WARNING - contains graphic images...
There is a largely unreported war being waged in Africa. It is a war in which both sides are engaged in a desperate arms race, one in which firefights break out on a near daily basis, and a conflict that has seen those trying to keep the peace lose a third more men than the British military has lost in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the heart of this war, as so often the case, is the desperate pursuit of money. But what makes this war so different, and what has caused much of the world to not appreciate the extent of the militarisation and cost in human life occurring, is that this is not a war over land, fossil fuels or the location of borders but over animals, and particularly the wealth they innocently carry. This is Africa's war for ivory.
Above: Wildlife ranger Jackson Kamunya, 35, shows Evgeny Lebedev the kit with which he and his men go on patrol. The rangers have the most modern equipment, including a pair of night-vision goggles and medical supplies, to help them in their fight.
People may think that this is a conflict they know about, remembering the international publicity campaigns waged in the 1970s and '80s that resulted in the global trade in ivory being banned. But in fact the conflict happening now is new, certainly in its present intensity, and is the direct result of the recent surge in Asia's economies, which have provided the profits that both drive and pay for its present brutality.
The amount of money now washing around Asia and the seemingly unquenchable demand there for ivory, particularly in countries such as Vietnam and China, has caused the price charged on the black market to soar. Indeed in many places ivory is now worth more per ounce than gold.
The result has been an almost unprecedented slaughter on the savannahs. Some 100 elephants are being killed per day in Africa, and at present rates of poaching the surviving population in the wild risks being decimated within a decade. They have already been nearly wiped out in many areas. Chad had 15,000 elephants. Now it is 400. The last elephant in Sierra Leone died two years ago.
Above: Evgeny Lebedev helps an elite wildlife conservation team fit a GPS collar to a bull elephant so that its movements can be tracked and it kept from the path of roving poaching gangs. The elephant has minutes before been struck with a tranquilizer dart fired from a helicopter.
The people behind this massacre are not just local farmers protecting their crops or indigenous hunters, though both do remain a factor. It is increasingly criminal gangs, often with established links to drug smuggling or human trafficking, who see ivory as their latest source for a quick profit. Terrorist organisations - not least al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based group behind the recent massacre at Nairobi's Westgate mall - also now use tusks to finance their nefarious activities.
I spent much of the last month in East Africa witnessing the scale of the present poaching crisis for myself. I saw first-hand the brutality of the poaching gangs, and had my eyes opened to the extent of the military-style response being required by the poacher-hunters to try to stop them.
Night after night I went out with the men seeking to protect the wildlife of central Kenya. At Ol Pejeta, the conservancy in the shadow of Mount Kenya, they are being trained by a former SAS sergeant major who only recently left the regiment after 27 years service. Their equipment would put many national armies to shame, with the latest sub-machine guns, night-vision goggles and combat medical supplies.
Above: Evgeny Lebedev witnesses the damage poachers are reeking across the savannah around Mount Kenya in East Africa. The elephant had been killed five days earlier for its ivory.
They need it, however. In just this one small area 12 people have died in recent months in its front in the poaching war. Across the continent some 1,000 rangers have lost their lives in the conflict during the last decade.
The Ol Pejeta unit's commander, Jackson Kamunya, did not hide the risks being faced. "A report came in on the radio that the poachers were active and we mobilised the helicopter to get to them before they could reach the animals," he said of their most recent operation. "It meant we got there ahead of them so we could set our ambush. We could see them, all armed with AK-47s. Then everyone started shooting."
The tragedy is, of course, that the sacrifices being undertaken by men such as Mr Kamunya will be for nothing if the demand for ivory does not diminish. The irony is that many people in Asia seemingly do not even realise that an elephant has to be killed for their tusks to be taken.
A recent survey in China found 70 per cent of respondents believed they simply grew back like fingernails. The assistant director of the Kenyan Wildlife Service, Aggrey Maumo, told me: "People have to understand that for every piece of ivory they buy an elephant was killed."
Above: An assault dog handler leashes his charge as behind him one of his colleagues at the Ol Pejeta conservancy keeps watch. The dog, called Tarzan, is trained to bring a man to the ground by shredding the flesh on his arm.
It is a horrific scandal, which deserves the world's focus. That is why the Independent titles, which I own, are not only dedicating its Christmas appeal to heighten awareness of this issue and to raise desperately needed funds for our partner charity, Space for Giants, but also to campaign in Asia about the true nature of the problem.
The situation is desperate. Time really is running out. But together we can make a difference, and do something vital to help end this conflict, before there is nothing left to save.
You can be part of that difference too. Please give generously to the Independent's Elephant Appeal at http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/campaigns/elephant-campaign/. Thank you.
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