Why Elephants Matter

By Richard Ruggiero, J. Michael Fay, and Lee White

Wildlife trafficking will receive overdue world attention this week at the United Nations General Assembly and by the Clinton Global Initiative and other elite platforms.

The ongoing slaughter of African elephants will be in particular focus, as African states and their partners seek to craft consensus on how best to save the largest land mammal from extinction.

There are ecological and moral considerations related to the survival of species, but with so many people throughout the world suffering from war and privation, it is fair to ask why we should care about elephants.

The reason: There is a tangible connection between wildlife trafficking and human security.

Countries that do not value and cannot protect their natural heritage tend to be less stable, less secure, and less bound by global norms, with attendant risks to us all.

The issue is much bigger than localized tensions between communities and wildlife that are known to farmers and ranchers the world over.

Increasingly, criminal and violent extremist organizations operate in sophisticated, multi-national networks.

These networks aggressively target weak spots in the global system to gain money and power, either because that is their sole aim or in order to further ideological ends.

Illicit trafficking across borders of guns, gems, drugs, wildlife—and humans—is their source of money and power.

Ivory Enables Criminal Networks

The criminal syndicates know what makes cash: Ivory is more profitable than heroin or raw diamonds. A kilogram of ivory can fetch up to $3,000 in final markets but only costs between $100 and $300 to acquire in range states.

It is no surprise that these groups seize what they see as a profit center to massacre the last herds of elephants.

Weak states are weak for complex reasons.  Wildlife crimes are not the sole driver of conflict but they erode rule of law and can inflame conflict.

The threat to states metastasizes like cancer. It takes a gun to bring down an elephant. When the elephants are killed off, followed by other wildlife, men who make their living by the gun turn to other illicit activities, menacing civilian populations and government authorities that get in their way.

In East Africa, the multibillion dollar tourist economies, decades in the making, are at risk. Tanzania’s elephant herd is being slaughtered, with an estimated 50 percent of the population killed in the last six years.  As Tanzanian President Kikwete recently put it, “We are under attack.”

For the United States and its partners, these conflicts are no longer local.


Seized tusks awaiting registration and eventual destruction in Libreville, Gabon, 2012. copyright: R.G. Ruggiero
Seized tusks awaiting registration and eventual destruction in Libreville, Gabon, 2012. copyright: R.G. Ruggiero


Spillover Risks

When extremists destabilize states, inevitably the security risks proliferate beyond their borders.

No longer anecdotal, the evidence that violent extremist organizations use ivory as one of many sources of funding is clear.

Earlier this year, elephant tusks were found in a camp of the Lord’s Resistance Army in eastern Central African Republic.

Shiftas, the term for Somali bandits who were responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of elephants and untold numbers of people in Kenya in the 1970s and 1980s, still kill elephants in Kenya’s national parks and engage the Kenya Wildlife Service in deadly firefights.

The ivory moving northward into Somalia is believed to be a funding source for Al-Shabab, a group affiliated with al-Qaeda that claimed responsibility for last Saturday’s shopping mall killings in Nairobi.

Multinational criminal networks know that wildlife crimes carry lower risk and higher reward than other crimes, as wildlife protection is often not seen as a national security issue and receives far fewer resources than counter-narcotic or counter-terror efforts.

Stopping the Criminals

To stop them, we must recognize that the threats are comingled, and we must develop a network of committed, capable partners who can prevent wildlife crime and ensuing violence and lawlessness in the hinterland from taking root.

The good news is there are great opportunities for partnership because wildlife brings together a unique combination of interests: conservation, security governance, and the private sector.

Wildlife managers are often fully integrated with local communities and can team with security entities and commercial firms in ways that are far more cost-effective than permitting local conflict to go global.

An Effective Partnership

In the central African state of Gabon, the United States advises and supports the government as it shores up its interdiction capacity, strengthens its legal regimes and institutions, works with communities to raise awareness of the country’s heritage and external threats, develops the country’s first natural resource conservation graduate program, and develops its tourism sector.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partners with the Gabonese National Parks Agency and funds the Wildlife Conservation Society and the World Wildlife Fund as they attempt to help Gabon improve conservation strategies and law enforcement data collection, storage and analysis, and bolster the institutional capacity of Gabon’s parks and wildlife professionals.

At the same time, through the U.S. Africa Command, the U.S. has sent marines and naval personnel to train a combined unit of Gabonese park rangers and gendarmes (police under military command) in small unit patrol, field navigation, and riverine tactics to assist with border security and the interdiction of illicit trafficking.

On the regional level, Gabon works with its neighbors and a range of multilateral and international institutions in the Congo Basin Forest Partnership to propose solutions to complex cross-border policy issues.

Finally, following the issuance of President Obama’s July 2013 Executive Order—Combating Wildlife Trafficking—the U.S. assigned a task force to create a strategy to support anti-poaching efforts among partners like Gabon through law enforcement, the dismantling of trafficking networks, and the enforcement of international trade rules.

