Everybody’s in the Ivory Trade

The Lord’s Resistance Army has been involved in the ivory trade for quite a while now, as have many other groups across Africa. The rural parts of Congo and Central African Republic have been the hunting grounds of poachers and armed groups alike for years, sometimes coming from as far afield as Libya. This summer, the Enough Project published a report [pdf] on the LRA’s involvement in the ivory trade, which caused a lot of news outlets to pick up the story, eventually leading Kristof Titeca to write this piece on the ivory trade beyond the LRA. In it, he describes the typical route of the ivory trade in Congo:

The most common trading scenario is the following:  local poachers (or individual soldiers) based in or near the forest pass on the ivory to local traders based in urban centers such as Dungu and Doruma (to a lesser extent Faradje). From there on, there are two trading routes: The first, and more common trading route, is from Dungu to the Congolese-Ugandan border towns of Ariwara and Arua. Most often, the ivory is sold to well-connected traders in these border towns, who in turn go to Kampala and sell it for export, most often to Asia.

The second trading route is from the north eastern side of Garamba Park, where ivory is traded in Doruma (or Bangadi). From here, the ivory goes to South Sudan, from where it enters Uganda (or also goes to Ariwara). It is difficult to estimate the amount of ivory originating from these areas. In Dungu alone, it is estimated that between 15 to 30 traders are dealing in ivory. Interviewed traders claim to be selling around 90 to 200 kilograms per month. In Arua, fewer ivory traders are active, but they mentioned similar quantities.

Ugandan traders are key in this commodity chain/trade network: they play a prominent role at different levels by using Congolese or South Sudanese traders as middlemen, by buying the ivory in Ariwara, Aru or Kampala. The nature of their involvement consistently points at the implication of Ugandan politico-military elites.

While the LRA are rumored to have traded ivory with Sudanese armed forces in exchange for supplies and arms, this segment, and especially that last sentence, is crucial. There is also a large amount of ivory funneling through Ugandan elite circles. This is part of a long-time trend in which a network of Ugandan political and military elites (often one and the same) profit from Uganda’s military exploits abroad, from livestock and coffee to diamonds and now ivory. In a 2012 article on the UPDF’s presence in the Congo, Vlassenroot, Perrot, and Cuvelier explore this network, explaining that much of it – and probably much of what Titeca identifies as “politico-military elites” – is made up of members of the First Family, long-time NRM party leaders, and leading military figures as well as Congolese local elites, armed groups, and businessmen. Vlassenroot et al refer to these actors as “entrepreneurs of insecurity,” as they capitalized on and even facilitated war in the Congo in the late 1990s and early 2000s in order to reap rewards from mines.

There have been allegations of UPDF involvement in the ivory trade for some time now. There was evidencethat a UPDF helicopter was spotted near the site of multiple elephant killings last year, and an incident before that in which poachers actually attacked the UPDF in CAR to deter them from infringing on the poachers’ territory. That the military, or at least the military and political elite back in Kampala, are involved in the business is of no surprise.

Which makes the goal of melding anti-poaching and anti-LRA efforts a bit difficult to envision. In the weeks after Enough Project’s report was published, there were several calls for action against the LRA, both for their human rights abuses and their animal rights abuses, to help bring the rebel group to an end. Take, for example, Mark Quarterman’s piece highlighting the report for CNN:

Only effective local, national, and transnational action can stop this horror. Anti-atrocity groups such as the Enough Project can advocate for actions to shut off the demand for ivory in Asia. Conservation groups could broaden their focus to include efforts to end wars that have created a symbiotic relationship between ivory poaching and civilian suffering. Both types of organizations should emphasize the longer-term requirement for effective governance to lessen the likelihood of war and ivory poaching.

Joint and parallel action could tap activist organizations, increase the pressure on policymakers for action and broaden the knowledge about both of these problems among those who previously had focused on only one.

The combined efforts of conservation and human rights groups could spur the efforts of governments and international organizations to slow the destruction of the African elephant and free the people of east and central Africa from the threat of Joseph Kony and his ilk. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship, one that could help stop the massacre of both humans and animals in Africa.

If you read this article and Enough’s report, this would sound like a great solution. And it still might be. With combined efforts of conservation groups and human rights groups, effective advocacy may succeed in putting forth new tools to stop the LRA’s abuses of civilians and elephants. But it wouldn’t succeed in stopping the abuse of civilians and elephants. The LRA is only one part of the complex situation of abuses and poaching in the region, some of which is perpetrated by the actors that will be empowered by anti-LRA efforts.

If the abduction of civilians and poaching of elephants by the LRA can be stopped, it will be of tremendous good to those that live in LRA-affected regions. But we shouldn’t expect that this will solve the problem of insecurity that people and elephants frequently encounter in the region. If using militaries (who poach and abuse civilians) to stop armed groups (who poach and abuse civilians) works, we’ll still be left with poachers and human rights abusers.

On Animal Rights Activism

Earlier this year I saw a talk about armed conservancy. The talk centered on nature reserves in northeastern Central African Republic where conservancy groups employ armed teams to patrol the grounds for poachers. The act of hunting hunters is really fascinating, and it’s actually not that uncommon. A lot of African countries have shoot-on-sight policies regarding poachers in order to protect the wildlife (and therefore the tourism industry). But what was interesting was that some of the anti-poaching men Lombard talked about were not from Africa. There was a Frenchman and a couple of Russians who were active in these groups either for ideology or for the money. It reminded me Battleground: Rhino Wars .

Battleground: Rhino Wars is a mini-series that follows four U.S. ex-military as they work to stop poachers. I haven’t seen it, I’ve only seen commercials and that video linked above. But it’s not hard to see what happens on the show. They wander the preserves looking for snares and other traps, they go into markets looking for ivory, and they try to arrest poachers. Animal Planet is documenting the horrors of poaching and showing the more extreme ways to fight it, with a heavy dose of neo-colonialism throughout (like in this video, for example, but that will have to be another post). It’s not too different from a more popular Animal Planet show, also about the more militant types of halting illegal animal trade: Whale Wars.

Whale Wars is a program that’s been around for a few years now. The show follows the crew of several ships that are part of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an environmental and animal rights group that the U.S. had designated as eco-terrorists, as they work to interrupt Japanese whaling vessels. The group has done a lot in its history, but the series concentrates on its action against Japanese whalers. On the show, I’ve seen them lobbing jars of butyric acid at ships (to taint the deck with odor so they can’t work) and try to break the propellers of ships while at sea. The Japanese ships usually respond with water cannons, sound cannons, or flash-bang grenades. It’s direct action, as to whether it’s violent – judge how you want. It might be worth noting that these shows don’t cover violence against people, but rather attacks on the infrastructure and ability to make the animal trade financially nonviable.

But whenever I think about environmental activists and their extreme actions, I wonder where the line is. Raiding a poachers’ camp and boarding a whaling vessel are disputed, but they’re at least accepted enough to serve as entertainment on a television program.  But when animal rights activists firebomb a research clinic or environmentalists burn down construction sites in new, expensive neighborhoods, people are quick to label them terrorists (again, your call). These acts also attack property and infrastructure, trying to make it more difficult to abuse animals and more expensive to clear forests for the rich. What changes our understanding of these acts? Is it the escalation of the attack, from stink- and smoke-bombs that render a ship’s deck unfit for whales to fires that actually destroy? Are people less likely to object to Whale Wars and Rhino Wars because they take place outside the U.S., and so it has less to do with us? Is it merely because it’s on television, so it seems somehow less real? Better question: how would people react if activists sabotaged the Keystone XL pipeline?