Why Desperate Terrorist Groups Have Turned to Slaughtering Innocent Elephants and Rhinos

Arriving on military helicopters and aided by night vision cameras, the attacks opened up on their victims with AK-47 weapons. It was a massacre. The photograph is heart-wrenching and tragic.

It shows 86 elephants slaughtered in Chad just several weeks ago. The victims included more than 30 pregnant females. Many aborted their calves when shot. The hunters butchered some, and left the others to die. The elephants had huddled together helplessly for protection.

Poachers are decimating the forest elephant. Populations have declined 62% in 10 years. Unless something changes, elephants are headed for extinction in the wild.

The fate of the rhinoceros is equally alarming. Rhino populations have dropped 90% in just 50 years. Poaching of South African rhinos is up 50% since 2011 and 5000% since 2007. Theeir horns can sell for $30,000 apiece, more per gram than gold or cocaine. Asians, especially Vietnamese and Chinese, consume the horns, believing them to be a palliative.

Some say the Vietnamese are worst. They’ve already slaughtered their own Javan rhinoceros to extinction. Now they’ve set their sights on Africa. One Vietnamese diplomat was caught on camera receiving a rhino horn in the parking lot of the embassy in Johannesburg. It’s not just Vietnamese or Chinese, though. The guilty parties also include Asian Americans.

U.S. laws may be stricter in prohibiting importing elephant tusks or rhino horns, but penalties are light. Dealing in a kilo of cocaine can send you to the slammer for years. Dealing in a kilo of rhino horn powder? A meaningless fine.

At least the Chinese, whom critics charge with responsibility for half the illegal fishing in the world and a major role in human trafficking, are trying to stop the trade in tusks and horns. Chinese film stars like Li Bingbing are warning against poaching. Apparently such efforts are deterring younger Chinese. But older generations – there and in countries like the U.S. – remain impervious.

A strategic communication campaign aimed at changing social norms to make purchase of horn or tusk power socially unacceptable is important and must be launched. That’s merely one step in what needs to be a globally integrated, holistic approach that attacks the supply and the demand side of this illicit economy.

Conservation groups and some African governments have committed significant resources in an effort to disrupt the trade at the ground level, hiring and deploying thousands of park rangers and patrols into national parks and using cameras, spy planes, and even sending out drones to track the poachers.

“This approach is well intentioned,” says Gretchen Peters, but it will never be enough.” Author of Seeds of Terror, Peters is a recognized expert on terrorism finance and transnational crime networks.

“I believe it is vital to understand the complete logistical and financial picture of a transnational criminal organization in order to design a strategy that will strike at its heart,” she says. “We must attack the problem so it will reduce the earnings of the criminal leadership and significantly degrade that organization’s capacity to operate and to profit.”

She adds: “We must start understanding and attacking criminal networks likes businesses, because that is what they are.”

Experts agree that good ground enforcement can help reduce the flow of smuggled horns and tusks. But it’s too little. The supply chain crosses borders and most of the illicit profits are generated outside of Africa.

The slaughter is outrageous enough. But the story gets worse. It’s about more than consumers who believe (incorrectly) that rhino horns cure cancer and increase sexual potency.

The horn and tusk trade is merely one element of a broader scope of intertwined illegal activities in drug trafficking, arms smuggling, and money laundering. It all aims for the same goal: generating huge, illegal profits for criminals, who often provide funds that finance violent extremism. Those who bankroll these sophisticated quasi-military operations are international criminal networks, often working hand-in-hand with terror networks linked to or aligned with extremist groups.

International terrorists networks need more than ideology to function. They need money. That money, often laundered through legitimate fronts, helps recruiting. It helps terror networks subvert states, societies, and economies. It helps them move people and weapons through countries.

If we identify the networks and their leaders and follow the money, real action can be taken that deals these networks severe blows. We can find, follow, and freeze bank accounts while employing a government approach and cooperating with foreign partners to combat terrorist finance. But more is needed. A more telling move would be to drain those accounts and deprive criminal and terror networks of their cash.

That tactic unnerves U.S. Treasury officials, who opposed a similar approach in combating Mexican drug cartels (except perhaps through ordinary processes of court procedure, an approach doomed to fail). The last thing Treasury intends is to support terror networks. But the hard reality is that its posture affords transnational criminals and terror networks among its most powerful protections. It’s absurd. Winning a war against violent extremists requires a will to win. Our enemies give us no quarter, no mercy. They merit none.

Even though President Barack Obama has announced a new policy of reducing drone attacks, there’s no question that legal authority exists to kill Al Qaeda-linked terrorists who make war against the U.S. If we attack and kill terrorists – in operations that may unintentionally harm civilians – we can take non-kinetic action that deprives criminals and terrorists of their ability to function.

Peters made a huge impact with her excellent book, which examined the impact of the heroin trade in Afghanistan. She’s on the right track, seeking to identify the criminal networks that trade in horns and tusks. Mapping those will light the path to identifying the leaders who organize and run these networks, and their comrades who traffic in terror.

It’s a sensible approach to dealing a devastating blow against those who threaten the security of American families, and perversely turn human sensibility towards other species with whom we share this planet into a tragic travesty.