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Elephant and Rhino Poaching Increasingly Linked to Terrorist Groups

Sep 28, 2013 07:38 AM EDT

This week the number of rhinos poached in South Africa reached at least 688, matching 2012's record-breaking total and essentially guaranteeing that this year will go on to be bloodier for South Africa's rhinos than the last. 

The annually increasing surge in rhino poaching has largely been attributed to a growing demand for rhino horns in East Asia. At a price worth more than its weight in gold, rhino horn is viewed as a status symbol for the affluent, many of whom purchase folk art and cups carved out of the horn. Rhino horn is also believed by some to contain medicinal properties, but it is made of keratin, the same material in fingernails, and Western medicine has debunked all purported health benefits

But an additional explanation for the surge in rhino poaching is that the revenue generated from the illicit sale of the horns goes to fuel militant groups such as al-Shabaab, the group responsible for the terrorist attack that killed at least 62 people in Kenya's Westgate shopping center.

Environmental groups have claimed that the militant organization is funding its operations through ivory and rhino horns obtained by poaching.

"Many members of al-Shabaab have poached elephants for ivory and claimed 'ivory taxes' from commercial poaching gangs involved in the illegal trade for many years," Ian Saunders, director of Kenya-based non-profit organisation Tsavo Trust, said in April, according to the Irish Times

A 2011 undercover investigation by the Elephant Action League suggests that the ivory trade "could be supplying up to 40% of the funds needed to keep [al-Shabaab] in business."

The International Conservation Caucus Foundation (ICCF) reports that terrorist groups are increasingly generating revenue from ivory and rhino horns.

"Ivory and rhino horn are gaining popularity as a source of income for some of Africa's most notorious armed groups, including Somalia's al-Shabab, the Lord's Resistance Army (L.R.A.), and Darfur's janjaweed," the ICCF reported. "Illegal wildlife products are a substantial lifeline to African-based terrorism. These groups, which are systematically exploiting porous borders and weak governance and hindering sustainable economic activities, have the potential to set back African development by decades and create large swaths of ungovernable land, and new hotbeds for terrorist cells."

Rhino horn can sell for as much as $30,000 per pound, a price higher than gold or cocaine, according to the ICCF. In 2012, the estimated black market value of ivory was $1,800 per kilogram (2.2 pounds), according to Wildlife News.

"Wildlife trafficking is now more organized, more lucrative, more widespread and more dangerous than ever before. It constitutes a threat to territorial integrity, security and represents an invasion as well as natural resources theft," said Jim Leape, Director General of WWF International

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