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 savannah, many killed by a 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.
Several days later, in early April, guards in the Congo's Garamba National Park spotted a Ugandan military helicopter flying low over the park on an unauthorised flight but they said it abruptly turned around after being detected. Park officials, scientists and the Congolese authorities now believe the Ugandan military killed the 22 elephants from a helicopter and spirited away ivory worth more than $1 million.
''They were good shots, very good shots,'' said Mr Onyango, Garamba's chief ranger.
Conservation groups say poachers are wiping out tens of thousands of elephants a year. Some of Africa's most notorious armed groups, including the Lord's Resistance Army, al-Shabab in Somalia and Darfur's Janjaweed, are hunting elephants and using the tusks to buy weapons. Organised crime syndicates are linking up with them to move the ivory around the world.
But it is not just outlaws cashing in. Members of some of the African armies the US government trains and supports financially - the Ugandan military, the Congolese army and newly independent South Sudan military - have been implicated.
The vast majority of the illegal ivory - experts say up to 70 per cent - is flowing to newly rich China, where the price has soared to $2000 a kilogram.
Last year, more than 150 Chinese citizens were arrested across Africa for smuggling ivory. There is evidence poaching increases where Chinese workers are. ''China is the centre of demand,'' said Robert Hormats, a US official. ''Without the demand from China, this would all but dry up.''
In Tanzania, impoverished villagers are poisoning pumpkins for elephants to eat. In Gabon, subsistence hunters in the rainforest are being enlisted to kill elephants and hand over the tusks, sometimes for as little as a sack of salt.
The New York Times