GOMA, 22 Jun 2005 (IRIN) - Under the scorching afternoon sun in Rutshuru Territory in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), an excited crowd of several hundred people, armed with machetes and knives, mills around the carcasses of two elephants stretched out on the ground.
No sooner had the soldiers shot dead the mammals than local residents gathered round, each impatiently waiting to get a piece of meat.
"I ordered [the soldiers] to kill [the elephants] because they were destroying fields and turning the homes of the poor population upside down," said Lt-Col Faustin Munyakazi, the deputy commander of the 12th brigade of the Congolese army.
"The elephants' carcasses did not have any tusks by the time we arrived," said local fuel dealer Bahati Ndeze, bare-chested and holding a freshly cut piece of elephant meat. "Lieutenant-Colonel Munyakazi's bodyguards had already recovered and carried away the four tusks."
Gimas Machozi, the coordinator of GIVE, an NGO dealing with environmental protection in the region, said that earlier in the day four elephants had come from Virunga National Park into the Rwindi plains, 10 km from the town of Rutshuru.
"When they appeared in Rutshuru, they were all shot by soldiers," Machozi said. "Two died on the spot; two others succumbed to their wounds in Kalengere, seven kilometres south of Rutshuru."
This incident, in April, was not the first time elephants have been killed in Rutshuru, 75 km north of Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province.
Bamporiki Barisesa, the supervisor of environmental services, water and forests in the territory, said the movement of elephants into Rutshuru and its periphery had been observed since February, when a herd of them destroyed farms belonging to villagers in Kahunga, 4 km north of the town.
Barisesa said the villagers retaliated by killing two elephants.
Between 18 and 20 May, another herd of elephants destroyed approximately 40 fields of soya, corn and bananas in Kahunga, further incensing the residents.
During the same period, yet another herd devastated at least four hectares of cassava plantations belonging to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Mabenga, 20 km outside Rutshuru.
Efforts by wardens from the Virunga National Park to herd the elephants (the earth's largest land animals) back to their natural habitat have not been without difficulty. During an operation to return the animals to the park in April, wardens accidentally killed a calf.
Also in April, another elephant, the eighth victim of the people's anger since February, was found dead in Kahunga.
"The tusks of the killed elephants are always reported missing," Barisesa said.
"These elephants flee their natural habitat in the Virunga National Park, currently invaded by soldiers of the Congolese army, the Rwandan Hutu rebels [Interahamwé] and other unidentified armed groups," said Déo Kajuga, director of the park and of the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature in North Kivu.
Kajuga said the elephants were leaving Virunga for Bwindi National Park in neighbouring Uganda. They need an ecological migration corridor, which would allow them to move safely to and from Uganda without causing any damage.
However, he said, a migration corridor could interfere with the strong human presence surrounding the park.
In order to avoid more conflicts between man and beast, Kajuga suggested that any farmers whose land is within the migration zone should fence their fields or plantations with pepper plants.
"Naturally, elephants do not approach fields surrounded by pepper plantation," he said.
Virunga National Park currently is host to approximately 400 elephants. In 1996, when there were no migrations, the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature estimated that there were 3,800 elephants in the park.
Machozi said the conflict between people and elephants in Rutshuru would persist as long as the Congolese government failed to protect the Virunga National Park against the armed groups roaming within its environs.