In Chad, Janjaweed militia from Sudan killed 100 elephants in one afternoon; in Kenya, Somali warlords armed with rocket-propelled grenades killed four wildlife rangers during a bloody raid on herds in the Tana Delta; in Democratic Republic of Congo, a whole host of rebel groups have turned the country's dwindling elephant population into a new cash crop.
The fight to protect Africa's elephants has just got more dangerous. Across the continent, armed groups linked to civil wars and conflicts are using the illegal ivory trade to fund their activities. Groups like the Janjaweed, responsible for carrying out countless atrocities in Sudan's western Darfur region, are now the "greatest problem for the protection of elephants in Africa", according to Michael Wamithi, the head of the elephant programme for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw).
"Small groups of people used to kill elephants and take their ivory for purely commercial reasons," he said. "Now it is a very different thing. It is organised and it is funding these dangerous groups." In one incident in Chad's Zakouma National Park a gang of more than 30 Janjaweed men on horseback killed more than 100 elephants in a single attack.
"It was a targeted operation, very well planned," Mr Wamithi said. "To kill that many elephants in one go takes a lot of organisation. We have not seen attacks like this before."
Hundreds of elephants have been killed in Zakouma in the past two years, mostly by fighters crossing from Sudan, according to officials in Chad. Illegal ivory is now being used in conflicts in east Africa in much the same way as "blood diamonds" were in civil wars across west Africa in the 1990s, Mr Wamithi said.
Fears over dwindling elephant populations in some parts of central Africa have been overtaken by concerns that the slaughter of elephants is now funding the killing of humans.
Illegal ivory is far from the only source of funding for those groups poaching elephants, but animal welfare experts in the region believe that the demand for ivory has turned elephant poaching into a lucrative and reliable form of income.
Demand for ivory in the Far East, particularly China, has reached record levels. Ivory taken by the Janjaweed in Chad is taken back to Khartoum where it is sold on to China, according to the Ifaw.
The growing demand for ivory has fuelled an alarming rise in elephant poaching. A study published last year by scientists at the University of Washington in Seattle warned that some regional elephant populations in Africa could become extinct. They claimed that the illegal trade had returned to the "devastating levels" last seen before the 1989 international ban on the sale of ivory. "The illegal ivory trade recently intensified to the highest levels ever reported," the report concluded.
A second study, this one by Traffic, the WWF's wildlife trade monitoring network, revealed that the number of large-scale seizures of illegal ivory has rocketed in the past decade. There were 32 seizures of one tonne or more between 1998 and 2006, compared with 17 between 1989 and 1997. There are now roughly three seizures a day across the world.
The Democratic Republic of Congo and Chad are the two countries with the largest poaching problems. And it is no coincidence, according to the Ifaw, that both countries have been involved in protracted civil wars and have been used as bases by many different armed groups.
In Congo, three parties to the country's recent conflicts have been accused of killing elephants, rhinos and gorillas - the Mai Mai, the FDLR (the former Hutu Interahamwe responsible for the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda), and the Tutsi militia belonging to the renegade Congolese General Laurent Nkunda.
In the past two years, a new group has taken up residence in Congo's Garamba National Park - the Lord's Resistance Army, which has been fighting a civil war in northern Uganda for more than 20 years.
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These groups have had a catastrophic effect on the local elephant population. Initially, rangers in Congo's national parks believed animals were being killed for their meat - to feed hungry troops. But increasingly they believe that the elephants are being killed for their ivory.
For the park rangers trying to protect the animals, their job has become as dangerous as a soldier's. More than 100 rangers were killed in Congo in 2005 alone. "They are very ruthless people - they are trained killers," said Mr Wamithi. "Killing is their business - it has become a very big challenge."
In Kenya, a successful campaign led by Richard Leakey made elephant poaching illegal in the 1980s. Since then the country's elephant population has stabilised and grown.
The biggest threat Kenya's elephants now face is from armed groups in Somalia crossing the porous Kenyan border.
Somalia has been without a functioning central government for 17 years. In that time numerous armed groups have fought for control of key areas. According to officials at the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), militias linked to Somali warlords are now crossing into Kenya to poach elephants and sell their ivory.
The KWS has the sort of intelligence network normally employed to catch terrorists. Kenya's north-eastern province, along the border, is an area mainly populated by ethnic Somalis. Poachers crossing the border can often melt into the local community.
KWS intelligence officers have managed to limit the numbers of elephants killed, but Somali gangs have still been able to travel deep inside Kenya. Following a tip-off last year, KWS officers tracked down a dozen Somalis armed with AK-47s and grenades near Garsen, a small town almost 200 miles from the border. A firefight ensued and both sides lost four men.
Another gang was also spotted further south, in Tsavo National Park along the Tanzanian border.
The elephant poachers
*CONGO Elephant poaching is part of a battery of problems facing the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to a study by the International Rescue Committee 5.4 million people have died during Congo's civil wars, which began in 1996, and their aftermath. Eastern Congo has become a lawless land, home to numerous rebel groups, including the Lord's Resistance Army, which has been waging a civil war in northern Uganda for more than 20 years. Hundreds of Congolese park rangers have been killed over the past decade, trying to protect gorillas, rhinos and elephants. It was thought most had been killed to feed soldiers, but, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Congo's rebels, such as the Mai Mai, below, have also begun trading in ivory. The Garamba National Park's rhino population has also been devastated.
*SUDAN/CHAD The conflict in Darfur is now entering its sixth year. More than 200,000 people have been killed and around 2.4 million people have been made homeless. The majority of those displaced have been forced out of their homes by Janjaweed militia, pictured above, working alongside government troops. Experts believe the Janjaweed receive most of their funding and support from the Sudanese government - something Khartoum vehemently denies. In the past two years conservation officials in Chad have reported several attacks on elephants by Janjaweed crossing the border. In one incident, 12 men on horseback launched an attack on a store of ivory that had been seized by rangers.
*SOMALIA/KENYA Somalia has been without a functioning central government for 17 years, following the collapse in 1991 of Mohamed Siad Barre's military regime. The country has since rocked from crisis to crisis, with no single group able to take full control. It is currently in the grip of the worst humanitarian crisis on the continent, according to the UN. Two million people, 20 per cent of the population, are in need of humanitarian assistance. Somalia's disparate armed groups have sought funding from several sources. The main insurgent group, known as Al Shabbab, is thought to have been given large amounts of money by supporters in Arab states. Other warlords are funded by Somali businessmen. The Kenya Wildlife Service has reported a rise in Somali gangs coming into the country for elephants.
© 2008 The Independent