KIDEPO VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, Uganda -- In the morning, I saw the Sudanese soldiers cross into Uganda. They were carrying machine guns to kill elephants and to fight off anyone who tried to stop them.
'They killed nine elephants last week,' explained Daniel Lokii, a ranger at Kidepo Valley National Park in northern Uganda. 'If we do not stop them, they will kill all of the animals.'
Twenty minutes later, I heard gunshots inside the park and saw the Sudanese firing their guns into the tall grass. During a recent trip to Kidepo, I witnessed repeated border incursions by Sudanese soldiers from Bira army camp in search of food and ivory.
On one occasion, Sudanese soldiers fired their machine guns at me as I flew in a park plane piloted by English wildlife expert Ian Douglas-Hamilton. One bullet hit the plane.
'I'm a scientist,' said Dr. Douglas-Hamilton after we landed at the Kidepo park airstrip. 'But I find myself being shot at.'
What is occuring at Kidepo park may have ominous implications for the future of African wildlife. The increased distribution of automatic weapons in Africa coupled with an unstable political situation have led to an increase in elephant poaching.
'Uganda is a test case,' explains Douglas-Hamilton. 'If elephants become extinct here, I'll be pessimistic about their future survival in Africa.'
A 1980 World Wildlife Fund survey of Uganda's elephant population supports Douglas-Hamilton's conclusions. Ten years ago, there were over 30,000 elephants in Uganda. Now there are less than 2,000.
'We're lacking the materials necessary to control the parks effectively,' said Kulas Okongo, the acting chief warden at Kidepo. 'The elephant poaching will continue until we get the resources to stop it.'
Twenty years ago, Uganda had one of the best park systems in Africa, but the regime of Idi Amin damaged it severely. Rangers recall Amin visiting the parks to shoot animals and many witnessed his men hunting elephants with helicopters.
By the time Amin fled to Saudi Arabia in 1979, the rhinoceros had disappeared from Uganda and the once large elephant herds had been destroyed.
'But despite the general breakdown of law and order in Uganda, the national parks survived,' said Douglas-Hamilton. 'After Amin left, the country still had a core of experienced park personnel.'
Temporarily abandoning his research on elephants, Douglas-Hamilton became the anti-poaching advisor to the Uganda parks system. With grants from the United Nations and the European Common Market, along with gifts from private foundations, the parks system was able to get back on its feet.
'In Uganda's other parks, guns were recovered and the poachers are back to using spears,' said Okongo. 'Kidepo park is a different situation.'
The men who kill Kidepo's elephants are not Ugandan tribesmen, but Sudanese soldiers carrying automatic weapons and rifle grenades.
During my stay at Kidepo, I saw Sudanese soldiers killing a giraffe and examined the nine elephants the soldiers had killed a few days earlier.
'They always shoot a young elephant first,' said Douglas-Hamilton as vultures tore at the fallen animals. 'The other elephants stay to help the wounded one and then the poachers can kill the whole family group.'
In the past, more than 10,000 elephants roamed through Kidepo park. Now there are less than 400.