By Evgeny Lebedev
There is a largely unreported war being waged in Africa. It is a war in which both sides are engaged in a desperate arms race, one in which firefights break out on a near daily basis, and a conflict that has seen those trying to keep the peace lose a third more men than the British military has lost in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the heart of this war, as so often the case, is the desperate pursuit of money. But what makes this war so different, and what has caused much of the world to not appreciate the extent of the militarisation and cost in human life occurring, is that this is not a war over land, fossil fuels or the location of borders but over animals, and particularly the wealth they innocently carry. This is Africa's war for ivory.
People may think that this is a conflict they know about, remembering the international publicity campaigns waged in the 1970s and '80s that resulted in the global trade in ivory being banned. But in fact the conflict happening now is new, certainly in its present intensity, and is the direct result of the recent surge in Asia's economies, which have provided the profits that both drive and pay for its present brutality.
The amount of money now washing around Asia and the seemingly unquenchable demand there for ivory, particularly in countries such as Vietnam and China, has caused the price charged on the black market to soar. Indeed in many places ivory is now worth more per ounce than gold.
The result has been an almost unprecedented slaughter on the savannahs. Some 100 elephants are being killed per day in Africa, and at present rates of poaching the surviving population in the wild risks being decimated within a decade. They have already been nearly wiped out in many areas. Chad had 15,000 elephants. Now it is 400. The last elephant in Sierra Leone died two years ago.
The people behind this massacre are not just local farmers protecting their crops or indigenous hunters, though both do remain a factor. It is increasingly criminal gangs, often with established links to drug smuggling or human trafficking, who see ivory as their latest source for a quick profit. Terrorist organisations - not least al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based group behind the recent massacre at Nairobi's Westgate mall - also now use tusks to finance their nefarious activities.
I spent much of the last month in East Africa witnessing the scale of the present poaching crisis for myself. I saw first-hand the brutality of the poaching gangs, and had my eyes opened to the extent of the military-style response being required by the poacher-hunters to try to stop them. More....