September 3, 2012
The New York Times
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
GARAMBA NATIONAL PARK, Democratic Republic of Congo - 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.
Like blood diamonds from Sierra Leone or plundered minerals from Congo, ivory, it seems, is the latest conflict resource in Africa, dragged out of remote battle zones, easily converted into cash and now fueling conflicts across the continent.
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.
Congolese soldiers are often arrested for it. South Sudanese forces frequently battle wildlife rangers. Interpol, the international police network, is now helping to investigate the mass elephant killings in the Garamba park, trying to match DNA samples from the animals' skulls to a large shipment of tusks, marked "household goods," recently seized at a Ugandan airport.
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. China's economic boom has created a vast middle class, pushing the price of ivory to a stratospheric $1,000 per pound on the streets of Beijing.
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