Editor's Note: This op-ed originally appeared on CNN.
The accelerating pace of the slaughter of elephants for their tusks has put African elephants at catastrophic risk in the coming decades. To make matters worse, some of the region's most notorious armed groups are taking tusks to finance their atrocities.
The Somali terrorists of al-Shabaab, the Sudanese government-supported janjaweed militia that has been responsible for much of the violence during the Darfur genocide, and the Lord's Resistance Army, which has kidnapped hundreds of boys and girls across central Africa to be fighters and sex slaves, are participating in this illegal trade.
These groups typically kill elephants using the automatic weapons that they also use to kill people. And as the militants become more involved in the poaching business, they apply the same lack of discrimination in killing elephants that they have demonstrated with their human victims. For example, poachers thought to be janjaweed from Sudan, working with Chadians, allegedly killed at least 86 elephants, including calves and 33 pregnant females, over the course of a week.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare found that at least 400 elephants were slaughtered between January and March 2012 at the Bouba Ndjida National Park in Cameroon. Animal rights groups say poaching is worse than it's been in decades. They say it may be even worse than it was in the 1980s, before the international ban on ivory was put in place.
Typically, the elephants are killed only for their tusks. Poachers often hack off their trunks first and then their tusks with hacksaws and machetes, and leave the bodies to rot. Some Lord's Resistance Army groups have reportedly eaten the meat of some of the elephants they have killed, which is not surprising given their frequent hand-to-mouth existence in the bush.
This appalling reality presents an opportunity for conservation groups and anti-atrocity and human rights groups to join forces to combat the threat posed to people and elephants by these armed groups.
Achim Steiner, U.N. undersecretary general and the U.N. Environment Program's executive director, said, "The surge in the killing of elephants in Africa and the illegal taking of other listed species globally threatens not only wildlife populations but the livelihoods of millions who depend on tourism for a living and the lives of those wardens and wildlife staff who are attempting to stem the illegal tide."
According to a report released in March 2013 by UNEP, 17,000 elephants in monitored reserves were killed in 2011. The toll climbed in 2012. The number of elephants killed for their tusks has exploded in recent years because of high prices from rising global demand for ivory, particularly in China and Thailand. The pace of killing outstrips wild elephants' natural reproductive replacement rate.
Mark Quarterman is the research director of the Enough Project, a project of the Center for American Progress to end genocide and crimes against humanity.
Photo: African Elephants in Congo (Nuria Ortega)