How the ivory trade funds bloodshed

The arrest in May of two Chinese visitors at Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta airport rang alarm bells among animal welfare groups in Kenya. During a routine baggage check, customs officials found Shubo Liang and Tao Gu had stuffed 240lbs (110kg) of ivory into their bags.

The find was small, but significant. When it comes to tackling elephant poaching, Kenya is one of Africa's success stories. The country's elephant population has grown from 16,000 to 27,000 since the global ivory trade was banned in 1989.

But China's appetite for ivory has led to a boom in illegal poaching, even in countries such as Kenya where it had previously appeared to be under control. Experts at the University of Washington in Seattle warned last year that it has reached record levels.

And that will only increase if China becomes an approved buyer of legal ivory, animal welfare experts have warned. "It will mean more elephants being poached – it's as simple as that," said Michael Wamithi, from the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "It will be impossible to know which is illegal and which is legal."

Most African countries have improved their elephant conservation programmes, but poaching remains a problem, particularly in those countries that have suffered from conflict.

Experts have warned that militias such as the Sudanese janjaweed and rebel groups in Congo have begun to use ivory as a source of income. The slaughter of elephants is now funding the killing of humans. Sudan has become the main transit point for shipments to China. It is also home to one of the world's largest centres of illegal ivory trade, in Omdurman. A study by a British animal welfare group in 2005 found more than 11,000 ivory items for sale in Omdurman and Khartoum.