But as a result, countless tusks began piling up in the storerooms of African game wardens, for example those of animals that had died a natural death -- and that aroused greed. In 2008, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia and Botswana obtained special permission allowing their governments to sell 108 tons of ivory, and traders from China and Japan paid millions. But like alcoholic in relapse after a long period of abstinence, the appetite for more returned immediately. "That fueled demand," Wamithi says, "and the slaughter began again."
Earlier this year, the killing reached a brutal peak, when in just a few weeks poachers shot 350 out of around 1,500 elephants living in the Bouba Ndjida National Park in Cameroon. The four game wardens who oversee the park, which covers an area nearly as large as the German federal state of Saarland (2,600 square kilometers), didn't stand a chance. All they could do was look on as strange warriors on horseback, Kalashnikovs strapped to their chests, poured into the park.
The poachers cut pieces from the ears of the elephants they killed, an indication that they most likely came from Sudan, over a thousand kilometers (600 miles) away, where it's traditional to take such trophies.
None of the poachers were captured, but the wardens believe they were members of the Janjaweed, mounted warriors who have killed thousands of civilians in the Darfur region of Sudan. The millions of dollars their poaching raid must have brought in will allow them to replenish their weapons stores.
Michael Wamithi and most other elephant conservationists believe there is only one way to save these animals in the long term: The strict trade ban established in 1989 must urgently be reintroduced. "As long as there's a market for it," says Wamithi, "the killing will continue."
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein