- Record numbers of ivory seizures amid rise of organised crime gangs
PUBLISHED: 17:35 EST, 24 April 2012 | UPDATED: 17:53 EST, 24 April 2012
In a scene of inconceivable horror, these slaughtered elephant carcasses show the barbaric lengths poachers will go to in their hunt for nature’s grim booty.
The bodies were among a herd of 22 animals massacred in a helicopter-borne attack by professionals who swooped over their quarry.
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, all of the herd lay dead, one of the worst such killings in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo in living memory.
‘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, as he surveyed the macarbre scene at Garamba National Park.
After the slaughter, the killers set about removing their tusks and genitals before likely smuggling them 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.
‘Biggest challenge’: Conservation group TRAFFIC, which monitors the global trade in animals, said 2011 was the worst year for large ivory seizures in the more than two decades it has been tracking the trends
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.
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 decade ago.
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 co-operation 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.’
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, said: ‘The biggest challenge is that in the last few years there has been a big shift from your ordinary poachers to your organized crime groups.’
This was on display in Congo last month, where investigators determined the poachers shot from the air because of the trajectory of the bullet wounds.
Helicopters do not come cheaply and their use points to a high level of organization.
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 5.1 million rand ($652,400) in cash in the boot of his car.
South Africa is the epicenter of rhino poaching because it hosts virtually the entire population of white rhino – 18,800 head or 93 per cent – and about 40 per cent 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.