Poachers from Mozambique; Africa's elephants: felled by ideology and AK-47s

The latest border skirmish in southern Africa is proving particularly disturbing, claiming the lives of many innocent bystanders. The victims: elephants.

South Africa is trying to defend the huge, vulnerable beasts of its Kruger National Park against poachers based in Mozambique, who are using AK-47 rifles in the most devastating campaign ever to get the animals' ivory tusks. But so far South Africa is losing the war over the elephants.

Kruger National Park - one of the world's largest wildlife sanctuaries - stretches almost 200 miles along South Africa's northeast border with Mozambique. White-ruled South Africa and black-run Mozambique are enemies ideologically, and their political differences are apparently standing in the way of any joint effort to save the elephants.

The National Parks Board in South Africa says it has complained about the poaching crisis through diplomatic channels to the Mozambique government but has not received any response.

Over the past 18 months, the poachers have made off with tusks valued at nearly $500,000 in a ''bloody and ruthless onslaught on the elephant population, '' the parks board says.

''There is now a very real danger that the park may lose its most magnificent elephant bulls - known internationally for their size and spectacular ivory,'' the national parks board says.

The poaching campaign has been escalating over the past year, taking a drastic turn for the worse in the past month. Kruger Park officials say 137 elephants have been killed since June of last year.

The poachers' target the bulls for their ivory, but recently the hunters have become ''trigger happy,'' indiscriminately firing on whole herds of elephants, according to the parks board. Cows and calves have been killed. The step-up in indiscriminate killing has coincided with the stepped-up patrols of park rangers , assisted by police anti-insurgency units, along the border, a spokesman says. There is concern that a sizable number of elephants may be wandering the park injured.

The South African police say five poachers have been killed so far, and it alleges the poachers are deserters from the Mozambique Army.

Kruger National Park was established nearly a century ago by Afrikaner President Paul Kruger to preserve wildlife threatened by the march of white settlers across the southern tip of the continent. The park is one of the main attractions for foreign tourists to southern Africa each year, drawing almost 400,000 visitors annually. A wide variety of wildlife live in the park's unblemished setting.

Kruger Park has suffered periodic waves of poaching in the past, sometimes from people just desperate for food. But the current attack is the largest sustained effort against elephants in the park's history. It is ''only aimed at money and ivory,'' says a parks board spokesman.

Dirk Ackerman, chief ranger at the park, says the poachers typically only remove the tusks and leave the carcass.

The park recently lost one of its most magnificent elephant bulls, apparently to a poacher's bullet. It was one of the largest elephants in the world, with tusks weighing over 100 lbs. each.

This particular elephant had been monitored over the past year with a radio transmitter. When the signals showed no movement, the park's senior research officer located the elephant only to find it had died, probably of an old bullet wound.

Ivory from Kruger generally is transported to Maputo, Mozambique, where it is fed into a smuggling network, according to the parks board.

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