for National Geographic News
Since the beginning of this year, armed groups, soldiers, and poachers have killed 10 percent of the elephants in Congo's troubled Virunga National Park—allegedly driven by rising Chinese demand for ivory—park officials say.
The announcement raises fears that elephants could disappear forever from Africa's oldest and largest national park, which has recently made headlines for its gorilla murders.
Rangers plying the lawless central sector of Virunga have discovered the bodies of seven elephants in the past two weeks alone.
In one case they came upon Rwandan militia members hovering over the bodies of two elephants. The rangers managed to drive the men away before they could remove the animals' tusks.
In all, 24 elephants are known to have been killed in Virunga so far this year.
"We believe that less than ten were killed last year," said Samantha Newport, spokesperson for Virunga National Park. "Undoubtedly this year is a lot, lot worse. It's catastrophic."
(Earlier coverage: "17 Elephants Butchered for Ivory in African Park" [May 5, 2008].)
Chinese to Blame?
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the primary sources of illegally trafficked ivory in the world, according to TRAFFIC, a group that monitors the wildlife trade.
Recently, the tiny elephant population of Virunga in the conflict-riven east of the country has become the target of gunmen hoping to unload the illegal ivory into a thriving international black market, park officials say.
Virunga's elephant population is small—thought to number between 200 and 300 animals—and isolated. It will not be able to sustain itself if killings continue at this rate, said Noelle Kumpel, program manager at the Zoological Society of London, which is working to support the rehabilitation and management of Virunga.
There's been a surge in the volume of illegal ivory since 2004, said Tom Milliken, regional director of TRAFFIC for eastern and southern Africa. Experts attribute the trend to thriving and overt domestic markets in the contraband throughout central Africa, in combination with a newly tapped appetite for ivory among China's rising middle class.
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