’s most notorious terrorists and militias are fuelling the global trade in illegal ivory.
In 2012, an 18-month investigation conducted by the Elephant Action League (EAL) in collaboration with Maisha Consulting, estimated that the Somalia based al-Shabab organisation was drawing up to 40 percent of funds for salaries from ivory smuggling.
Other groups like the Seleka rebels in the Central African Republic, the Janjaweed in Sudan and the Lords Resistance Army in central Africa have all been tied to ivory smuggling as a means to raise funding for arms and operations. Further, elements of several regional governments in Africa and Asia have been implicated in facilitating the extraction, trade, and export of ivory for personal profit.
The underground ivory supply chain increasingly destabilises already unstable states, and the growth and sophistication of global smuggling networks is outpacing international efforts to stop them. At the same time, the rate of poaching is outpacing the time needed to attempt the behavioural change – in the primarily Asian consumption markets – necessary to stop the demand for it.
What that means, is that in conjunction with new innovative awareness campaigns in Asia, more action is needed on the ground in Africa to prevent the negative social, political, and economic impacts that are derivative of the ivory trade.
Militarising ivory trade
In part, that immediate action must include governments and citizens from western, African, and Asian states facing the responsibilities of addressing the human death and exploitation it perpetuates.
Given the increased complexity and militarisation of the trade, new innovative approaches will be required to reduce it.
In conjunction with new innovative awareness campaigns in Asia, more action is needed on the ground in Africa to prevent the negative social, political, and economic impacts that are derivative of the ivory trade.
This will demand mitigation strategies that occupy a unique space at the nexus of the fields of environmental conservation, public policy, peace and security, counterterrorism, and human rights.
While certainly challenging, addressing the trade through the lens of the human toll potentially presents opportunities for the creation of new tools to pressure necessary policymakers and citizens to take additional action.
For instance, building the law enforcement and witness protection capacity of affected states around the world. Crowdsourcing information through anonymous whistle-blowing mechanisms like WildLeaks.org has proven incredibly effective, however, there is a gap in the ability of states to protect the individuals providing critical information and act on tip-offs.
Informants must know they can be protected and local and international law enforcement must be able to act immediately.
The environment of impunity for corrupt state and private sector individuals involved in the trade is also a fundamental barrier to mitigation. Exploring tough sanctions on individuals and states involved in the trade could make the business of ivory more costly for those involved.
It was the spike in the value of ivory over the past five years that exacerbated this problem. It will be correlated losses from the cost of doing business that will stop it.
In addition to punitive measures, creating public awareness campaigns specifically on the human toll in countries like China and Thailand could go a long way in stemming demand. Showing both governments and consumers in these states that behind every ivory trinket made and sold is a trail of human suffering and exploitation in Africa – something most citizens of those countries are unaware of.
Addressing the trade through the human angle requires a multi-faceted approach incorporating all aspects of those impacted. In conjunction with African and Asian partners it affects our collective security, economic development and partnership, and obligation to the protection of human rights and shared history.
So while wildlife and wildlife conservation is the traditional medium to approach the issue of poaching and trafficking, it is becoming imperative to develop strategies and campaigns that also put a human face on the destruction and exploitation globally.
Andrea Crosta is the founder of Elephant Action League and WildLeaks.
Aaron Hall is an East Africa-based independent consultant and adviser to Elephant Action League/WildLeaks.