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Elephant Slaughter Editorial, New York Times

September 8, 2012
Not long ago it looked as though elephant poaching in Africa was on the downswing, in part because of more rigorous enforcement of a global ban on trade in most elephant ivory imposed in 1989. That moment is gone and with it, elephants in the tens of thousands every year. These astonishing creatures, which seem more intelligent and emotionally aware the more we know about them, are being gunned down by poachers for their ivory tusks at a fast pace — the worst slaughter seen since the 1980s.

Poaching used to be a relatively low-tech horror, but it has entered the 21st century with a vengeance. Entire herds, the young and old, are being shot at from military helicopters and on the ground, their tusks cut out, the carcasses left to rot. As Jeffrey Gettleman has reported in The Times, ivory poaching has been militarized, overwhelming government rangers. A horrific convergence is taking place: soldiers of all kinds killing the animals, organized criminals moving the ivory, and China displaying its unceasing appetite for contraband from the wild.

Ivory is an easy source of revenue, for impoverished villagers and armies alike. The military poachers seem to come from everywhere. They include Janjaweed raiders from Sudan, Congolese soldiers, members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, Ugandan soldiers firing from helicopters, adherents of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army and even the Shabab, a militant Islamist group. The trade routes go through Somalia, Sudan and Kenya, in the east, and the Gulf of Guinea in the west. But overwhelmingly the ivory goes to a single place: China. Nothing will change until China faces up to its role in the devastation of elephants and other wild species. China is the major investor in much of Africa, and it could put enormous pressure on the poaching rings if it wanted.

The delicate question, as always, is how to put pressure on China. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is trying to do so. But the State Department has been slow to acknowledge the possible implications of American military aid in Africa, especially in Uganda, Congo and South Sudan. By paying for fuel so Ugandan troops can continue the hunt for Joseph Kony, head of the Lord’s Resistance Army, the United States may well be paying to fuel elephant poaching.

The elephants in central Africa cannot survive this cross-fire. What makes poaching possible at this level isn’t simply the emergence of military poachers, or the fact that rangers are outgunned and outmanned. It’s also the continuing failure of central African states, especially Congo. But behind it all is the market that makes ivory so valuable, a market that thrives in the unfailed state of China.

The United States and other nations must do everything they can to police the consequences of their aid in Africa while keeping the pressure on China. What awaits central Africa otherwise is a wasteland and the decimation of this noble animal.

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