A senior State Department official said on Tuesday the US has no evidence that violent extremist groups such as Al-Shabaab are financing their operations through elephant poaching.
The comments by Mr Richard Glenn, the department's top monitor of wildlife trafficking and transnational crime in Africa, contradict an earlier assertion by Ms Hillary Clinton, former US secretary of state, as well as claims by an elephant-protection NGO.
“I've not seen anything that indicates a direct link between wildlife trafficking and extremist groups,” Mr Glenn said in a press teleconference.
He added, however, that “it is not beyond the realm” that groups such as Shabaab may have engaged in poaching.
Ms Clinton said in 2013 after stepping down as secretary of state in the Obama administration that Shabaab funds its “terrorist activities to a great extent from ivory trafficking.”
The Los Angeles-based Elephant Action League said in 2016 that an extensive investigation it had conducted uncovered clear links between Al-Shabaab and ivory trafficking.
“The fact that elephants no longer populate Somalia is irrelevant given that Al-Shabaab did not directly participate in poaching,” the environmentalist organisation stated. “The group treated ivory as a commodity, like charcoal, and functioned as a trafficker only.”
Other analysts, including United Nations experts, have rejected claims that Al-Shabaab elements profit from elephant poaching in East Africa.
UN reports on Al-Shabaab's financing point to extortion in the form of “taxes” it imposes as well as revenues reaped from charcoal and sugar smuggling.
In his remarks on Tuesday, Mr Glenn also defended the Trump administration's policies on wildlife trafficking.
He acknowledged that the US ranks as one of the world's top importing countries of illicit wildlife products.
Mr Glenn contested claims by environmentalist groups that the Trump administration's recent loosening of restrictions on big-game trophy hunting has dented the US image as a champion of international wildlife protection.
“The Trump administration specifically calls out wildlife trafficking and points to it as major source of instability and criminal behaviour” affecting developing countries, Mr Glenn told reporters.
“I would not agree US has lost its lead.”
The US Fish and Wildlife Service, a federal agency, decided in March to lift a ban on imports of elephant and lion trophies from six African nations—Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Imports of those animal parts would henceforth be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, the agency said.
That initiative drew sharp criticisms from some Kenyan activists.
“The whole world is against it,” Dr Paula Kahumbu, head of the Kenyan group Wildlife Direct, told the Associated Press in March.
She said that past US support for banning the ivory trade had pushed countries such as China to back a ban as well.
“To then say, ‘Oh, but we have a special case for some of our people, they should be allowed to have ivory,’ it totally undermines the U.S. leadership role,” Ms Kahumbu said