By Samuel Burke, CNN
The slaughter of elephants and rhinos is happening on such a massive scale in Africa that the animals’ very existence is threatened.
Just this week poachers murdered an entire elephant family in Kenya. Eleven elephants were shot and killed from a helicopter – the country’s single worst slaughter on record.
These majestic animals are regularly killed using machine guns from helicopters – their tusks often used to make ivory trinkets.
The United States government says the butchering is not the result of excessive hunting, but rather organized crime, with black market ivory and horn worth some eight-billion dollars a year.
Stopping it is no longer only about protecting the planet's natural resources.
“It is also a national security issue, a public health issue and an economic security issue,” outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. Killing off these animals will affect the tourism dollars to Africa in the long term.
Many people incorrectly believe the poaching crisis had subsided, but in reality, there has been a major spike in the number of poaching incidents.
The New York Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman has been documenting this mass slaughter for years and attributes the spike to economic growth in Asia.
Even though many Asian economies are becoming more modern, their citizens still adhere to traditional beliefs.
“In many parts of Asia, ivory and rhino horn powder are valued for ceremonial purposes, for religious purposes, cultural purposes. And that is creating this huge demand for ivory and rhinoceros horn across Africa,” Gettleman told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in an interview Wednesday.
“It's like the war on drugs. There's such a big demand coming from outside Africa for these products and the price of ivory now has reached the stratospheric levels of $1,000 per pound.”
The Vietnamese believe rhino horn can cure cancer, which is why they are willing to spend whatever it takes to get their hands on ground-up rhino horn powder.
Rhino horn is now worth $65,000 a kilogram, which is more than cocaine and more even than the price of gold.
The criminals are getting better at avoiding detection. Gettlemen has even heard of ivory being tied to the anchor of a ship at port to avoid custom authorities when they board the ship and start opening up containers and looking for illicit goods
“They are trying to use the ivory to fund their mayhem,” he said. “Ivory has become so valuable that it's becoming a conflict resource.”
Lives are also being lost in the effort to protect the animals. Park rangers, oftentimes without any type of military training, are up against poachers who are also experienced soldiers, Gettleman’s reporting has uncovered.
“[The rangers] don't necessarily know a lot about infantry tactics. And they're up against hardened soldiers who've been drawn into this ivory trade because the profits are so high.”
Rebel groups, such as the Lord's Resistance Army that originated in Uganda, have now gravitated up to Congo and they too are slaughtering elephants, Gettleman reports.
And Ugandan, South Sudanese and Congolese soldiers often leave their military duties in pursuit of this new blood diamond.
“A lot of these are American allies. The American government is giving these armies money and training. And on the side, they're going off and poaching elephants.”
CNN’s Juliet Fuisz produced this piece for television.