African big game poaching surges
The hit job was done by professionals who swooped over their quarry in a helicopter before opening...
The hit job was done by professionals who swooped over their quarry in a helicopter before opening fire.
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 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.
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 decade ago.
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 world.
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 (40,285.09 pounds) 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 was 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 for comment.