In May, a bull elephant was killed and its tusks hacked off in South Africa's flagship Kruger National Park. In most of Africa, this would have been an unremarkable event: An estimated 96 elephants a day are the victims of poachers. But this particular tusker was the first slain in Kruger in more than 10 years. Park officials fear that more killings will follow.
They are right to be worried. Elephant poaching can be compared to a virus that has spread in stages through the body of Africa.
The virus first attacked the weakest parts of that body: Central Africa's forested Congo Basin. Not only is the region plagued by armed conflicts and chronic political instability, but an unregulated mining and logging boom has peppered its rain forests with new settlements and roads, opening the jungle to poachers. Chinese workers with links to Asian ivory smuggling rings also are suspects in Central Africa's escalating poaching epidemic. In the past decade, illegal hunters have shot two-thirds of all forest elephants — a separate species from their larger, more plentiful cousins on the savanna.
War poses the gravest threat to elephants, according to "Ivory's Curse: "The Militarization and Professionalization of Poaching in Africa." The report, issued in late April by Born Free USA, with C4ADS, a nonprofit specializing in the data-based analysis of security issues, examines how the criminal trade in ivory has undermined Africa's security. Virtually all of Africa's violent conflicts are being fueled by the black market in ivory.
Until recently, impoverished villagers sold an occasional tusk to earn a little cash. But the big profits to be made in the ivory trade have transformed it into a highly organized enterprise managed by crime syndicates and armed militias, which target elephants to underwrite their violent campaigns.
It is a vicious cycle: Elephants are killed to bankroll militias; well-funded militias destabilize nations; destabilized nations lose control of their territory and are unable to protect elephants. The killings accelerate until too few animals are left to hunt. Then the poachers move on to fresh herds in new areas.
Topping the list of groups engaged in this slaughter in the north is Sudan. Suffering from international sanctions, the Sudanese government is attempting to make up its revenue shortfall by directing proxy militias to poach elephants, according to "Ivory's Curse." The same vicious groups responsible for the genocide in Darfur are now sending armed caravans deep into Chad, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo on commercial poaching expeditions.
The DRC's undisciplined and poorly trained national army (known by its French acronym FARDC — Forces Armees de la Republique democratique du Congo) is "the region's worst poacher," says "Ivory's Curse." The report alleges that "state security forces patronize the very rebels they are supposed to fight, providing them with weapons and support in exchange for ivory." Not only are the Congo's elephants being slaughtered, but 190 outnumbered and outgunned wildlife rangers were killed in the line of duty during the past 15 years.
Meanwhile, in West Africa, Cameroon's last elephants are now trapped between Sudanese poachers who sweep in on horseback, and poaching bands crossing over from Nigeria. Sadly, the killing has spilled over porous national borders into underpopulated Gabon, the last remaining stronghold of the forest elephant.
As forest elephant populations dwindle, poaching hot spots are shifting to East Africa, where the Somali-based terror group al-Shabaab helped bankroll its bloody attack on Nairobi's Westgate Mall with tusks poached in northern Kenya. Kenya's rangers are among the best trained and equipped in Africa, and the country has enacted tough new anti-poaching laws. But Kenya is awash in contraband arms and riddled with corruption. As population grows near the wildlife reserves, conflict between elephants and humans is on the rise.
Kenya's southern neighbor, Tanzania, is being hit even harder. More than a third of its territory is protected, including the legendary Serengeti Plain — a larger proportion than any other nation on Earth. With more than a million visitors a year, Tanzania earns a quarter of its foreign exchange from wildlife tourism. But corruption threatens the nation's top draw, the elephants.
Africa's far south (Namibia, Botswana and South Africa) remains a haven for more than half of Africa's remaining elephants. "Ivory's Curse" credits a mix of factors including political stability, relative prosperity, aggressive policing and a flourishing community conservation movement, which wins allies for wildlife by plowing profits from ecotourism into the local economy for the region's success to date.
But the future is uncertain.
African countries, even with the best intentions, generally lack the resources to protect their wild animals. Africa's poor are easily conscripted into poaching rings which promise them a path out of poverty. Economic development, especially in rural areas, may ultimately be the only way to secure a future for Africa's imperiled wildlife.
But if poverty is the mother of wildlife poaching, its father is war. This is a message that Africa's new generation of leaders should take to heart. If they are serious about safeguarding their people, they will need to get serious about protecting their elephants as well.
Journalist Richard Schiffman recently traveled to East Africa to report on elephant poaching for Science Magazine and the New Scientist. His work has appeared on NPR, in Reuters, the Guardian, The Washington Post, the Atlantic and National Geographic News.