Rosaleen Duffy is Professor of International Politics at the University of Sheffield. She is currently directing the EUR 1.8 million BIOSEC research programme, entitled Biodiversity and Security: Understanding environmental crime, illegal wildlife trade and threat finance.

Other members of the project team are Ruth Wilson and Hannah Dickinson, and the team will be joined by three new members in September 2017. To learn more about the project please contact

Is wildlife trafficking a threat to global security?

The value of the global illegal trade in wildlife is difficult to determine due to its clandestine nature, but it has been estimated at around US$7.8–$10 billion (Ayling, 2013:58).  It ranks as the third biggest global illicit activity (after trafficking drugs and weapons). But is it also a source of instability and a security threat because of its links to terrorism?

Two years ago I started noticing that several of the world’s largest and best known conservation NGOs were reporting that ivory wars a major source of funding for Al Shabaab. The story that wildlife trafficking is a major source of terrorist financing seemed to proliferate – before long it was repeated by world leaders, international organisations and, unsurprisingly perhaps, private security companies. Claims were soon circulating about the role of ivory in funding Boko Haram, Lord’s Resistance Army and Janjaweed as well. Achim Steiner (while he was UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of UNEP) stated ‘the scale and role of wildlife and forest crime in threat finance calls for much wider policy attention’ (Nellemann et al (eds), 2014: 4). Such claims also constitute the centrepieces of several high profile articles in National Geographic. For example,‘Blood Ivory’ was a cover story in 2012, and in 2015 it carried an article entitled ‘How Killing Elephants Finances Terrorism in Africa’. These are bold and exciting stories, but to me, it all seemed a bit too convenient and a bit too exciting- a heady mix of some of the world’s most iconic species with some of the world’s most notorious groups.

The key question is: are these claims credible or not? I was puzzled, so I started digging.

Despite the proliferation of the claims, there is very little evidence for them. For example, a recent report by UNEP points out that the claim by Elephant Action League that Al Shabaab smuggles 30.6 tonnes of ivory per annum is not credible; charcoal and ex-pat finance, however, are major sources of the group’s funding (Nellemann et al (eds), 2014: 78-81).  But the ‘terrorism claim’ stuck, and set in train a new, much more militarised, approach to conservation (Duffy et al, 2015). We now increasingly see references to ivory wars, rhino wars, and the need to protect wildlife from criminal or terrorist poachers (Büscher, 2016; Lunstrum, 2014).   In the longer term this could be counter-productive for both wildlife conservation and for global security, after all poor diagnoses of problems lead to poor and ineffective treatments.

Poverty reduction

In our reviews of the links between poverty and poaching, we argue that we need to start with a much broader view of illegal hunting, which places it in its historical, social, economic and political context. For example, if we understand how some protected areas were created via the dispossession of local communities, then illegal hunting of wildlife and apparent transgressions into national parks become rather more understandable.  Only via such an analysis can we really understand why people hunt illegal and how we might tackle it. We suggested that poaching was a loaded term, and illegal wildlife hunting is a better term to capture the range of practices that people engage in. Illegal hunting of wildlife needs to be approached as a development issue rather than one confined to conservation (Roe, ed., 2015) – if we take this view then anti-poaching becomes less about militarised forms of protection and more effective approaches can be designed which seek to meet the aspirations of local communities themselves (Duffy, St. John, Büscher, Brockington, 2015b). Taking a more expansive view of poaching helps understand how and why links are drawn between poverty, hunting and security, and what alternative approaches could be developed (Duffy, St. John, Büscher, Brockington, 2015a)

Pressing questions remain: what does a militarised approach mean for wildlife conservation; why have conservationists turned to private security firms to deliver anti poaching; and why does there seem to be a growing faith in surveillance technologies (drones, camera traps) to ‘solve’ the problems of illegal hunting and trading of wildlife? In order to address these questions we have recently launched ‘BIOSEC’ which is a four year European Research Council (ERC) funded programme in to the intersections between biodiversity conservation and global security, and is focused around understanding the illegal wildlife trade. The BIOSEC project will examine what drives poaching in source countries, what drives demand in user markets and what roles wealth, poverty and inequality play in poaching and trafficking. It will also analyse the response of the European Union to wildlife trafficking, and the implications of the growing use of surveillance technology to detect and track illegal hunters, traffickers and end users. Our aim is to develop a more detailed and sophisticated understanding of wildlife trafficking, as a critically important global issue, so we can tackle it more effectively.

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