Gabon’s long stability in a rough neighborhood makes it an excellent partner for the U.S. on regional security.

President Bongo Ondimba made conservation and tourism centerpieces of his efforts to diversify the Gabonese economy from over-reliance on hydrocarbons.


Two bulls joust in the Dzanga Bai, Central African Republic, 2011. Copyright: R.G. Ruggiero
Two bulls joust in the Dzanga Bai, Central African Republic, 2011. Copyright: R.G. Ruggiero


Gabon is home to the last great reserves of forest elephants in the world, supporting over 50 percent of survivors in just 10 percent of Africa’s rain forest.

Time is fleeting, however. Armed and organized networks moving through the continent have killed as many as 20,000 forest elephants in Gabon during the past eight years alone.

But the government of Gabon is responding, and the U.S. is supporting its efforts.

Elephants matter not only because of their ecological importance, their aesthetic beauty and power, and their value to developing economies but because their very existence symbolizes stability, security, and the triumph of good governance and the rule of law.

Dr. Richard Ruggiero is the Chief of the Africa Branch of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of International Conservation. Dr. J. Michael Fay is a National Geographic Explore-in-Residence and Senior Conservationist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. Dr. Lee White is the Director of Gabon’s National Parks Agency.


The battle for the survival of the forest elephant will be won or lost in Gabon. NGS photo by Michael Nichols.
The battle for the survival of the forest elephant will be won or lost in Gabon. NGS photo by Michael Nichols.


  1. mia morrison
    September 24, 2014, 11:13 am

    we are doing a project can you be more spacific

  2. Miriam Davis
    Northern California
    September 27, 2013, 8:57 pm

    Very informative–and scary–article. A many-sided approach in many countries is necessary.

  3. Maria Wessel
    September 26, 2013, 3:41 pm

    Good article! Continue to write this kind of articles, it makes people more aware.
    Of course the elephants (and other Endangered animals) are important for us humans and the earth / world.
    I do not think it is possible to compare the slaughter of elephants by ex. human smugglig.
    If the elephants disappears (and other animals) from the earth, it will become permanent.
    Number of people just increases and increases in the world. Rather, we are a “problem” for the earth, who have not learned to respect the earth terms.
    It is we who “kick out” animals and nature from our planet. We have not learned the earth terms.
    Time is short, to balance up our assets we have received from Mother Earth. It’s not easy to “drag” the brakes when everything is already at such a rapid spin.
    If all countries want to bring back the balance of the earth, it is possible.
    We don´t have much choice, if we want to continue to exist on this planet …
    Best regards
    Maria Wessel
    Stockholm Sweden

  4. Tory Braden
    September 26, 2013, 12:09 pm

    Richard Ruggiero. We have been advocating for elephants on all fronts for 4 years on Facebook. Please join us. – and of course have shared the article. You many not allow Save All Elephants link on comments, but this is to let you know there are thousands of activists who support getting the ivory out of China’s hands.

  5. Tory Braden
    September 26, 2013, 12:04 pm

    Until governments pressure China to close its Carving Factories, the poaching and terrorist insecuity will continue. It is not just reducing demand because in China ivory is allowed to be sold and the consumers are not plugged into the fact that the “teeth” do not fall out and regrow. Carving is the Bottle Neck of the trade on two aspects. Nothing carved = no orders for more tusks from the carving factories = no poaching. Nothing carved = nothing to buy = no demand. The tusks end up in the literal laps of the carvers. #ChinaStopCarving. Close down your caving factories.

  6. Diane Symonsa
    United States
    September 26, 2013, 9:58 am

    Thank you for this information Elephants are so important to this world

  7. Richard Ruggiero
    September 26, 2013, 9:41 am

    Thanks, Daniel, absolutely correct. Although anti-poaching is important and should be expanded, we have must focus more on the big-scale traffickers, corrupt enablers, and those who use their profits and influence to build demand in consumer countries. Better policy in consumer countries is also necessary. The poachers are the mere instruments of a larger evil.

  8. susan farrington
    stowe vt
    September 26, 2013, 8:42 am

    GREAT article! Bringing the awareness of this connection may be the only way to stop the slaughter. Understanding the security implications may finally make it important enough to bring it to the forefront of international attention. I will be sharing this article with everyone!

    • Richard Ruggiero
      September 26, 2013, 9:53 am

      Thanks, Susan. Please spread the word about the plight of elephants, their habitats, and the people of Africa. It takes a global village, so to speak.

  9. Daniel Stiles
    September 26, 2013, 1:13 am

    One of the best arguments I’ve seen of why it is of critical importance to save elephants. But depending on anti-poaching measures alone and the increasing militarization of wildlife agencies is not only dangerous for the future stability of Africa, it diverts resources from where much more action should be directed – reducing the demand for ivory amongst consumers, which is the principal driver of the poaching.

  10. beverly ballard
    liberty north carolina
    September 25, 2013, 7:32 pm

    this has to stop stop the people who buy ivory put in jail long time