Rebels and militias across Africa have discovered the illegal trade in elephant ivory. Coveted in Asia, their tusks bring in handsome sums that are funding wars across the continent. Many game wardens hardly stand a chance against the slaughter.
The eight game wardens from the Kenya Wildlife Service spent hours lying in wait between bushes and tree trunks. An informant had given them a tip that poachers would show up at this particular spot sometime in the afternoon.
When the poachers did indeed appear, a wild gunfight broke out that lasted some 40 minutes and left one Somali poacher dead next to his military-grade, fully automatic assault rifle. The five others, some of them injured, were able to slip away into the bushes, and another normal day's work for the game wardens of Tsavo East National Park drew to a close.
In fact, this day two weeks ago was one of the better ones. The wardens themselves suffered no losses in the skirmish and they got there in time, instead of finding an elephant carcass with its tusks cut off, as is so often the case.
Around 500,000 elephants still live in Africa, but poachers kill several tens of thousands of them each year, and that number is on the rise. Customs officials seized over 23 tons of smuggled elephant tusks in 2011, the highest amount in 20 years.
New players have entered the bloody business of African ivory, and they are even more brutal than average poachers. These are militia members and rebels who mow down the animals with heavy arms to finance their wars. Groups such as the militant Islamist al-Shabab in Somalia, the Janjaweed of Sudan and the notorious Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda are turning the savannahs of central Africa into a Killing Fields for elephants.
As diamonds once did in Sierra Leone, ivory is now "fueling conflicts across the continent," The New York Times wrote earlier this month. At a US Senate hearing this May, expert on illegal trade Tom Cardamone testified: "In recent years, organized crime syndicates, militias, and even terrorist elements have taken notice of the profits that can be made in the illegal trafficking of wildlife, generating an alarming up-tick in the scale of the industry and posing serious national security concerns for the United States and our partners." Experts in Africa are already talking of "blood ivory," an allusion to the "blood diamonds" that warlords in Sierra Leone once used to pay for their ammunition.
'Kill Them Too'
Julius Kipng'etich, who heads a team of 3,500 Kenyan wardens, refuses to be intimidated by guerrilla leaders. "We're going to make life as difficult as possible for the poachers," he says. Seven of his wardens have been killed in gunfights with poachers just this year, so Kipng'etich issued his men a new order some days ago: "Shoot to kill." They should no longer fire warning shots, but instead aim immediately for the heart or head. "These people are hard as nails," he says. "They want to kill as many of us as possible and eradicate our elephants. It is a bullet for a bullet. Kill them too."
Kipng'etich has outfitted his troops with helicopters, all-terrain vehicles and laboratory equipment. "Near the Somali border, we operate like an army," he explains. This is where al-Shabab warlords send raiding parties into Kenya with increasing frequency to hunt elephants. Sometimes they hire young Kenyans for the job, paying them the equivalent of €90 ($70) for a pair of tusks.