updated 5/1/2008 1:37:48 PM ET 2008-05-01T17:37:48

South Africa lifted a 13-year ban on killing elephants Thursday — a move conservationists warn could encourage poachers to slaughter the animals for ivory and threaten dwindling tusker populations elsewhere on the continent.

Elephants — once on the verge of extinction in some parts of South Africa — are flourishing, with the population in that country growing at a rate of more than 5 percent annually in recent years as a result of a well-managed national parks industry.

South African authorities want to keep a lid on their burgeoning numbers and protect the elephants' viability. Killing elephants, which, have no predators and can turn woodlands to grass and stubs in a matter of years, is the best way to control the population, South African officials say.

However, the huge mammals have not done as well elsewhere, and some conservationists say the end of South Africa's moratorium on killing elephants will have repercussions far beyond its borders.

In war-ravaged Congo's Virunga National Park, for example, 14 elephants have been killed since mid-April by soldiers, militias and villagers — an upsurge in poaching that is "part of a widespread slaughter across the Congo Basin" of central Africa, according to Dr. Emmanuel de Merode, director of the conservation group WildlifeDirect.

Increase in poaching
The increase in elephant poaching is "being driven by developments on the international scene: the liberalization of the ivory trade, being pushed by South Africa, and the increased presence of Chinese operators on the ground, who feed a massive domestic demand for ivory in their home country," de Merode said.

A four-year war ended in Congo in 2002, but huge swathes of the east remain gripped by violence involving militias and rebels, who since last year have occupied a southern part of Virunga park that is home to one of the last mountain gorilla populations on earth.

Virunga, a forested region straddling eastern Congo's borders with Rwanda and Uganda, today is home to around 350 elephants, a 10th of the number found there in 1959. The 14 elephants were killed in the Mabenga district, north of the so-called gorilla sector near the regional capital, Goma.

WildlifeDirect said the end of South Africa's culling moratorium raised "concerns of a return to the international trade in ivory seen in the 1970s and 1980s."

And in Virunga, "the concern is that this news is filtering through to the well-armed groups in the area who now see an opportunity to raise funds by killing elephants for ivory," the group said in a statement.

Indian peacekeepers in the region have been accused of flying helicopters into Virunga park to swap ammunition for ivory.

Trade in ivory has been banned since 1989 to try to combat poaching, despite appeals by South Africa to resume sales and invest the proceeds in its parks.

Some environmental groups, like the World Wildlife Fund, have cautiously welcomed the South African move, calling it "responsible." Others, such as Animal Rights Africa, have threatened to promote tourist boycotts, saying the lifting of the ban could be repeated in other southern African nations.

South Africa home to thousands of elephants
South Africa has about 18,000 elephants, and the southern Africa region is home to about 300,000 total — half of all the elephants on the continent.

Elephants need to roam widely to get their daily diet of about 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of grass, leaves and twigs and up to 200 liters (52 gallons) of water. And they increasingly clash with people.

There is no consensus on how to manage elephant populations. Southern African countries favor killing elephants while East African nations such as Kenya are struggling to keep numbers up.

In the past, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana all culled before international outrage forced an end to the scenes of game rangers rounding up trumpeting, frightened herds and shooting the elephants.

South Africa's new regulations on managing elephants, say killing must be through "quick and humane methods," preferably by a single lethal shot to the brain delivered by a skilled marksman in a helicopter.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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