Sudan's army and proxy militias are slaughtering large numbers of elephants in unstable parts of central Africa to fill growing demand for ivory in Asia, mainly in China, according to a report released on Monday.
Between 6,000 and 12,000 elephants a year are being poached for their tusks in southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic, Kenya and possibly Chad for export to Asia, the report said.
Compiled for the British-based wildlife charity Care for the Wild International, the report said Sudan is now the focal point for the illegal ivory trade which is decimating elephant populations in surrounding nations.
Esmond Martin, a respected elephant researcher who led the month-long investigation, told reporters here that the Sudanese army and pro-government militias had virtually invaded Garamba National Park in the eastern DRC where he said "the killing of elephants is out of control."
"The poachers are mainly members of the Sudanese army who possess the necessary firearms and ammunition," he said. "They also have access to government transport to move tusks to Khartoum and Omdurman."
Merchants in the Sudanese capital and the market town of Omdurman are the chief suppliers of ivory trophies of which about 75 percent are sold to Chinese nations, according to Martin.
While large numbers of buyers also hail from South Korea and the Gulf Arab states, the report said Chinese contractors working in Sudan's oil, construction and mining sectors are the largest consumers.
It said the demand for trophies in China, the world's most populous nation, has been fanned by its growing economy and the skyrocketing purchasing power of its population.
This, in turn, has driven up the cost of illegal ivory from about US$15 to US$43 a kilo in 1997 to between US$44 and US$148 dollars per kilo, depending on the quality and weight of the tusks, the report said.
Martin said the unregulated trade in Sudan -- which has about a stockpile of 50,000 kilos of ivory -- has cast a dark shadow on Africa's elephant population of between 400,000 to 660,000, particularly in central Africa.
"The unregulated ivory trade in Khartoum and Omdurman, both for local markets and as an entry port to Egypt, has had devastating effects on elephants, especially in central Africa," he said.
Reliable statistics on elephant populations in the region are difficult to come by, but in southern Sudan alone the number fell from 133,000 in 1976 to about 40,000 in 1992, Martin said.
Because the sale of ivory has been banned by a 1989 international treaty, Chinese authorities have actually been trying to stem the illicit trade but have had little success because demand is so high, he said.
"Chinese officials are trying to do something but it is a very big problem," Martin said, adding that European clients are using dealers in Hong Kong and Macau to purchase illegal ivory.
"In order to battle against this illegal trade, it is imperative to tackle the Chinese, both with regard to buyers of trinkets in Sudan and traders who purchase the raw ivory for China's craftsmen," he said.
Sudanese government and military officials were not immediately available to comment on the report which also said Sudan was a major market for crocodile and snake skins, hippo teeth and rhino horns poached from the Garamba park.