By Jason Straziuso
Pratik Patel gazed glumly as the herder's scrawny brown dogs moved between piles of bones to eat the rotting elephant flesh. He pointed to the nearby road and wondered aloud: How could poachers kill an elephant just 5 kilometers (3 miles) from Tanzania's main safari highway?
Conservationists have long warned of the existential danger that poachers pose to Africa's elephants. And it's in Tanzania, home of the Serengeti game reserve and one of the world's two largest elephant populations, that the scale of the killings and the involvement of government employees may be the most chilling.
The three elephant corpses seen by an Associated Press reporter eight weeks ago lay in a game park just a few miles from a busy junction outside Arusha, a city of 500,000 people.
"Twenty-four elephants were shot within 10 square miles over the last three months. Thirty miles from here there are another 26 carcasses," said Patel, a safari tour operator trying to raise the alarm about the country's dying elephants. "And this is just a teaser. If we go to southern Tanzania I can show you 70 carcasses in one day," he said, referring to the Selous, the world's largest game reserve.
The man tasked with saving Tanzania's elephants is Khamis Suedi Kagasheki, minister for natural resources and tourism. Patel believes Kagasheki, a former intelligence officer, is trying hard to beat the poachers, but is up against a government cabal unwilling to give up illegal profits.
Much of the demand for ivory is in Asia, especially China, luring poachers across Africa to slay the giants and cut out their tusks for rewards far beyond the daily wage. According to CITES, the international body that monitors endangered species, the illegal ivory trade has more than doubled since 2007.
Every week brings new reports of elephant deaths and the government workers alleged to have killed them — soldiers, game wardens, police, customs officials, all complicit in the killings of the top tourism treasure for this poor East African nation of 50 million people.
Botswana, the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo and Kenya are also suffering from elephant poaching. But Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the founder of the London-based nonprofit Save The Elephants, says he is most worried about Tanzania's because of its huge population — somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000.
Poaching here "is far bigger than is happening anywhere else in Africa," he said. More....