Poachers slaughtered an entire family of 12 elephants and hacked out their tusks in Kenya’s worst single loss of the animals on record, wildlife authorities said on Tuesday.
The 11 adults and one calf, less than a year old, died in a fusillade of bullets in a remote corner of the country’s largest wildlife reserve, Tsavo East National Park.
Armed rangers are now hunting the gang on foot patrols, by vehicle and from the air, but there were fears that they could already have escaped with their haul, worth up to £175,000 on the Asian market.
It was the latest in a series of killings of Kenyan elephants that has seen the number of the animals that died for their tusks double in less than two years, to approximately 360 in 2012.
“Every possible resource is being deployed to track down the criminals who carried out this heinous act,” said Paul Udoto, spokesman for the Kenya Wildlife Service.
“We’ve not seen such an incident in living memory, it’s the worst single loss that we have on record. It’s unimaginable.”
The gang were well-armed with automatic rifles and operated with efficiency and professionalism, likely flooring each adult in turn with bullets to their back legs and then moving in for execution shots to the head.
From the position of the carcasses seen on an aerial fly-by on Monday, it is believed that the calf died when its dying mother fell on it and crushed it, Mr Udoto said. Six other adults lie in a pile where they died together.
The killing site, 180 miles south-east of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, is far from significant human settlements, ruling out the possibility that villagers killed the elephants because they trampled crops.
Rising demand for African elephant ivory in China is widely blamed for spurring the sudden surge in the slaughter.
Kenya lost fewer than 50 elephants to poachers in 2007, the year after 60 tons of South African, Namibian and Botswanan ivory were sold to Japan in a “one-off” deal approved by CITES, the international body regulating the trade in endangered wildlife.
Many conservationists argue that this restarted the demand for ivory, and it coincided with the continued growth in China’s middle class, for whom ivory trinkets are a marker of wealth.
In 2010, the number of elephants found dead with their tusks removed in Kenya had jumped to 178. Last year, that number more than doubled, to an estimated 360.
Many more of the animals are believed to have been killed but their carcasses were never found.
“However much ivory is provided to the market, the appetite in Asian countries is insatiable and the criminals know that, and they will go to great lengths to find the tusks,” Mr Udoto said.
“Africa has half-a-million elephants left, all together they would not be enough to satisfy the demand that has arisen.”
The next meeting of CITES is due in Thailand in March, when several African countries will lobby to be allowed to sell stockpiled ivory and use the revenue raised for other conservation projects.