MORE than 20,000 African elephants were killed for their ivory last year, with some populations facing an immediate threat of extinction, a United Nations-linked wildlife conservation agency said yesterday.
It has been followed by the slaughter of at least 68 elephants, or some 4 per cent of the population of one of Africa’s oldest parks, in the past two months alone.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) said the killings were driven by demand in China and Thailand.
Criminal gangs and rebel militias hunt dwindling herds for tusks that fetch many thousands of pounds for each kilogram.
Cites secretary-general John Scanlon said: “Today we are confronting a situation of industrial-scale poaching and smuggling, the involvement of organised transnational criminal organisations, the involvement of rebel militia.”
He said fighters of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) were sanctioned by the Security Council this year for illegal hunting and ivory trade, particularly in central Africa.
The 2013 estimated figure is less than the peak of 25,000 elephants poached in 2011. But it was the third year in a row that more than 20,000 were killed illegally on the continent that has an estimated 500,000 elephants left, according to Cites, which monitors 51 sites, including national parks.
Mr Scanlon “It [poaching] is levelling off, but at a level that is far too high.
“The number of elephants that are killed is far exceeding the number of elephants being born.”
Large seizures of smuggled ivory in Africa, those with a weight of greater than 500 kilos (1,102lb), rose in past year, for the first time exceeding those in Asia, according to Cites. Its 1975 pact to ban or restrict trade in endangered species has been ratified by 180 countries.
A record 40,000 kilos were confiscated last year, already exceeded by an estimated 55,000 kilos seized this year, it said.
This was due to better enforcement especially in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, which accounted for 80 per cent of the large-scale seizures in Africa last year, Mr Scanlon said. “We need to deploy the same sort of techniques that are deployed to combat other serious crimes such as the illicit trade in narcotics, human trafficking or illicit trade in arms,” he said.
Rangers, customs officials and prosecutors must tackle poaching, driven by speculators betting on extinction, he said.
Among the latest killings are those in the 1,900 square mile Garamba National Park, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was established in 1938.
It has faced an onslaught from several bands of poachers since mid-May, said the Johannesburg-based African Parks group.
One gang is shooting the elephants with high-powered rifles from a helicopter and then taking off their tusks with a chainsaw. They are removing the elephants’ brains and genitals, probably for use in traditional medicines.
African Parks, which runs seven parks in six countries in co-operation with local authorities, said the poachers also included renegades from the Congolese army, gunmen from South Sudan, and LRA fighters.
Garamba park manager Jean-Marc Froment said: “The situation is extremely serious. The park is under attack on all fronts.”