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WASHINGTON — Political and military elites are seizing protected areas in one of Africa's last bastions for elephants, putting broad swaths of Zimbabwe at risk of becoming fronts for ivory poaching, according to a nonprofit research group's report that examines government collusion in wildlife trafficking.
Zimbabwe has maintained robust elephant populations compared with other countries on the continent. But economic penalties imposed by the United States and Europe have led Zimbabweans with ties to President Robert Mugabe's ruling party to find new methods of making money. The report, set for release Monday, says they may be turning to elephants' highly valued ivory tusks.
Zimbabwe's embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Born Free USA, an animal advocacy group, commissioned the report from Washington-based C4ADS to better understand the role organized crime and corrupt government officials play in ivory trafficking across Africa, said Adam Roberts, Born Free USA's chief executive officer.
Wildlife trafficking long has been viewed as a conservation issue, but it has exploded into an illicit global economy monopolized by mafia-like syndicates and enabled by high-level bureaucrats and powerful business interests. The report describes a toxic combination of conflict, crime and failures of governance throughout Africa that threatens to wipe out the continent's dwindling elephant herds.
China, the world's largest market for ivory, is compounding the threat, the report said. Chinese companies have won lucrative contracts in Zimbabwe for mining and construction projects near remote elephant habitats, bringing waves of workers and new roads that can be exploited by East Asian crime organizations, the report said.
North of Zimbabwe, in central Africa, an estimated 23,000 elephants, or roughly 60 each day, were killed last year. A pound of elephant tusk sells for about $1,500 on the black market. That's more than double the price just five years ago. Ivory is used to make carved ornaments and trinkets.
TRAFFIC, a global wildlife trade monitoring network, says there are between 47,000 and 93,000 elephants in Zimbabwe. The gap is due to the fact that full-fledged surveys of the animals have not been carried out since 2007, said Richard Thomas, the organization's spokesman.
Across Africa, there are close to 500,000 elephants, a fraction of the nearly 10 million that roamed there just 100 years ago.