Brutal Elephant Slaughter Funds African Conflicts

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Al-Shabab, which is fighting against the interim government in Somalia, has little difficulty shipping this stolen ivory to Asian markets, since the terrorist group controls the port city of Kismayo, also an important hub for weapons and drugs.

Nearly 90 percent of the ivory that is traded globally goes to China and Thailand, where economic success has fueled demand. Ivory knickknacks are a status symbol for China's newly rich, and it is a custom among Japanese businesspeople to seal contracts with ornately carved ivory stamps.

China also has other ways of getting ivory. Beijing has several hundred thousand workers and engineers in Africa, building streets, railway lines and governmental buildings. "And everywhere they go, elephants are dying. It's something the Chinese embassy doesn't like to hear, but it's true," Kipng'etich says.

Easy Money In the area around Gulu, in northern Uganda, elephants are now extinct, many of them massacred by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) terrorist group. Joseph Okot, now 25, was a child soldier with the LRA and was forced to hunt in Murchison Falls National Park. "We shot everything that crossed our path," Okot says. The meat was for soldiers' cooking pots, and the commanders took the tusks.

The group is running riot in the triangle where the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic converge, a region no government controls. "The LRA rules the area, and ivory is one of its most important sources of income," says Michael Wamithi, a Kenyan elephant expert and government advisor.

Deserters have repeatedly reported that they were ordered personally by Joseph Kony, the notorious head of the LRA, to poach elephants. This April, Congolese wardens in Garamba National Park stole back a few elephant tusks from a group of LRA fighters. In June the wardens caught another group red-handed -- then had to flee as the well-trained guerrillas opened fire on them as if in battle.

One kilogram (2.2 pounds) of ivory can earn up to $2,000 on the black market, and a single tusk weighs 10 to 60 kilograms (20 to 130 pounds). In other words, a single dead elephant bull can bring in up to $120,000. That's a lot of money in Africa, and easy to earn as well -- rather than violently forcing hundreds of workers to labor in diamond mines, all it takes to gain access to this valuable resource is a few gunshots and several swings of a machete.

The LRA maintains excellent connections to Omdurman, Sudan's largest city, where middlemen trade elephant tusks for weapons and ammunition. But it's also possible to transport ivory through Uganda, Kenya or the Congo, where customs officials are often poorly paid and easy to bribe.

Only One Solution

The war over elephants began with a political mistake, complains Wamithi, the elephant expert in Kenya. In 1989, with the African elephant in danger of extinction, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora banned the trade in ivory around the globe. The convention served its purpose, and the elephant population recovered.

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