Washington, August 30 : Almost 10 per cent of elephants have been killed in Congo's troubled Virunga National Park by armed groups, soldiers, and poachers, allegedly driven by rising Chinese demand for ivory.
Surveys carried out in the 1960s found 2,889 elephants in the park. By 2006 that number had dropped to 400. Just two years later, it's estimated there are as few as half that number.
According to a report in National Geographic News, the announcement raises fears that elephants could disappear forever from Africa's oldest and largest national park, which has recently made headlines for its gorilla murders.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the primary sources of illegally trafficked ivory in the world, according to TRAFFIC, a group that monitors the wildlife trade.
Recently, the tiny elephant population of Virunga in the conflict-driven east of the country has become the target of gunmen hoping to unload the illegal ivory into a thriving international black market, park officials have said.
Rangers plying the lawless central sector of Virunga have discovered the bodies of seven elephants in the past two weeks alone.
In one case, they came upon Rwandan militia members hovering over the bodies of two elephants.
The rangers managed to drive the men away before they could remove the animals' tusks.
In all, 24 elephants are known to have been killed in Virunga so far this year.
"We believe that less than ten were killed last year," said Samantha Newport, spokesperson for Virunga National Park. "Undoubtedly this year is a lot, lot worse. It's catastrophic," she added.
Virunga's elephant population is small-thought to number between 200 and 300 animals-and isolated.
According to Noelle Kumpel, program manager at the Zoological Society of London, which is working to support the rehabilitation and management of Virunga, it will not be able to sustain itself if killings continue at this rate.
"There's been a surge in the volume of illegal ivory since 2004," said Tom Milliken, regional director of TRAFFIC for eastern and southern Africa. "We are hemorrhaging elephants out of central Africa and the Congo Basin," he added.
Experts attribute the trend to thriving and overt domestic markets in the contraband throughout central Africa, in combination with a newly tapped appetite for ivory among China's rising middle class.
One study Milliken worked on estimated that unregulated ivory-carving industries in Africa and Asia could be handling as much as 83 tons of ivory every year, most of it from central Africa.
"That could be the equivalent of around 12,000 elephants," said Milliken.
"Elephants are an indicator species," said Newport. "And now to have the elephants killed off-it's a black mark against conservation in Virunga," she added.