Each year hundreds of wealthy people, predominantly Germans and Americans, fly out on safari looking to shoot a variety of species. The cost of their holiday packages, which usually last several weeks, can top pounds 30,000, while the government fee for shooting one elephant runs into thousands of pounds.
The continued hunting causes widespread revulsion but it is defended as a necessary evil by some wildlife conservationists. Even Kenya, a bastion against big game-hunting, is now considering allowing limited elephant shooting outside national parks.
Just over a year ago, four mature bull males, led by an elephant called Sleepy, wandered from Kenya a few miles across the international border into Tanzania, where hunting is legal with permits, which are available at a high price and aimed at foreign huntsmen. The four were shot by an American and two Germans. Their safaris and hunting permits were obtained by a Tanzanian-based company, Northern Hunting Enterprises, and the beasts were extremely easy to shoot because they were semi-tame.
They had become used to the steady stream of camera-wielding tourists and their mini-vans in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, where they had spent most of their lives.
"It was about as sporting as shooting your neighbour's poodle," said Cynthia Moss, an American zoologist who has studied the 900 elephants in Amboseli for 25 years.
Although the trade in ivory is banned under an international treaty, there is no law against the hunters taking the males' huge tusks home as trophies. They were removed using a chain-saw and the ears, tail and feet were also kept. The shooting of one of the elephants, 50-year-old Sabore, was video-recorded and photographed for one of the Germans, Utz Rittmeyer, a businessman. Also filmed were the celebrations which followed and the gory taking of the trophies. The photographs and footage were obtained by a German journalist.
During the next fortnight, on Wednesday and Sunday week, BBC 2 will be showing two programmes about the Amboseli elephants filmed over a six- year period. The first includes footage of the males before they were shot, while in the second, film-maker Martyn Colbeck discovers the skeletons of two of them picked clean by vultures.
Permits for big game-hunters to shoot elephants are granted in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Zambia and the Central African Republic. The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) says that Tanzania allows up to 50 of its 54,000 elephants to be legally shot each year.
In some African national parks, elephant numbers have been rising thanks largely to the ivory trade ban. As the human population also increases there have been growing conflicts around the parks between the elephants and peasant farmers who see their crops destroyed by the huge mammals. In Kenya, more than 70 people a year are being killed by them.
The WWF believes that commercial sport hunting can be justified as a last resort, provided it brings income to local communities, poses no threat to the elephant population and can be shown to be environmentally beneficial.
The organisation, which took the lead in fighting for the ivory ban, believes these conditions are nearest to be fulfilled in Zimbabwe, where up to 250 elephants can be shot each year. If local people benefit financially from the hunting then they are given an incentive to preserve a healthy elephant population and natural habitats, rather than turning all the land over to crops and pasture.
Last summer, a Kenyan government commission set up to look into conflicts between wildlife and people recommended the resumption of hunting.
"We are going to look at this extremely seriously," responded David Weston, who took over as head of Kenya's wildlife service from the conservationist Dr Richard Leakey.Reuse content