Terrorist groups in northern Mali are among those poaching the region's shrinking herd of desert elephants, according to the United Nations, part of a global wildlife trafficking trade that helps fund armed groups and fuel conflict.
"We strongly suspect there is a link between the poachers and the armed terrorists, who could be relying on the illegal ivory trade to finance some of their activities," said Sophie Raviers, the UN's environment representative in Mali.
A joint report last year by the UN's environment programme UNEP and international police force Interpol estimated that around 90 percent of elephants killed in Africa each year (numbering 20,000-25,000) are killed by non-state armed groups, in or near conflict zones.
According to MINUSMA — the UN's peacekeeping mission in Mali — a reported 57 elephants, were killed in the country the first half of the year. The elephants, which represent 20 percent of Mali's remaining elephant population, were poached from the northern region of Gourma.
The government has pledged to deploy an extra 50 rangers in the region over the coming weeks as part of a campaign to stamp out elephant poaching. The rangers will answer to Mali's National Agency of Waters and Forests (Direction Nationale des Eaux et Forêts — DNEF).
"There are all sorts of trafficking activities in the region: drug trafficking, human trafficking… Those illegal trades are also linked to armed terrorist organizations. It is possible that the ivory is being trafficked along the same routes," explained Raviers, adding that insecurity in Mali's north makes it difficult to know who is smuggling what.
Mali was plunged into chaos in March 2012, after secular Tuareg rebels from Mali's National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) joined armed Islamist groups like Ansar Dine, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and MUJAO Movement for Unity and Jihad (MUJAO) to seize the northern half of Mali.
In January 2013, Islamist forces launched an unprecedented attack on the south of the country, triggering French military intervention. Operation Serval — later replaced with Operation Barkhane — successfully halted the jihadist advance, and also helped the Malian government regain control of Northern Mali.
However Islamist groups are still active in the region and there has been an upsurge in attacks this year, by pro-government forces as well as rebels. Since the beginning of MINUSMA's mission in April 2013, 42 peacekeepers have been killed by hostile acts — including 10 so far this year -— and 166 wounded.
Ongoing security issues in the country have badly hurt the economy, and poaching is increasingly seen as a way to make "easy money," explained Raviers.
Wildlife poaching is an important source of income for armed movements in many African countries, particularly in Central and Southern Africa, according to last year's UNEP/Interpol report The Environmental Crime Crisis.
The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) — a Ugandan rebel group that operates along the border between South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo — and Janjaweed — a militia operating in the western Sudanese region of Darfur — are both believed to be profiting from the illegal ivory trade, as are several armed gangs in Chad and Niger.
Poaching is also a major issue in the northern Indian region of Assam, which lies on the border with Bangladesh. Separatist rebels and jihadist militants from al Qaeda-linked outfits like Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami and Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh are among the groups poaching tigers, elephants and rhinoceroses in the region.
Mali's elephant population is one of only two desert-adapted herds of elephants in the world. Elephants in Mali account for 12 percent of all elephants in western Africa, and the country is home to Africa's most northerly elephant herd.
Elephants in the Gourma herd can move rapidly across the sprawling province — which stretches from the border with Burkina Faso all the way to Timbuktu — to find watering holes.
"They are of paramount important for reasons of genetic diversity," explained Susan Canney, who runs the Mali Elephant Project for wildlife conservation NGO Wild Foundation.
Canney and her team have been active on the ground for years to protect Mali's dwindling elephant population. The interference of armed terrorist groups has made the task even more daunting.
"It would appear that these trafficking rings are targeting elephants," Canney told VICE News. "Smugglers profit from every imaginable illegal trade: drugs, people… Armed groups constantly need cash to buy weapons. It's likely they exploit this trafficking corridor, among others, to finance their activities."
Representatives from MINUSMA, the Wild Foundation and the DNEF visited the towns of Boni, Hombori and Mindoro in the province of Gourma in early October to identify possible new outposts for the 50 extra rangers the government has pledged to send to the region.
Forest rangers have also become targets for the insurgents in the region. On July 1, a ranger in the town of Mondoro was murdered by suspected Islamist militants.
The 50 new rangers "have just finished their training, which also included military training," Raviers said.
Over 20,000 elephants were poached across the African continent in 2013, according to the UNEP report. "Poached African ivory may represent an end-user street value in Asia of $165 to $188 million of raw ivory." the report stated. Demand for ivory is particularly high in Asia and the Middle East.
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