OPEN WILDERNESS NEAR ARUSHA, Tanzania — Pratik Patel gazed glumly as the herder's scrawny brown dogs moved between piles of bones to eat the rotting elephant flesh. He pointed to the nearby road and wondered aloud: How could poachers kill an elephant just 5 kilometers (3 miles) from Tanzania's main safari highway?
Conservationists have long warned of the existential danger that poachers pose to Africa's elephants. And it's in Tanzania, home of the Serengeti game reserve and one of the world's two largest elephant populations, that the scale of the killings and the involvement of government employees may be the most chilling.
The three elephant corpses seen by an Associated Press reporter eight weeks ago lay in a game park just a few miles from a busy junction outside Arusha, a city of 500,000 people.
"Twenty-four elephants were shot within 10 square miles over the last three months. Thirty miles from here there are another 26 carcasses," said Patel, a safari tour operator trying to raise the alarm about the country's dying elephants. "And this is just a teaser. If we go to southern Tanzania I can show you 70 carcasses in one day," he said, referring to the Selous, the world's largest game reserve.
The man tasked with saving Tanzania's elephants is Khamis Suedi Kagasheki, minister for natural resources and tourism. Patel believes Kagasheki, a former intelligence officer, is trying hard to beat the poachers, but is up against a government cabal unwilling to give up illegal profits.
Much of the demand for ivory is in Asia, especially China, luring poachers across Africa to slay the giants and cut out their tusks for rewards far beyond the daily wage. According to CITES, the international body that monitors endangered species, the illegal ivory trade has more than doubled since 2007.
Every week brings new reports of elephant deaths and the government workers alleged to have killed them – soldiers, game wardens, police, customs officials, all complicit in the killings of the top tourism treasure for this poor East African nation of 50 million people.
Botswana, the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo and Kenya are also suffering from elephant poaching. But Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the founder of the London-based nonprofit Save The Elephants, says he is most worried about Tanzania's because of its huge population – somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000.
Poaching here "is far bigger than is happening anywhere else in Africa," he said.
Accurate death tolls are nearly impossible to come by. Thirty a day, the government reported at the end of 2012. That's 10,000 a year. Double as much, some government leaders have suggested. The truth, conservationists say, is that the government doesn't know, and that many in the government don't want to know, given the suspicion of official connivance in the illegal trade.
Tour operators in Tanzania and neighboring Kenya, fearing for their livelihood, are increasing the pressure on the government to act. Kagasheki acknowledged to the AP that the poaching problem "is not a pleasant story to tell."
"It's a big problem, it's a huge problem," he said of government officials' complicity in the killing. "But I'm not saying it's beyond resolution. We are trying our best and we are getting there."
Too late for Jonathan Howells' family, however.
In February 2011, his father-in-law, Andre de Kock, a hunting guide for 35 years, was accompanying two clients in search of buffalo on the Maswa Game Reserve, a part of the Serengeti ecosystem.
At 8 a.m. they stopped their car to investigate a blue plastic bag across a river.
"Then 11 guys with AK-47s opened up. No warning. No shouting. They opened up, killing Andre with three shots. One in the foot, one in the belly and one in the temple, while he was sitting in his car," Howells said.
The gunmen – 11 by police count – fled. Help arrived five hours later. In the blue bag were more than a half dozen tusks, each 1 meter (3 feet) long or less – all from young bulls. Scattered in the grass by the river's edge were hundreds of shells from armor-piercing bullets, military-grade ammunition available only to government security forces.
A manhunt began, but within two days all the local police – the first responders – had been reassigned, because, Howells said, they had been tipping off the poachers.
Four people were eventually arrested, he said. More than two years later they are still in prison awaiting trial.
Motioning toward his wife, Howells said her father had died "for less than 18 kilos (40 pounds) of ivory, which two years ago had a street value of less than $1,800."
Today, according to the Born Free Foundation, an international wildlife charity, black market ivory sells in Asia for around $1,300 a pound (nearly $2,900 a kilogram). Poachers in Tanzania's bush get $100 for a pound ($220 per kilogram), Patel says.
In the region around Lake Manyara National Park and Tarangire National Park, where the three elephant carcasses lay, the elephant population is about 3,000 and falling.
Charles Bujiku runs a unit called Village Game Scouts, low-paid Maasai villagers trying to protect the animals on their communal land. Asked if government agents are involved in poaching, Bujiku flashes a big smile, and says: "I think I don't know."
But then he notes that the army, the Tanzania People's Defense Force, has a camp just up the hill, and he pulls out a recent poaching report.
On Jan. 20 an army sergeant was caught helping to transfer a tusk. The report shows a man in army fatigues sitting cuffed in the back of a truck. Beside him sits curved tusk.
"A lot of the junior game scouts in wildlife division and junior police officers are involved," said Patel, the safari operator.
"For elephants to be shot at the magnitude they are being shot at, being able to have the ivory transferred from game reserves to port, being shipped to the Far East – it's not the guy at the village level that has the capability. It goes all the way to customs, Tanzania Revenue Authority, Port Authority. It needs influence and influential people."
Anti-poaching units hired to patrol private reserves have found text messages between poachers' phones and government officials, Patel said. "Game scouts, poachers and security forces are all talking to each other. Orders were being placed. Orders were being fulfilled. Accomplices were brought in. The transport of the goods from the source to the city was being facilitated at a high level," Patel said.
At last month's gathering in Thailand of signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya were threatened with sanctions, along with Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and China. Those countries now must implement a detailed plan of action to stop ivory sales.
A CITES-led project that monitors about 40 percent of Africa's elephant population estimated that 17,000 elephants were illegally killed in 2011 and that the 2012 number was probably the same or more.
About 70 years ago, up to 5 million elephants are believed to have roamed sub-Saharan Africa. Today fewer than a million remain. Much of the harvested ivory ends up as small trinkets.
Kagasheki, the wildlife minister, said Tanzania is working to reverse the problem.
"I'm optimistic that we'll eventually get there," he said. But he worries "that we may get there when of course big damage has already happened to the wildlife, something we are desperately trying to avoid."