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Does the United States Fund a Cheetah Mating Program in West Africa Because of … Terrorism?

The Wall Street Journal published a dispatch this week from West Africa, where militants affiliated with al-Qaida and the Islamic State group are increasingly using national park conservation areas as hideouts and engaging in violence against rangers.

The piece concerns activity in three large national parks that span the borders of Benin, Niger, and Burkina Faso and are operated by a pan-African nongovernmental organization called African Parks. The group, whose holdings in the region include a 1,500-acre enclosure whose purpose is to “breed West African cheetahs,” says preventing terrorism is actually part of its mission.

It touts the economic benefits of the two national parks, hoping locals will be more inclined to protect the lands instead of poaching wildlife, cutting trees, grazing cattle—or joining al Qaeda. Commerce and services help “disrupt the chain of recruitment in communities,” [African Parks employee Hughes] Akpona said. 

In an aside, the WSJ mentions that African Parks’ sources of funding include the U.S. State Department. Which suggests a connection and a question: Does the American government believe that a cheetah-mating program in West Africa is a front in the War on Terror?

The link between natural preserves and extralegal militancy is actually well-studied. Wilderness areas are good hiding places, and the trafficking of endangered animals or their byproducts is a useful source of income for groups that operate outside the “clean” financial system. Says Elizabeth Shackelford of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, who served in Somalia and Kenya as a foreign service officer: “African Parks has had a long-standing focus on the need to engage local communities and provide economic benefits in order to make conservation sustainable, and the underlying potential grievances that they are trying to manage are the same grievances that make communities susceptible to extremism and recruiting.”

There’s also precedent for the U.S. spreading money around, in efforts to combat what it sees as global security threats, to entities that may not initially seem to be closely related to the threat at hand. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Central Intelligence Agency used front groups to support, of all things, literary magazines and writers programs. (The Paris Review and the vaunted Iowa Writers’ Workshop both had spook connections.) The idea, apparently, was that the U.S. would be a more potent rival to the USSR if it were respected culturally—and that promoting writers and intellectuals who weren’t so far left that they supported communism would marginalize the ones who were reds.

So, Slate put the question to the State Department: Is eradicating an extremist group that originated in the Middle East one of the reasons that the U.S. pays for national parks in West Africa—and their cheetah sex parties? The answer, a spokesperson said, is that “Our focus is on strengthening ranger capabilities for enforcement and investigations related to wildlife crime, as well as establishing an effective criminal justice response to poaching and transit of illicit wildlife activity.” That said, according to State, “Any ancillary counterterrorism benefits that accrue from our building capacity in this area is welcome.”

Source : Slate