By Joe Bavier
KINSHASA (Reuters) - Poachers in Congo have killed a fifthof the elephants in Africa's oldest national park this year asChina buys more ivory, the park's director said on Friday.
Rwandan rebels have killed seven Savannah elephants in thepast 10 days alone in the Virunga National Park, along Congo'seastern border with Rwanda and Uganda, Emmanuel de Merode toldReuters.
"We've definitely lost 20 percent of the population thisyear and probably more," he said. "We have rangers with them,and we're trying to reinforce them. But (the rangers) areoutnumbered 20 to one."
The 790,000-hectare (2 million-acre) reserve was home toone of central Africa's largest Savannah elephant herds in the1970s numbering around 5,000.
But a brutal 1998-2003 war, heavy poaching, corruption andmismanagement of the park have taken a heavy toll. Todayconservationists believe no more than 300 elephants remain.
China, among the world's main destinations for illegalivory, was granted permission last month to buy 108 tonnes ofivory stocks from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabweby the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
De Merode singled out China's growing appetite for ivory asone of the root causes of this year's increase in elephantkillings, as poachers attempt to launder their illegal ivoryfor legitimate sale.
"It's very difficult to distinguish between legal andillegal stocks," he said.
Despite the official end of the conflict in Congo, theeastern borderlands remain a volatile patchwork of rebelstrongholds and militia controlled zones.
Armed clashes between rival armed groups are a regularoccurrence, limiting the rangers' ability to patrol, andproviding cover for poaching.
The Savannah elephant is a sub-species of the Africanelephant, which is classified as a vulnerable species by theInternational Union for Conservation of Nature and NaturalResources.
(Editing by Alistair Thomson/Tony Austin)