Elephant poaching and ivory trafficking in East Africa is driven not only by foreign consumers but also by African nationals who actively “push” ivory to these markets.
A recent report, Pushing Ivory Out of Africa: A Criminal Intelligence of Elephant Poaching and Ivory Trafficking in East Africa, released July 20 by Global Eye and the Elephant Action League, summarized a 12-month investigation that involved infiltration of four separate East African networks and found that African nationals play a crucial role in the ivory supply chain.
“They don’t just react to satisfy a request from abroad but proactively make ivory available to buyers,” explains coauthor Andrea Crosta, executive director of the Elephant Action League.
The cells of one of the infiltrated networks, known by investigators as the Cerberus network, all had the same preferred African wholesaler. But they weren’t obligated to sell to that buyer, and that buyer didn’t control their activities.
“It’s often been stated or assumed implicitly that Asian buyers have a lot of control over this. We didn’t find that,” says coauthor Fiachra Kearney, the head of Global Eye, an organization that aims to prevent wildlife, timber, and human trafficking.
The East Africans in the criminal networks “have a lot of control. It’s similar to narcotics and counterfeit goods. You want to control the supply chain as far as you can because you want to control the costs and therefore control the profits.”
One cell in the Cerberus network, CN1, provides a case in point. Cell members did everything from procuring weapons for poachers to killing elephants to transporting the ivory in East Africa.
They sourced ivory in northern Kenya, in and around Tsavo East National Park. Then they transported it by car and motorcycle to Mombasa using numerous lower-level individuals.
Within the network, astute businessmen with vested interests knew how to move illicit goods. They weren’t merely supplying ivory at the request of foreign buyers but were actively seeking places to sell it.
“They’re not going to know certain aspects of the other end of the supply chains in Asia,” Kearney notes, “so they’ll want to find partners. But as far as they can, they’ll hold onto control.”
Adaptable Trafficking Networks
Conventional thinking about how organized crime works for ivory conjures the idea of a crime boss and a mafia-style operation behind him. But that, Crosta says, “oversimplifies the reality on the ground.”
The East African investigation found that the networks can be less hierarchical and more adaptable than commonly assumed.
When two suspects in the CN1 cell were killed by police, the cell continued to operate, but in a modified way.
The investigation found that when one person is removed—shot or arrested—the networks reorganize themselves either by filling the gap internally, sharing tasks with other cells, or employing someone new. Then it’s back to business as usual.
Often, the removal of an individual means more profit for somebody else.
“This is quite possibly one of the reasons why what’s often touted as a ‘win,’ like the arrest of supposed ringleaders in Africa, such as Feisal Mohammed Ali, have little impact,” Kearney says.
Ali, a Kenyan national, was caught last December in Tanzania after he escaped from Kenyan authorities and Interpol had put him on its list of most wanted environmental criminals. “His arrest didn’t stop the movement of ivory out of East Africa,” Kearney says.
This adaptability implies that if law enforcement is to break trafficking networks in East Africa, efforts should be expanded from anti-poaching to also “mapping” the members and organization of those networks, which are often separate, isolated units operating independently along the supply chain.
At the same time, focusing on reducing consumer demand is crucial, Kearney says, “but markets are neither static nor predictable. These guys have invested a lot of time and energy into the business and can respond to favorable dynamics. They have the networks to move ivory. They can continue to harvest ivory, pack it up, and ship it off.”
“It’s never as simple as it looks,” Crosta says. “Every time we start looking in the wrong direction, that’s one more point for the bad guys.”
Laurel Neme, Ph.D., is the author of Animal Investigators: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species (Scribner, 2009) and Orangutan Houdini (Bunker Hill Publishing, 2014). As a freelance journalist, she focuses on wildlife trafficking, conservation, and science.