Extinction Trade

Endangered animals are the new blood diamonds as militias and warlords use poaching to fund death.

The marauders galloped into Zakouma National Park in Chad, the last refuge of that country's once thriving elephant population. Rather than bother with the few remaining elephants, the attackers last May were after the 1.5 tons of ivory—worth as much as $1.3 million—that Chadian officials had seized from poachers over the years and stored in a strongroom at park headquarters. Neither the audacity of the attack nor its brutality—the raiders killed three park rangers—shocked wildlife officials: some 100 rangers, outgunned and outmanned, are killed every year defending Africa's wildlife. Rather, the shock was the identity of the attackers.

In an ominous sign of how the killing of endangered animals has evolved from a crime committed by small bands of unorganized, mostly poor operators, these attackers were Janjaweed, the militia that has carried out genocidal attacks in Darfur. Lured by easy money, the Janjaweed have expanded their killing fields to endangered species. In the past two years, they have butchered hundreds of elephants around Zakouma, say Chadian authorities, carrying the tusks back to Sudan, where they are secreted on ships bound mostly for Asia—or traded for weapons.

For the Janjaweed, killing elephants is the least of its atrocities. But the militia's move into ivory poaching signals a terrifying turn in the world's efforts to save vanishing species. The battle is no longer just about the elephant's trumpet never again echoing over the African savanna, or the Bengal tiger's roar being heard only in memory. The threat posed by the contraband wildlife trade is now also about the money it generates—wave upon wave of it—that is being used by very bad people to do very bad things. "Earnings from the ivory trade is sustaining the Janjaweed," says Michael Wamithi, former head of the Kenya Wildlife Service and now director of the elephant program for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "It's untraceable money," much like the "blood diamonds" that bankrolled brutal wars in Sierra Leone. On March 5, the House Committee on Natural Resources will hold a hearing on the new twist in illegal wildlife trade.

Three nights after the Janjaweed killed the Chadian rangers in their assault on the ivory (the surviving rangers drove them off before they got their hands on the stockpile), heavily armed Somali poachers marched in lockstep so precisely that a dozen men made the sound of a single footfall. Reaching the bank of Kenya's Tana River, they fired 300 rounds from their assault rifles and killed three Kenyan rangers before losing four of their own and fleeing. The poachers, says IFAW's Wamithi, were traced to a Somali warlord, one of many whose private armies have destabilized that nation for decades. The link didn't surprise experts. If you have to equip, feed and pay a few thousand soldiers, asks William Clark, who chairs Interpol's Working Group on Wildlife Crime, "where does that come from? You need money to pay for civil war."

The State Department estimates that the market value of illegal ivory (the most commonly trafficked contraband, at $400 a pound), tiger parts ($7,000 for a set of bones), rhino horn (up to $25,000 per pound of bone), shark fins, exotic birds (up to $90,000 for a Lear's macaw), reptile skin, bushmeat and other illegal wildlife products has reached $10 billion a year and possibly twice that. China is the largest market, with the United States a close second.

The tip-off that contraband wildlife is being moved by organized syndicates is in the pattern of the seizures. Authorities intercepted an average of 92 illegal shipments of ivory every month in 2006, found Tom Milliken, director of the Africa program for Traffic International, a global network formed in 1976 to monitor wildlife trade. That is not much changed since the 1990s, but one thing is: the number that weighed one ton or more doubled from 1997 to 2006. That rise, says Traffic's Richard Thomas, "is certainly evidence of increasing organized criminal gangs … Moving a ton of ivory is not a trivial undertaking." Recently seized shipments of coral, snakeskins, conch shells, ivory, shahtoosh (the hair of endangered antelopes) and abalone have all been the largest-ever of their types, says Interpol's Clark, another sign that this is not the work of small-time crooks.

It is not size alone that points to the involvement of large syndicates, but the sophistication of the smuggling. In a 2006 seizure in Hong Kong, a ship that had sailed from Cameroon was found to have three containers with false compartments, each filled with ivory. The compartments had been deftly made and camouflaged with sophisticated metallurgy. The suspected trafficker, a Taiwanese man, has not been extradited because of Taiwan's diplomatic isolation; prosecution is unlikely. But an investigation by Hong Kong authorities revealed that he had shipped at least 15 containers along the same route with the same declared contents—timber planks—in the past few years. All 15 got through with what Interpol suspects was 40 tons of contraband ivory.

That represents 4,000 killed elephants, an indication of how brutally effective the new poachers are. A DNA analysis revealed that the ivory in the Cameroon shipment all came from elephants in eastern Gabon and the neighboring Congo, which suggests that contractors "receive a 'purchase order' for a specific quantity of ivory," says Clark. They organize teams of poachers to kill a set number of elephants in a specific area, then arrange for transport to the coast.

The consequences for wildlife have been devastating. The highly endangered northern white rhino was making a comeback in Garamba National Park, on the border of Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. A population of 13 in 1983 had rebounded to 32 by 2003. But late that year Janjaweed militias armed with AK-47s began arriving, and the slaughter began. In a typical raid, says conservation biologist Emmanuel de Merode, who has worked in East Africa for two decades, some 20 horse-mounted militiamen do the killing, while scores of others camp on the edge of the park with large caravans of donkeys providing supplies for the days-long journey from Sudan and back. The poachers remove the rhino horns, which are prized as dagger handles in the Middle East and for purported medical properties in Asia. As of last year, there were two rhinos left in Garamba, a death sentence for that population. "There may have been some local poaching, too," says de Merode, "but it was the Janjaweed that killed them off." In another case of militias' financing atrocities through poaching, armed men believed to be members of the FDLR, Hutu extremists tied to the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, abducted and killed two baby gorillas from Congo. Although some black-market buyers prefer the primates alive, stuffed ones can bring enough for a nice haul of assault rifles.

The State Department and some members of Congress suspect a link between illegal wildlife trafficking and terrorism, but admit that "the evidence is anecdotal," says Claudia McMurray, assistant secretary of State. "But with the amount of money it would provide terrorist groups, even anecdotes are a huge cause for concern." One focus: domestic separatist groups and Islamic militants based in Bangladesh. Indian wildlife officials suspect them of sponsoring the poaching of tigers, rhinos, elephants and other vanishing breeds in India's Kaziranga National Park to support terrorist activities, police sources in India tell NEWSWEEK. One group is suspected of carrying out a string of bombings in India beginning in 2004.

Just as the ultimate blame for drug lords who murder the innocent lies with users, so the blame for a wildlife trade that sustains organized crime and genocidal militias lies with the buyers. "There is a vague awareness in America that some things, they shouldn't be buying," says McMurray. "But the psychology seems to be that if it's in a store [or online] it must be OK." Americans who buy ivory carvings (easily available online), Japanese who collect the ivory signature seals called hankos and Chinese who clamor for "medicines" made from tiger bone are not supporting some lone poacher who's trying to feed his family. They're putting money into the coffers of the Janjaweed, warlords and possibly even worse actors. With the new wildlife traffickers, it's not only animals whose lives are at stake.