Elephants Dying in Epic Frenzy as Ivory Fuels Wars and Profits

Jeffrey Gettleman, New York Times, September 3, 2012

In 30 years of fighting poachers, Paul Onyango had never seen anything like this. Twenty-two dead elephants, including several very young ones, clumped together on the open savanna, many killed by a single bullet to the top of the head.

There were no tracks leading away, no sign that the poachers had stalked their prey from the ground. The tusks had been hacked away, but none of the meat—and subsistence poachers almost always carve themselves a little meat for the long walk home.

Several days later, in early April, the Garamba National Park guards spotted a Ugandan military helicopter flying very low over the park, on an unauthorized flight, but they said it abruptly turned around after being detected. Park officials, scientists and the Congolese authorities now believe that the Ugandan military—one of the Pentagon’s closest partners in Africa—killed the 22 elephants from a helicopter and spirited away more than a million dollars’ worth of ivory.

“They were good shots, very good shots,” said Mr. Onyango, Garamba’s chief ranger. “They even shot the babies. Why? It was like they came here to destroy everything.”

Africa is in the midst of an epic elephant slaughter. Conservation groups say poachers are wiping out tens of thousands of elephants a year, more than at any time in the previous two decades, with the underground ivory trade becoming increasingly militarized.

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Some of Africa’s most notorious armed groups, including the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Shabab and Darfur’s janjaweed, are hunting down elephants and using the tusks to buy weapons and sustain their mayhem. Organized crime syndicates are linking up with them to move the ivory around the world, exploiting turbulent states, porous borders and corrupt officials from sub-Saharan Africa to China, law enforcement officials say.

But it is not just outlaws cashing in. Members of some of the African armies that the American government trains and supports with millions of taxpayer dollars—like the Ugandan military, the Congolese Army and newly independent South Sudan’s military—have been implicated in poaching elephants and dealing in ivory.

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The vast majority of the illegal ivory—experts say as much as 70 percent—is flowing to China, and though the Chinese have coveted ivory for centuries, never before have so many of them been able to afford it.

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High-ranking officers in the People’s Liberation Army have a fondness for ivory trinkets as gifts. Chinese online forums offer a thriving, and essentially unregulated, market for ivory chopsticks, bookmarks, rings, cups and combs, along with helpful tips on how to smuggle them (wrap the ivory in tinfoil, says one Web site, to throw off X-ray machines).

Last year, more than 150 Chinese citizens were arrested across Africa, from Kenya to Nigeria, for smuggling ivory. And there is growing evidence that poaching increases in elephant-rich areas where Chinese construction workers are building roads.

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Foreigners have been decimating African elephants for generations. “White gold” was one of the primary reasons King Leopold II of Belgium turned Congo into his own personal fief in the late 19th century, leading to the brutal excesses of the upriver ivory stations thinly fictionalized in Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness” and planting the seeds for Congo’s free fall today.

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The demand for ivory has surged to the point that the tusks of a single adult elephant can be worth more than 10 times the average annual income in many African countries. In Tanzania, impoverished villagers are poisoning pumpkins and rolling them into the road for elephants to eat. In Gabon, subsistence hunters deep in the rain forest are being enlisted to kill elephants and hand over the tusks, sometimes for as little as a sack of salt.

Last year, poaching levels in Africa were at their highest since international monitors began keeping detailed records in 2002. And 2011 broke the record for the amount of illegal ivory seized worldwide, at 38.8 tons (equaling the tusks from more than 4,000 dead elephants). {snip}

The smugglers are “Africa-based, Asian-run crime syndicates,” said Tom Milliken, director of the Elephant Trade Information System, an international ivory monitoring project, and “highly adaptive to law enforcement interventions, constantly changing trade routes and modus operandi.”

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