One of Africa's oldest national parks is under attack "on all fronts," its director said Friday after 68 elephants were slaughtered in two months by poachers, some of whom shot them from helicopters.
Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo is under constant assault by renegade Congolese soldiers, gunmen from South Sudan and others. And this is just a slice of the poaching carnage: International wildlife regulators said Friday that 20,000 elephants were killed in Africa alone in 2013.
The African Parks group, which is based in Johannesburg, South Africa, manages Garamba. It said that since mid April, the 1,900-square-mile park has faced an onslaught from several bands of poachers who have already killed 4 percent of its elephants.
"The situation is extremely serious," park manger Jean-Marc Froment said in a statement. "The park is under attack on all fronts."
Conservationists say a thriving ivory market in Asia is helping fuel the worst poaching epidemic of African elephants in decades. A 2012 census found just 2,000 elephants in Garamba Park, down from 20,000 in the 1960s.
One group of poachers is shooting the elephants from a helicopter and then chopping off their tusks with chain saws, removing the elephants' brains and genitals as well. In some cases the attacks seem indiscriminate, killing baby elephants that do not yet possess the valuable ivory tusks.
African Parks, which runs seven parks in six countries in cooperation with local authorities, said the poachers include renegade elements of the Congolese army, gunmen from South Sudan and members of the Lord's Resistance Army, a militant rebel group whose fugitive leader, Joseph Kony, is an alleged war criminal.
In one skirmish with poachers, park guards had to protect themselves from hand grenades thrown by Southern Sudanese poachers, some in military uniforms.
Froment singled out in particular elements of the Lord's Resistance Army, which is notorious for kidnapping children and using them as soldiers. The group is known to be in the heavily forested areas around Garamba.
A spokeswoman for African Parks, Cynthia Walley, said the heavy vegetation and the large concentration of elephants in the park have made it a target for poachers.