This idea has been floating around the internet for a while now–documents and reports, articles and social media posts–referring to the the ivory trade as a source of funding for terrorism. Al-Shabaab has allegedly been using the ivory trade to finance their terrorist organization, some reports claiming up to 40% of their operations.

This is a bandwagon that has proven easy to jump on. Prominent politicians like Hillary Clinton have come forward and claimed a distinct connection between terror and ivory. Articles have been written claiming that combating the ivory trade is an effective way to combat terrorism, hurting these organizations in their pockets. And who wouldn’t want to join a cause that helps elephants, a species that have been devastated time and time again for longer than the United States has even been a country?

But many of the facts and geography don’t quite line up. The evidence just isn’t there, at least not from credible sources.

If you read the originating reports, however, you can start to recognize the vague language and weak sources. They use a lot of phrases like, “it is not unreasonable that al-Shabaab…” or “could very well allow for al-Shabaab to…” Ambiguous language like this is always a good indicator of conjecture or guess-work. Their unnamed sources “pick up radio chatter” regarding the trade, with no specifics mentioned.

First, it’s important to know that there will always be overlap. Terrorist organizations are often used for smuggling, and it’s unlikely that they have no fingers in the ivory business whatsoever–it’s just that it’s more likely that they are involved only when the opportunity arises, and on a more individual or lower level capacity. It’s also possible that other terrorist organizations besides al-Shabaab are involved here–groups further south like the Allied Democratic Forces have been known to smuggle through the areas central to the ivory trade. Even then, their involvement is still conjecture at best, as you can tell by my similarly ambiguous language.

A big misconception is the source and geography of this whole business. One would expect a trade to emerge from its origins–you build a product, package it up, and send it out, all from one location. Illegal trades don’t typically work that way: the ivory is harvested by poachers in the Kenyan-Somali area, but the exports and majority profits go out of the Mozambique-Tanzania area. This is further south, and largely out of al-Shabaab’s area of operations.

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While we’re on the topic of geography: al-Shabaab is a terrorist organization whose focus is primarily in Somalia.  The elephants generally roam a significant distance south of Somalia, deep into Kenya. On top of that, the heart of this trade’s logistics lies even further south. Al-Shabaab is a powerful terrorist entity, but they are not all-powerful and don’t reach that far south.

Al-Shabaab’s main sources of funding comes from very specific things that fit their purview. They have an immense, well built intelligence network which they can use in conjunction with their muscle for a number of purposes: extortion and racketeering are high on the list. They do this with both local companies and foreign ones. The charcoal business has been a raving success for them, using their power and illegal influence to climb to the top of the food chain in the area.

Chinese customs officers confiscating the illegal import of ivory. The ivory trade gets a lot of business in China – AP Photo/Vincent Yu

Don’t misunderstand–the ivory trade absolutely devastates east Africa. Last year, an elephant booked his way back to Somalia, and was the first elephant to return there in the last 20 years. Kenya, Somalia’s southern neighbor, has some elephants, but poaching and the ivory trade is still a constant danger. Ivory can be worth $1,500 per pound, and this type of fortune is life changing for poachers, smugglers and illegal merchants. In 1979, Africa reportedly had around 1.2 million elephants; roughly 144,000 were killed between 2007 and 2014.

How is this relavent? Who really cares about this spread of misinformation, if it ends up with a stronger response toward the brutal poaching of elephants?

When authorities are tricked into investigating and using resources to combat the ivory trade, they divert their resources away from the real sources of finance. Just because you have poachers running around with guns does not mean they are necessarily affiliated with terrorist organizations within a two country radius. If wildlife efforts and attention goes toward ousting al-Shabaab and not combating the buyers of ivory, then the problem will not get resolved.

The diversion was an easy sell–many countries in east Africa have terrorist organizations consistently operating within their borders, which is bad for everyone.  Internal conflict of this nature affects every aspect of life–healthcare, transportation, education, and of course, the wildlife. Finding the actual sources of al-Shabaab’s income will speed up their decline, thereby enabling these other facets of society–wildlife conservation included–to thrive.

Featured image: AP Images.