In the attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya in September 2013, the terrorist network responsible was a Somalian affiliate of al Qaeda known as al Shabaab. In 2012, The Elephant Action League (EAL) identified al Shabaab as a threat to both the region’s national security and wildlife as “up to 40 percent” of the group’s activities are said to be funded by the illegal ivory trade.

This year, the U.S. will fund new initiatives to reduce poaching and increase law enforcement in hopes of protecting some of the world’s most endangered species.

Al Shabaab, meaning “The Youth” in Arabic, swore allegiance to al Qaeda in 2012, gaining the strength of 4,000 to 6,000 soldiers. The group is an offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a group of sharia courts that had united and formed a rival administration to the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia.

After the ICU lost most of its territory in early 2007, hard line elements split off to form groups such as al Shabaab. An investigation by the Elephant Action League (EAL) revealed that the monthly income for al Shabaab has been between $200,000 to $600,000. With between one to three tons of ivory a month passing through Somali ports at $200 a kilo, ivory according to the EAL, has become the “white gold” of Jihad.

Laurel Neme, the author of Animal Investigators and a contributor to National Geographic, told Record, “There are many instances of major crimes (drug trafficking, etc) being linked to terrorism and militia groups. Nobody really cares what contraband they’re trafficking as long as it makes money. Often, wildlife products provide the same profit but with less risk.”

U.S. initiative

The EAL is not alone in connecting affiliated poaching and terrorist groups. The U.S. government has also recognized this connection and has been increasing pressure on poachers.

In 2013, the Clinton Foundation unveiled plans for an 80 million dollar program to combat the ivory trade. The funds will be used to hire and train 3,100 park rangers at 50 sites in eastern and central Africa, fund sniffer-dog teams, and train law enforcement and judges responsible for prosecuting those involved with illegal poaching.

Approximately 285,000 elephants, who form two-thirds of the entire African population, live in these targeted areas.

In addition, the White House released an executive order to combat wildlife trafficking on July 1, 2013.

According to the order signed by President Obama, “The poaching of protected species and the illegal trade in wildlife and their derivative parts and products (together known as “wildlife trafficking”) represent an international crisis that continues to escalate. Poaching operations have expanded beyond small-scale, opportunistic actions to coordinated slaughter commissioned by armed and organized criminal syndicates.”

The executive order established a Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking. The task force is chaired by Judith McHale. McHale is the president and CEO of Cane Investments, and the former head of Discovery Communications (the parent company of the Discovery Channel).

Other members include the chairman of the board of governors for the International Conservation Caucus Foundation David Barron, Cristian Samper from the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Carter Roberts from the World Wildlife Fund.

The task force had its first meeting on December 16, 2013. Amongst their early recommendations(they are to eventually develop a full blown national strategy) includes the utilization of resources from the Department of Defense and utilizing the intelligence community to track major international wildlife trafficking activities.

The task force also has a strong stance on banning ivory sales in the U.S., as well as upgrading the legal status of wildlife crimes.

Still, there are some who don’t feel current steps have gone far enough. Richard G. Ruggiero, the Africa Branch chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of International Conservation, told the Washington Post, “We are getting to the point of no return. We lacked political will in the U.S., overseas and in consumer nations such as China. Without political will, there’s nothing.”

Fighting poverty may be important in fighting against poaching. James Deutsch from the Wildlife Conservation Society told the Washington Post that “fighting poverty has to be a key part of the long-term solution to this problem.” To aid in this effort, the U.S. hopes to funnel more money into African wildlife tourism, farming assistance, and other measures to reduce the attractiveness of poaching as a profession.

Attempting to increase the presence of wildlife tourism is not a new technique. Community conservation projects have been in play for decades. An early example includes the Community Baboon Sanctuary in Belize, established in the early 1980s. Over 200 private landowners came together to preserve a section of rain forest to ensure that the endangered black howler monkey had habitat.

It is even present in the U.S., where whale watching companies now profit off of local whale populations, bringing in tourism revenue.

Combating poaching has grown from being a problem of concern for environmentalists and conservationists, to a problem with consequences in foreign affairs, the drug war, and geopolitical stability. As long as wildlife trafficking remains a valid form of work for impoverished communities in the developing world, it will be difficult to combat.

More importantly, as long as there is demand – particularly in Asia where many illicit products eventually find themselves protecting species like the African elephant will be all the more difficult. Dangerous groups like al Shabaab know the demand is there, and they are profiting.