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US-Funded Armies Slaughtering Record Number of Elephants

Common Dreams staff

Park rangers discover a poached elephant, stripped of ivory, deep in the park. Some recently poached elephants had been sexually mutilated, with their genitals or nipples cut off, possibly for sale — a phenomenon researchers say they had not encountered before. (Tyler Hicks/NYT)

The illegal elephant ivory trade is reaching record levels and “Africa is in the midst of an epic elephant slaughter,” reports the New York Times. As demand for elephant ivory grows in China, more and more poachers, including some of Africa’s most infamous armed groups, are killing elephants to cash in. Tens of thousands of elephants are being killed every year in Africa, conservationists say, as poachers kill them for nothing other than their tusks.

Armies including the Ugandan military, the Congolese Army, and South Sudan's military are also poaching using military helicopters to slaughter from above.

The U.S. and its taxpayer money is doing its part in making the helicopter slaughters possible:

The American government has provided $250 million in nonlethal military assistance to South Sudan during the past several years. In May, the Garamba rangers said they had opened fire on four South Sudanese soldiers who had poached six elephant tusks. The rangers said they killed one soldier, though they did not seem to think too much about it. “I’ve killed too many people to count,” said Alexi Tamoasi, a veteran ranger.

But the suspected helicopter poaching is something new.

Mr. Onyango said the strange way the elephant carcasses were found, clumped in circles, with the calves in the middle for protection, was yet another sign that a helicopter had corralled them together because elephants usually scatter at the first shot.

The Ugandan military has received tens of millions of dollars from the US to help its search for Joseph Kony, whose Lord's Resistance Army is also believed to be engaged in widespread poaching. "What bothers me is that it’s probably American taxpayer money paying for the jet fuel for the helicopter," says an American who works as a pilot in the park.

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The New York Times reports:

In 30 years of fighting poachers, Paul Onyango had never seen anything like this. Twenty-two dead elephants, including several very young ones, clumped together on the open savanna, many killed by a single bullet to the top of the head.

There were no tracks leading away, no sign that the poachers had stalked their prey from the ground. The tusks had been hacked away, but none of the meat — and subsistence poachers almost always carve themselves a little meat for the long walk home.

Several days later, in early April, the Garamba National Park guards spotted a Ugandan military helicopter flying very low over the park, on an unauthorized flight, but they said it abruptly turned around after being detected. Park officials, scientists and the Congolese authorities now believe that the Ugandan military — one of the Pentagon’s closest partners in Africa — killed the 22 elephants from a helicopter and spirited away more than a million dollars’ worth of ivory.

“They were good shots, very good shots,” said Mr. Onyango, Garamba’s chief ranger. “They even shot the babies. Why? It was like they came here to destroy everything.”

Africa is in the midst of an epic elephant slaughter. Conservation groups say poachers are wiping out tens of thousands of elephants a year, more than at any time in the previous two decades, with the underground ivory trade becoming increasingly militarized.

Like blood diamonds from Sierra Leone or plundered minerals from Congo, ivory, it seems, is the latest conflict resource in Africa, dragged out of remote battle zones, easily converted into cash and now fueling conflicts across the continent.

Some of Africa’s most notorious armed groups, including the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Shabab and Darfur’s janjaweed, are hunting down elephants and using the tusks to buy weapons and sustain their mayhem. Organized crime syndicates are linking up with them to move the ivory around the world, exploiting turbulent states, porous borders and corrupt officials from sub-Saharan Africa to China, law enforcement officials say.

But it is not just outlaws cashing in. Members of some of the African armies that the American government trains and supports with millions of taxpayer dollars — like the Ugandan military, the Congolese Army and newly independent South Sudan’s military — have been implicated in poaching elephants and dealing in ivory. [...]

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