The illegal ivory trade, driven by transnational organised crime, is a security threat


If one tackles the trafficking of this wildlife product as a felony, it will curb violence and wars – and the destruction of a species.


The ivory trade as an environmental issue gets all the attention but there’s inadequate focus on its link to transnational organised crime.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) is the global framework for protecting and regulating trade in animals, and has been ratified by 183 countries. Cites provides a way to co-operate against trafficking and to prosecute perpetrators of wildlife crime.

There is limited knowledge about how the ivory trade is used to fund other forms of violence. The estimated price of ivory on the black market is $1 100 a kilogram. The average African elephant carries roughly 62.5kg of ivory; it’s worth $70 000.

Protecting animals and addressing environmental concerns is inherently good but the trade should be viewed as a form of transnational organised crime. International co-operation should be improved to better understand the links between poachers in Africa, the consumers of ivory and those managing the trade. There cannot be a globally traded illegal commodity without an organised criminal network.

In an increasingly connected world, transnational organised crime poses a significant threat to international security and stability. For example, it was reported that the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda used ivory to fund their organisation, and the Council on Foreign Relations has linked al-Shabab with the ivory trade.

Although it lacks a precise definition, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) generally defines transnational organised crime as a group of three or more actors who work in concert to commit a crime, punishable by at least four years’ jail, to gain a financial or other material benefit.

The trade in illegal wildlife products has become a significant form of transnational organised crime, along with the “traditional” forms such as money laundering, the drug trade, human trafficking and the illegal trade in light weapons.

Ivory poaching is concentrated in two broad areas: East and Southern Africa.

In the former, poaching most commonly occurs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya; in the latter the major countries of concern are Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Combined, these countries account for 75% of Africa’s elephant population.

Seizures of ivory reveal that the predominant destinations are East Asia (mainly China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand). The ivory departs Africa mainly through busy seaports such as Mombasa, Dar es Salaam, Maputo and Durban.

Even though there are measures in place to detect ivory in shipments, these ports have to make do with inadequate technology, staff shortages and insufficient training for the staff who manage the ports.

Corruption plays a major role. Customs officials are reportedly paid up to $5 000 to allow an illegal shipment of ivory to pass. For context, the World Bank estimates that average gross domestic product per capita in Africa at purchasing power parity was about $2 000 in 2015.

Once past these ports, the majority of ivory shipments are destined for Hong Kong, the main entry point into Asia. This is largely a result of a loophole in Hong Kong law allowing the legal trade of ivory.

This situation arose in 1989, when ivory became internationally illegal but Hong Kong issued licences to traders to sell off their remaining stock. This should have been depleted by 2004. Those stocks were strictly measured by weight, but there has been a tendency to replenish them with illegal ivory.

The situation may be changing. In June, the Hong Kong government moved to close this loophole; trade in ivory from 2021 has been outlawed.

This month the International Criminal Court announced that it would begin to consider crimes resulting in the “destruction of the environment” and the “exploitation of natural resources” as crimes against humanity.

Although many countries already have a legal framework for prosecuting these crimes, the punishment of traders is inconsistent at best. Many countries apply the Cites treaty leniently and individuals or groups often receive light sentences that would not even qualify for UNODC’s definition of transnational organised crime.

But nongovernmental organisations such as WildAid have been campaigning for stricter penalties and to move wildlife trafficking from the environmental arena into the transnational organised crime domain.

In Hong Kong, for instance, WildAid is advocating seven- to 10-year prison sentences and arguing that ivory cases be tried under the city’s organised and serious crimes ordinance, where there would be more thorough criminal investigations.

Awareness campaigns in Hong Kong, China and Thailand have also become increasingly prominent. And the Hong Kong government has publicly stated that the illegal ivory trade has connections with other forms of transnational organised crime.

Despite these efforts, ivory is still seen as a high-end product for jewellers, as well as those who consume it for its purported medicinal value.

The sheer cost of ivory suggests that wealthy consumers are the major culprits and should be more specifically targeted by these campaigns. This approach should be extended to Europe and the United States, where ivory is purchased as a luxury item.

There are the beginnings of regional initiatives aimed at curbing the trade of ivory. The East African Community and the Southern African Development Community have openly discussed the issue but these conversations have yet to yield concrete policies and, in the past, have been undermined by one-off sales of ivory stockpiles, notably in Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

These initiatives focus almost exclusively on the environmental side, with insufficient attention being paid to port security, wildlife trafficking networks and syndicates, and the potential for collaboration with Western and Asian partners to reduce the demand for illegal ivory.

Countries need to work together to understand the trade, develop strategies to address the demand and supply side, and view wildlife trafficking as a security issue. That illicit ivory is used to fund violent crime and wars should provide more than enough impetus for improved collaboration. – ISS Today

Zachary Donnenfeld is a researcher and Jervin Naidoo a consultant with African Futures and Innovation at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria

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