August 23, 2008

Ivory Poachers Destroy Elephant Populations

Congo poachers have destroyed twenty percent of the elephants in Africa's oldest national park due to China buying more ivory.

During the past ten days alone, Rwandan rebels have killed seven Savannah elephants in the Virunga National Park. That's located along Congo's eastern border with Rwanda and Uganda, said Emmanuel de Merode.

"We've definitely lost 20 percent of the population this year and probably more," he said. "We have rangers with them, and we're trying to reinforce them. But (the rangers) are outnumbered 20 to one."

During the 1970s, the 790,000-hectare (2 million-acre) reserve was home to one of central Africa's largest Savannah elephant herds numbering around 5,000.

But during a brutal 1998-2003 war, heavy poaching, corruption and mismanagement of the park have killed off the elephants. Conservationists estimate that no more than 300 elephants remain.

China was granted permission last month to buy 108 tonnes of ivory stocks from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

De Merode pointed out that China's growing appetite for ivory is one of the root causes of this year's increase in elephant killings.

"It's very difficult to distinguish between legal and illegal stocks," he said.

The eastern borderlands remain a volatile patchwork of rebel strongholds and militia controlled zones, despite the official end of the conflict in Congo.

Battles between rival armed groups are a regular occurrence, limiting the rangers' ability to patrol, and providing cover for poaching.

Savannah elephants are a sub-species of the African elephant, which is classified as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.