Ivory and Terrorism: The Truth

Last week the New York Times ran a shameful Op-Ed entitled, “The Ivory-Funded Terrorism Myth,” which falsely claimed that ivory is not funding terrorist activity in Africa, and suggested that even if there is ivory-funded terrorism (let’s just call it “regional militias,” he suggests), what happens in Africa when it comes to terrorism is okay as long as it stays in Africa.

The author, Tristan McConnell, who wrote a nearly identical piece for USA Today a year ago, bases his argument on a single 2011 report linking Somalia’s Shabab to the ivory trade. For him to criticize a Shabab-ivory link–amplified by politicians and in Kathryn Bigelow’s film, “Last Days of Ivory”–is one thing (I did not find a Shabab link during my reporting either, though the Times has), but to paint the brutality going on in central Africa as not terrorist activity, or not “international” unless it crosses the Atlantic Ocean, is absurd, and worse. These groups are operating across multiple states, ivory is part of their funding, and park rangers on the ground are being killed for standing between terrorists and their human victims, too.

Below is my letter to the Times editors, submitted the following day.

I am writing in response to the op-ed, “The Ivory-Funded Terrorism Myth,” (10/29/2015, NYT) which shamefully trots out one specific, and already widely-criticized story to grossly mischaracterize the ivory-terrorism issue.

 Joseph Kony, the Janjaweed, Seleka in CAR, and Hutu FDLR in the Congo are all terrorists killing for ivory in central Africa.  Your own reporting has spoken to the connection, including even to the Shabab link questioned by your writer.

 In many places in central Africa where terrorist groups kidnap children, rape women, steal food and medicine, and disrupt community, park rangers are the only law enforcement on the ground to confront them. To support these rangers is to support the fight against terrorism itself.

 As National Geographic has pointed out in a recent documentary and story, the ivory-for-arms trade in central Africa runs separately from, and parallel to, the organized crime form of ivory trafficking taking place in East Africa. It’s wrong to play the terrorism card to bring attention to a problem, and it’s wrong to play the terrorism card to ignore a problem, too.


IVORY: A Crime Story

My latest piece for National Geographic, Tracking Ivory, is the cover of the magazine’s September issue and the subject of WARLORDS OF IVORY, the premiere episode of National Geographic’s Explorer series, airing August 30, 2015 on the National Geographic Channel.

Here’s a link to the online version of the magazine story which is part of an incredible package of photographs, interactive maps, videos, and surveys about the ivory trade, terrorism, and ivory consumption.


This project is the result of work by an extraordinary team across multiple National Geographic platforms, including Photographer Brent Stirton; Filmmakers J.J. Kelley, John Heminway, Toby Strong, Pablo Durana, Jessica Harrop, Josh Thomas; Map Genius Virginia Mason, and more. Click on the links for these people and you’ll see the Mission Impossible team behind the stories.