analysisBy Keith Somerville
There are no final or totally verifiable figures for the numbers of elephants slaughtered for their ivory in 2012.
However, reports from Cameroon, DR Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic suggest a massive and continuing rise in killings and, ominously, the involvement of military and criminal groups such as the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), the Sudanese Janjaweed militia, Chadian poaching gangs and a ring of well-established Darfurian smugglers.
CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), Resolve (an NGO focused on stopping the LRA) and UN data all point towards a growth in ivory poaching across a wide belt of Central Africa - all in areas affected by insurgent or militia activity.
Conservationists in 2012 generally focused on South African rhino poaching, which continues to rise at a catastrophic rate, with over 633 animals killed up to 19th December last year - a 19 per cent rise on the previous year and almost double the number of rhinos killed in 2010.
But now Central Africa's elephants seem at even greater risk than South Africa's rhinos in a region where militias operate with relative impunity. The inability of governments to control much of their own territory, let alone multiple borders, makes any form of viable control and protection virtually impossible.
Central Africa's ivory wars
The involvement of militias and rebel groups in ivory poaching and smuggling is nothing new.
During the late 1970s and 1980s both UNITA in Angola and Renamo in Mozambique (with the active participation of elements in South Africa's special forces and Military intelligence) were heavily involved in the killing of elephants and the export of illegal ivory via routes facilitated by Military Intelligence, through Pretoria.
Many of those involved in South Africa's Special Forces had been professional hunters, game park wardens or in other ways involved in the wildlife business before being trained for bush warfare. They helped UNITA and the Mozambican resistance movement establish efficient ivory harvesting operations.
The sale of the tusks in East Asia brought in funds that went into further destabilization of the Southern African frontline states, though much went into the pockets of South African officers and intelligence officials, as Stephen Ellis identified in his extensive research in the 1990s.
The newly observed increase in poaching, and the consequent reduction in elephant numbers in central Africa, indicates that military involvement in poaching spreads across an area from Cameroon's Bouba Ndjida National Park to Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and then up into the Central African Republic with smuggling routes reaching through Darfur and thence Khartoum.
It has, however, been the suspected involvement of the LRA that stimulated a greater degree of press attention. According to CITES, and local wildlife officials, there has been an increase in poaching in DR Congo and in reserves in eastern and north-eastern Central African Republic.
The LRA role made news towards the end of 2012 - not just because of the killings of elephants, but due to the surge of interest in Kony through the flawed Kony 2012 campaign, which brought the LRA's brutal modus operandi to global attention.
Whatever the faults of Invisible Children's campaign, it put the spotlight, albeit briefly, on the LRA and the US-backed military operation involving Uganda, South Sudan, CAR and the DRC in trying to track him down. This has so far failed as he has proved able to traverse large areas of this region of multiple insurgencies, rebellions and porous borders.
Paul Ronan of Resolve, which has worked with Invisible Children and attempts to track LRA activities and their whereabouts, told the author that Kony is believed to be in an area straddling the border between South Sudan and Sudan's Darfur province.
Close to the border with the Central African Republic - currently experiencing a major rebellion - the area is unpoliced, is a well-known smuggling route (notably for gold and ivory) used by gangs from Darfur and is close to areas of the CAR controlled by the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (Union des Forces Démocratiques pour le Rassemblement, UFDR), which is part of the Seleka rebel coalition. The UFDR is supported by the Sudanese government and has control of goldfields and smuggling routes in eastern CAR.
This region is used as a route for smugglers moving contraband through Chad and CAR into Darfur and then on to Khartoum. The New York Times in 2012 reported that the LRA, the Somali al Shabaab movement and Darfur's Janjaweed, were poaching elephants and using the tusks to buy weapons.
These movements killed the elephants and moved the tusks to Darfur, where smuggling gangs took over the trade to move the ivory around the world especially to markets in China and Vietnam.
Paul Ronan, who was in South Sudan and the CAR at the end of 2012, says that some of the media reports of massive killings of elephants by the LRA are clearly exaggerated, but that wildlife officials from the Garamba reserve in northern DRC, and escaped LRA abductees, say that the group has been killing elephants in Garamba on the orders of Kony and taking the ivory to his current base on the border of South Sudan and Darfur. Ronan believes the LRA does not have an established income from this, but may be using the ivory to reward Darfuri officials who are enabling them to remain in the region.
In a statement at the end of December CITES stated, with reference to the DRC, "The illegal killings of large number of elephants for their ivory are increasingly involving organised crime and in some cases well-armed rebel militias."
The LRA is blamed for some of the killings, but the finger is also being pointed at forces supposedly tracking down Kony. In April 2012, for example, 22 dead elephants, all shot cleanly in the head, were found by rangers in Garamba. They found no tracks leading away from the carnage or signs that the poachers had stalked on the ground. The tusks had been taken, but no meat, which local poachers usually take advantage of.
Soon after, game guards spotted a Ugandan military helicopter flying over the park, it disappeared after being seen. According to the New York Times article, park officials, scientists and the Congolese authorities believe that the Ugandan military killed the elephants from a helicopter and left with around a million dollars worth of ivory.
The park's 140 armed rangers patrol daily but have been outgunned by large militia groups and are in no position to cope with incursions by the Ugandan army ostensibly looking for Kony, but taking ivory on the side.
It is not only in the DRC where elephants are disappearing. Paul Ronan said that he had talked to professional hunters operating concessions in south-eastern CAR who said that increasing numbers of Darfur-based poachers were moving into CAR for ivory.
And further west, according to CITES, Cameroon has been hit - in Bouba N'Djida National Park, in northern Cameroon, up to 450 elephants were allegedly killed by groups from Chad and Sudan early this year. The Cameroonian authorities are particularly worried about the Sudanese Janjaweed militia, who they blame for recent killings.
This militia is made up of heavily-armed militiamen mounted on horses who can travel fast and traverse the region's unpoliced borders with little trouble - they are linked with the Darfur-based smuggling networks.
In an area where governments are unable to provide basic security for their own citizens, rangers and elephants in remote game reserves and conservation areas are particularly vulnerable.
The Cameroonian army says it has now deployed military helicopters and 600 soldiers to try to protect the park and its animals. But the park authorities believe that in 2012, during the dry season, poachers from Sudan killed some 300 elephants, or 80 percent of the park's elephant population.
It is a sad fact that it is the innocent who always suffer as a result of war and crime. In central Africa, populations have lived and suffered amidst a maelstrom of rebellions, insurgencies, cross-border raiding and simple but brutal crime.
The first priority must be an end to the conflicts and to the humanitarian crises they cause. But it would be a crime, too, if the conflicts led to a conservation disaster through the destruction of the region's large but rapidly diminishing elephant herds.
Keith Somerville, School of Politics and International Studies, University of Kent; Editor of Africa - News and Analysis.