WHEN rebels in Angola set up their base in the southern bush with aid from white-ruled South Africa two decades ago, they named it Jamba, or elephant, for the huge herds that once roamed the area.
But these days the dry bush is virtually depleted of animals in what is emerging as one of the worst atrocities against wildlife.
Recent testimony by former South African military men in an independent inquiry revealed the slaughter of thousands of elephants and rhinos to support the then-apartheid government's moves to foment civil wars to destabilize neighboring Angola, Mozambique, and Namibia in the 1970s and 1980s.
The inquiry was set up by the new black-led government, which came to power in April 1994. Judge Mark Kumleben, who heads the commission, seeks to separate fact from rumor and set the record straight about what happened under the previous regime - and ensure it never is repeated. His recommendations are due this week.
Testimony by several intelligence and military operatives in August and September backed up what conservationists had long suspected - that illegal trade in rhino horn and ivory was linked to "dirty" operations by members of South Africa's white-led forces.
In a covert operation with hints of the American Iran-contra affair, some military men used proceeds of poached ivory to supply Angola's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) rebels. The anarchy in Angola, as well as in Mozambique, where Pretoria also tried to oust a black leftist government, facilitated wide-scale killing of animals for personal and political gain.
Security forces, hidden behind front companies, used timber trucks, boats, and planes to transport the animal contraband from Angola to South Africa or Namibia. Proceeds were pocketed by themselves or invested in the war efforts.
Officially, South Africa exported 79.9 tons of ivory to Hong Kong from 1979-87, according to records of the Geneva-based group that oversees the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. But Hong Kong customs recorded 148.2 tons of ivory imported from South Africa.
What has emerged is that tens of thousands of elephants were slaughtered. In Angola, the vast herds that once stampeded across the countryside have been wiped out, largely from hunting by UNITA rebels to fund their 20-year civil war.
In Mozambique, there are now only several thousand elephants, down from the 66,500 before civil war broke out in 1975.
Rhinos were virtually wiped out in both countries during nearly 20 years of fighting.
The accounts are shocking not only in their descriptions of the cynical operations but because South Africa has been considered to be at the forefront of environmental protection in Africa.
"It's a real Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in South Africa," says Michael Wright, president of the Washington-based Africa Wildlife Foundation. "On the one hand, you have a very good conservation record. Then there's this awful poaching and smuggling."
A 1988 internal inquiry cleared the South African Army of misdeeds. But a 1989 report from the Swiss-based World Wide Fund for Nature fingered members of the military.
Judge Kumleben is unlikely to announce indictments when he makes public his recommendations. Sources close to the commission say he lacks enough solid proof to lay charges, plus it is difficult to prosecute for crimes committed over 10 ago by a former regime during a time of war.
Kumleben's recommendations are likely to include tightening border and customs controls and better coordination between policing agencies. Such suggestions might not satisfy environmentalists eager to see the guilty prosecuted and who say some former military men are still involved in smuggling and poaching in southern Africa.
Any measures to increase security would be a welcome first step, says Lt. Col Pieter Lategan, who heads the police Endangered Species Protection Unit entrusted with battling smuggling.
Colonel Lategan says his team of 32 is fighting a losing battle against traffickers and poachers, who devise ever-more-clever methods of sneaking contraband across South Africa's porous borders. They transport the goods to the Far East, the world's biggest market for ivory and rhino horn.
Few culprits are apprehended.
In the first six months of last year, South African authorities arrested 58 people for smuggling and recovered 63 tusks, 189 ivory pieces, and 403 ivory blocks (pieces of ivory, sometimes small enough to fit into a human hand, that are easier to hide than a large tusk). Seven rhinos and three elephants were reported poached.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, Lategan says.
South Africa will continue to be a mecca for smugglers in a region awash with weaponry and ever-increasing crime syndicates trafficking in anything from diamonds to arms to drugs to exotic plants. "It's like having a bank door open without a guard," conservationist Wright says. "There in southern Africa's no man's land, the rhino and elephant are vulnerable."