Kinshasa/Kruger National Park - The hit job was done by
professionals who swooped over their quarry in a helicopter before opening
The scene beneath the rotor blades would have been chilling:
panicked mothers shielding their young, hair-raising screeches and a mad
scramble through the blood-stained bush as bullets rained down from the sky.
When the shooting was over, 22 elephants lay dead, one of
the worst such killings in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo in living
"It's been a long time since we've seen something like
this," said Dr Tshibasu Muamba, head of international cooperation for the
Congolese state conservation agency, ICCN.
After the slaughter in Garamba National Park the killers set
about removing the animals' tusks and genitals. The grim booty was likely
smuggled through South Sudan or Uganda, which form part of an "Ivory
Road" linking Africa to Asia.
Elephant and rhino poaching is surging, conservationists
say, an illegal piece of Asia's scramble for African resources, driven by the
growing purchasing power of the region's newly affluent classes.
In South Africa, nearly two rhinos a day are being killed to
meet demand for the animal's horn, which is worth more than its weight in gold.
More are being killed each week now than were being taken on an annual basis a
A record number of big ivory seizures were made globally in
2011 and the trend looks set to continue in 2012 as elephant massacres take
place from Congo to Cameroon, where as many as 200 of the pachyderms, listed by
the International Union for Conservation of Nature as "vulnerable",
were slain in January.
Conservation group TRAFFIC, which monitors the global trade
in animals and plants, said 2011 was the worst year for large ivory seizures in
the more than two decades it has been running a database tracking the trends.
After the trade in ivory was banned at the end of the 1980s
- a policy implemented to stem a slaughter of elephants at the time - the
illegal trade declined sharply, helped by the cooperation of Japan from where
most of the demand had been coming.
Conservationists say there was a spike in the mid-1990s
driven by emerging Chinese demand that bubbled for a few years, then dropped
off as red flags were raised.
Zimbabwe-based Tom Milliken, who manages TRAFFIC's Elephant
Trade Information System, said since 2004 "the trend has been escalating
upwards again, dramatically so over the last three years".
The culprit, again, is demand from Asia and particularly
China. Gold demand from the world's most populous country is growing at a
phenomenal rate, to the point where some analysts expect China to overtake India
as the biggest gold consumer this year. Demand for ivory as an ornamental item
is rising in tandem.
The role of ivory and rhino horn and skin in traditional
Chinese medicine is another factor. The parts, boiled and ingested, have been
used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine, which is practised not only
in Chinese communities but increasingly by other ethnic groups around the
Elephant ivory is used to treat liver cancer and rhino horn
for several types of cancers, said Wu Chi, a traditional Chinese medicine
doctor in Hong Kong. He said practitioners try to use substitutes, but
acknowledged demand for the real thing is very strong.
The street value of rhino horn has skyrocketed to $65 000 a
kg, against $52 500 for a kg of gold at current spot prices.
"China is the undisputed key to elephant conservation
today," said TRAFFIC's Milliken.
According to TRAFFIC, 161 containers of illegal, round
hardwood logs and 128 ivory tusks bound for China were seized in the northern
Mozambique port of Pemba last year.
Mozambican officials say 18 licences of Chinese and
Mozambican companies were suspended last year for attempting to illegally export
timber, ivory and rhino horn.
China's customs bureau, which oversees trade and combats
smuggling into the world's second-biggest economy, did not respond to requests
The profile of a poacher has varied over the years, from
AK-wielding Somali nomads to poor rural dwellers armed with ancient muskets out
to make a quick buck or put meat on the table.
As the profits have increased, however, so has the
involvement of organised crime.
"The biggest challenge is that in the last few years
there has been a big shift from your ordinary poachers to your organised crime
groups," said Ben Janse van Rensburg, head of enforcement for the
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora
(Cites), the international treaty that governs trade in plants and animals.
"They are really, really well resourced and they have
significant networks globally. You're dealing with serious trans-national
organised crime," he told Reuters in a phone interview from his Swiss
This was on display in Congo last month, where investigators
determined the poachers shot from the air because of the trajectory of the
Helicopters do not come cheaply and their use points to a
high level of organisation.
Ken Maggs, the head of the environmental crimes
investigation unit for South African National Parks, said one person recently
arrested for trade in rhino horn had R5.1m in cash in the boot of his car.
South Africa is the epicentre of rhino poaching because it
hosts virtually the entire population of white rhino - 18 800 head or 93% - and
about 40% of Africa's much rarer black rhino.
As of the middle of April, 181 rhinos had been killed in
South Africa in 2012, according to official government data. At this rate, more
than 600 will be lost to poachers this year compared with 448 in 2011. A decade
ago only a handful were being taken.
Trade in rhino horn is strictly prohibited while that for
ivory is mostly illegal, although Cites allows worked ivory to be sold in
Zimbabwe and Namibia. In 2008 Cites also allowed South Africa, Namibia,
Botswana and Zimbabwe to hold one-off auctions of ivory stockpiles.
Despite the laws, it is not hard to find ivory in the craft
markets of Kinshasa, where traders sell everything from carved wooden animals
to live parrots in ramshackle stalls.
In one area of the city centre known as "the Market of
Thieves", it was possible to buy both "raw" and
"worked" ivory, with raw ivory costing $300 per kilo, a trader said.
"It's mainly the Chinese who buy it," the trader
said, asking not to be named.
Many of Africa's poaching "hot spots" have a few things
in common, notably their remoteness. Big animals tend to be far from large
numbers of people and the scrutiny that goes with them, giving poachers a
virtual free hand.
Biannual aerial surveys conducted over the huge Niassa
Reserve in northern Mozambique since 1998 point to a disturbing trend, for
In 2000, between 10 and 50 elephant carcasses were spotted
that had been killed or died in the last 6 months. In 2009, 150 were counted
and last year, 250.
"There has been a very significant increase in poaching
in general and elephants in particular, especially in the last two to three
years," said Anabela Rodrigues, the executive director of the company that
manages the reserve.
The problem is also getting worse even in relatively
developed South Africa.
Most of its rhinos are being slain in its famed Kruger
National Park, which shares a porous border with Mozambique.
Under the light of a full moon, one park ranger displayed
his poacher-tracking kit which included an assault rifle and backpacks with
radios, night goggles and an incredibly powerful spotlight that threw a beam
hundreds of meters away.
"This will burn the eyes right out of your skull,"
Yet despite a price tag for all of the equipment close to
$30 000, Kruger is hardly winning its war with poachers.
And if South Africa is struggling, what chance do rangers
with far fewer resources have in isolated corners of Africa such as Garamba,
especially if they are dealing with helicopters?
"We have guards who are well trained but there's a
shortage of weapons and ammunition," said Congo's Muamba.