Conservationist groups are warning of a recent increase in the poaching of elephants in Kenya. Groups say that the trend reflects the UN's approval of a one-time ivory sale late last year, and a growing demand for ivory in China.
Amboseli National Park, which lies along the border with Tanzania in Kenya's south, under the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, is renowned for its herds of elephants. The park has long been seen as a safe environment for the animal.
But according to a recent report from the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, at least 19 elephants have been killed around the park in the past year. And Amboseli is not alone. Five elephants have been killed in Tsavo National Park, in the southeast. And according to Patrick Omondi, head of species management at the Kenya Wildlife Service, which runs Kenya's national parks, elephant poaching more than doubled last year.
"Within the last one year, we have seen an upsurge in poaching in many parts of Kenya, even in some of the parks that have never experienced poaching during this international ban period," said Omondi. "Last year alone, we lost 98 elephants for their ivory compared to 48 that we lost in 2007, so it more or less doubled."
For Omondi, and others, the reason for the increase is no mystery. The international ivory trade has been banned for the past two decades. But last year, the United Nations, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, approved a one-time auction of ivory from four southern African countries - Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe - with large, stable populations of elephants. The auction is the second, along with a previous sale in 1997, since the ban went into effect.
The ivory for sale, of over 100 tons, was officially drawn from existing stockpiles. But many observers feared that opening up any sort of market for ivory would encourage illegal poaching.
"It has always gone hand in hand," said Alice Owen, the East Africa representative of the Born Free Foundation. "If there is sale of ivory then people want it, even up here in East Africa where they haven't approved sales."
Also driving the increase in poaching, many believe, is a growing demand for ivory in China, which was allowed to participate in last year's auction for the first time.
"Chinese have been involved in a lot of smuggling," said Omondi. "In fact, in the last year we have arrested so many Chinese nationals with illegal ivory in our international border.
This week China's foreign ministry released a statement reaffirming its commitment to the international ban on ivory trading. But the government's statement that it places posters warning against ivory trading in the consular sections of its embassies in Africa itself suggests that a problem exists.
Many observers fear that the threat of poaching could be worse in other parts of Africa, such as Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where enforcement efforts are not as sophisticated as in Kenya and where record-keeping is not as extensive.
The current threat is not on the same scale as in past decades. In the 1970's and 1980's, the world's elephant population dropped by hundreds of thousands, with Kenya hit particularly hard, before a ban on the ivory trade was established in 1989. But still, Omondi says the trend is worrying.
"We have not reached the levels of the 1970's and 1980's, but the rate at which the demand for ivory is growing across the continent and I believe in the world is worrying and is something that requires collaborative efforts," he said.