Elephants Decimated in Congo Park; China Demand Blamed

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"We are hemorrhaging elephants out of central Africa and the Congo Basin," Milliken said.

One study Milliken worked on estimated that unregulated ivory-carving industries in Africa and Asia could be handling as much as 83 tons of ivory every year, most of it from central Africa. That could be the equivalent of around 12,000 elephants, he added.

Tiny Population in the Crossfire

Virunga sits at the heart of one of the most deadly conflict zones on the planet, with at least four heavily armed and rarely paid factions fighting for control of the park.

"It's incredibly challenging for the rangers to do their job on the ground when, at every turn, they are confronted by an armed group that is obviously more powerful than they are," Virunga National Park's Newport said.

"Over the last ten years about 120 rangers have been killed doing their jobs. It's an African miracle that Virunga National Park still exists—and a credit to the rangers."

Surveys carried out in the 1960s found 2,889 elephants in the park. By 2006 that number had dropped to 400. Just two years later it's estimated there are as few as half that number.

For those protecting the park, elephant numbers are a litmus test for survivability of the park itself.

"Elephants are an indicator species," Newport said. "And now to have the elephants killed off—it's a black mark against conservation in Virunga."

Noelle Kumpel, Virunga program director at the Zoological Society of London, said, "The loss of the elephants will have very dramatic impact on the park.

"They act as ecosystem engineers by removing trees and thus opening up savannas. And in the forests trees rely on them for seed dispersal and other species rely those trees, and so it will have a knock-on effect."

Refuge … For Militias

Virunga's animal populations have survived over a decade of civil wars that have left more than five million people dead and have displaced hundreds of thousands more in eastern DRC.

"For militias, Virunga National Park is a refuge," park spokesperson Newport said. "It's a place to rest, to eat, to sleep, to train."

Many members of the warring factions moonlight as poachers, surviving off bush meat and, in at least one case documented by the BBC, trading ivory for ammunitions.

Black Market and Controversial Legal Trade

Trade in illicit ivory is on the rise, conservation groups say.

The Elephant Trade Information System, an ivory-monitoring body, reported that the volume of illegal ivory confiscated in 2006 was more than twice what had been discovered two years earlier.

And last month the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) certified China to pursue a one-time purchase of ivory, granting the country permission to bid on 108 tons of stockpiled ivory from four southern African countries: Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Japan has also been authorized to buy government-held ivory from those countries.

Some conservationists argue that the legal sale of ivory—even when the proceeds go toward conservation, as they must under current CITES regulations—destroys the taboo around buying ivory, which encourages demand.

On the ground in Virunga, that may mean poachers are more confident they'll find a market for their spoils.

"The perception on the ground from poachers and armed militias is that it's OK, because China wants the ivory and is allowed to have the ivory," Newport said.

But, TRAFFIC's Milliken said, "The market is already there—there's nothing to create."

And, he said, "by allowing China to participate in a legal ivory trade, it could undermine black market products."

Still, the ivory trade begins at the local level, where it often goes unprosecuted—a fact easily exploited by foreigners looking to ship it overseas.

"DRC has to do more if you can buy and sell ivory with no impediments within walking distance of the police headquarters in Kinshasa," Milliken said.

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