WASHINGTON - Those who want to protect elephants and rhinoceroses in Africa often face dangerous criminal traffickers who are bold, enterprising and well-equipped, leaders said at the US-Africa summit this week.
For that reason, some African heads of state appealed for more helicopters to protect wildlife ranges, and sophisticated scanners for inspecting cargo for hidden tusks and horns that can sell for more than gold.
But during a discussion on wildlife trafficking, leaders also acknowledged that ending the demand - primarily from Asia - for rhino horn and elephant ivory is key.
"In the last decade we have seen an alarming trend of increasingly organised, well-equipped and violent criminals turning to wildlife crime," said President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon.
"Today rhinos are often poached from helicopters by teams with sophisticated communications," he said at a panel discussion with the leaders of Tanzania, Namibia and Togo, along with US Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
The four African leaders, while not necessarily at the epicenter of the poaching crisis, swapped stories about how they had become engaged in a problem that is only getting worse.
Last year, some 20,000 elephants were slaughtered in Africa, outpacing their birthrate, while in South Africa alone, 1,004 rhinos were killed, for a rate of about three per day, said Jewell.
"This hugely profitable illicit activity generates billions of dollars in revenue every year, fueling growth in international criminal syndicates and reversing decades of hard-won conservation gains across the continent," she said.
The trade has taken some leaders by surprise, including President Faure Gnassingbe of Togo who recounted how he learned last year that a shipment of 1,000 elephant tusks from Togo had been stopped in Malaysia.
"I was really surprised because we don't have that many elephants," he said.
When more tusks originating from Togo were stopped in Hong Kong, he realised the problem. They were being trafficked through his tiny West African nation, home to about seven million people and just over 800 elephants.
A search for the criminal led to an arrest of a man who was found with 700 kilograms (1,500 pounds) of elephant tusks, he said.