U.S. Mulls Help for Africa to Hunt Down Wildlife Poachers

White Rhinos
White Rhinos at Kapama Private Game Reserve, Kruger National Park. Source: Bonnie Rollins via Bloomberg

U.S. intelligence agencies are considering whether to provide information, analysis and possibly tactical lessons to African governments about how to attack wildlife poaching networks, according to a top official.

“We are looking for opportunities” where “we can contribute,” Terrance Ford, the national intelligence manager for Africa in the office of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, said in an interview last week.

“We haven’t settled on” the next opportunity, but “it’s an issue of where we can make a difference,” Ford said after speaking to an intelligence conference in Washington. “We have a role to play in this, so we are trying to do that.”

Infrared and photographic imagery from satellites and other data could help locate and track herds of animals and bands of poachers, and wildlife rangers would benefit from better equipment and by adapting some of the techniques, tactics and procedures used by military intelligence officers, said Ford and other U.S. officials.

Ford, a former Army deputy chief for intelligence and U.S. Africa Command intelligence director, said that in many respects, networks of illicit poachers and buyers resemble the terrorist networks that U.S. military intelligence has developed tools to counter.

The tools used to “understand and defeat these networks can be shared with governments and wildlife services,” he said.

These include the methods, known collectively as geospatial intelligence or “GeoInt,” used to analyze, correlate and disseminate large amounts of data “to understand relationships that are not immediately evident,” Ford said.

Unmasking Organizations

“As we focus on terrorist activities, weapons proliferation and illegal drugs, we obtain information on how the contraband is acquired, transported and sold, plus data on the organization itself and its leadership,” Ford said in his speech. “There is certain information” about networks profiting from the killings that “we’d like to share, and we do share.”

There’s increased congressional interest in harnessing the intelligence community to assist in counter-poaching. The House appropriations committee’s fiscal 2016 defense bill said trafficking, particularly of African elephant ivory, can be used as a source of funding by terrorist groups and extremist militias in central and eastern Africa.

The committee encouraged the intelligence community to “share information and analysis on transnational criminal organizations” and others “that facilitate illegal wildlife trafficking.”

Organized Crime

U.S. authorities crushed more than a ton of ivory this month in New York’s Times Square to highlight the problem of pouching. Most ivory is bound for China.

As many as 40,000 African elephants were lost to poaching in 2011, a major factor in the illegal wildlife trade that’s become the world’s fourth-largest international organized crime, according to a University of Washington study published this month by the journal Science. The wildlife trafficking market is worth an estimated $8 billion to $10 billion a year.

The study, based on DNA analysis of tusks seized from poachers, concluded that most elephants killed on a wide scale lived in southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique in east Africa or in a central African region that includes parts of Gabon, Cameroon and the Republic of Congo.

More than 1,200 rare white rhinoceros were killed in 2014 in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, compared with 13 in 2007, Kelvin Alie, a director of the International Fund For Animal Welfare, said at the forum.

“The potential is there for the U.S intelligence community to assist with anti-trafficking and anti-poaching responses,” but “it needs to be explored and exploited,” Alie said in an e-mail when asked about Ford’s remarks.

Kenyan Partnership

Ford and Alie praised a new counter-poaching partnership in Kenya called “tenBoma,” which means “Ten Houses” and is named after a Kenyan community policing philosophy.

Announced in March by the Kenyan environment ministry and the welfare fund, tenBoma intends to attack poaching networks by using better-armed Kenya Wildlife Service rangers and intense analysis of unclassified satellite imagery to stop poachers before animals are killed.

Ford called tenBoma a “a very, very creative forum” for potential intelligence community assistance to attacking poaching networks. Still, he stressed that no matter how laudable and consistent it is with U.S. policy, assisting counter-poaching competes with more pressing U.S. intelligence community priorities.

“We’re only a small part of a ‘whole-of-government effort,’ and so what we do has to be integrated into the larger U.S. government effort,” Ford said.

‘Modest Opportunity’

Ford’s presence at the panel in Washington was a reflection that the intelligence community believes “there’s a modest opportunity to contribute,” he said in the interview.

“What we’ve seen in some countries, it’s a very stove-piped effort” that doesn’t integrate all available capabilities to prevent poaching and apprehend offenders “because they don’t realize they are dealing with a network,” Ford said.

“Unless you realize it’s a network, you don’t try to tackle the network” and “you don’t make a lot of progress,” he said. Poachers, for example, just move to another location. “If it’s an issue of safeguarding this water hole, they just go to another,” he said.

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